The problem with mothering little ones in our culture is the lack of help we get: real, hands-on, present help.
I am going to try not to make this a complaining post. This is the way things are in our culture, and I know I've gone on and on before about how we are social creatures who do best when working and living in close communities in which we have the help, support, and examples of various extended family members and friends spanning the generations. In times past, and still today in other cultures, mothers learned to nurse their babies from their mothers and aunts, their older sisters... People shared the work so that new mothers could tend to their babies. Women all shared in the chores and child care, and children of all ages were present for other children to play with and learn from (rather than having just one or two siblings around at most and seeking entertainment from their parents). This is what is so appealing to me about having a large family: varied ages of children who can learn from each other, help each other, and entertain each other with various creative pursuits. What a joy for them to never be lonely!
But... having a large family, particularly in the early years when all the children are younger, is not easy in the way we live!
I need to clarify at this point that I am not referring to my own family as "big." Sure, we might be big compared to families with one child, but in my opinion, we're not "big" with three children.
But in the experience I am having now, where it is difficult based on the way we live to raise even three children, I know it must be harder still when there are four kids, or five, or more... at least until the oldest ones are ten or older, and maybe until the youngest is two. Having a large family is beautiful: think of the friendships formed between siblings, the parents who in their old age will never be completely alone, the loud family gatherings that will recur year after year on special occasions. But even though the rewards are great for having a large number of children, getting there in our culture is TOUGH! And it's a real shame... no, it's a tragedy, actually, that we are deterred from having large families. Most families stop with two children, spaced relatively closely, because they have little help and just want to get through those early years as quickly as they can and survive it. My mother, who had four of us, has been asked frequently by young mothers, "Wow, four children - how did you ever manage? I am pulling my hair out just with two!" Her answer was, "I just did... what other choice did I have?" And that's true - if you have children, you just do it - just manage life the best you can. And I imagine that is what has led to so many modern ideas: sleep-training babies to make them "independent" because it is hard to manage everything alone, playgroups and various scheduled activities so kids (and their parents!) won't be lonely, institutions for learning which separate the family unit for most of their waking hours... these things exist in part to fill our biological need for community, for contact with other humans, with help in raising our children. So when parents make decisions that go against what has become the cultural norm (biological mothering of infants, homeschooling, less structured children's activities so kids don't become over-scheduled), then we have even less help and more time in which we are caring for our children. Fortunately there are still support networks (La Leche League, homeschooling groups, friends with common family choices/family life)... but just like mothers of only one child who goes to "school" at the age of 2 months, mothers of many who homeschool face the same challenge: much of it is done alone, without the communal support for which we were designed. Parents have to find modified, almost contrived, communities, where we hire babysitters, mother's helpers, postpartum doulas, because we don't have a few grandmas and sisters and cousins around who just naturally fill in the spaces when another woman in the family has a new baby.
So is it any wonder many women say "enough is enough!" after merely one or two babies, being so glad to be out of the "baby years" and the responsibilities that come with that time? Is it any wonder there are less large families lately? What a shame! What a shame to miss out on the rewards of a large family to comfort you in your old age because getting through the early years with babies and toddlers was too much to continue to bear! But what else are we to do? What can we do, really? Just keep on keeping on, because there is no other choice, particularly for most families who cannot afford a postpartum doula or a nanny and don't have family living in the same town.
For some reason, I made up some imaginary scenario in my mind that I'd have more help this time around. Who was I kidding? I had the most help when Caroline was born and progressively less with each child (although I had several sweet friends bring meals this time, which was very much appreciated!). I guess I was being idealistic, but in reality, my own mother works as a preschool director, so she can't just come help any time. And my parents are our closest relatives geographically, but even that is over an hour away. We have no extended family living in our town. And my friends all have lots of small children themselves to teach and care for. So I guess it was just wishful thinking, because in reality moms could use more help once they have multiple children, particularly when homeschooling, but usually they get less with each baby... my children aren't gone every day by age five, and homeschooling them requires my daily involvement while also caring for the baby and managing basic daily functioning like feeding the kids lunch and keeping the dirty dishes under some level of control (thank God for my husband's willingness to take on most of the housework especially in the first 6-12 months with a baby!).
People may read this and think, "Well, you don't have to homeschool, and you don't have to hold your baby all the time." True, I don't have to. I could send Caroline to the nearby public school, enroll Cecilia in some kind of daily preschool, and let the baby cry it out. Maybe that would make life easier. But it would make our family less connected, so I'm not going to do it. I see what does make people resort to leaving babies to cry themselves to sleep: the lack of help, the isolation, the need to just go use the toilet for five minutes without a baby in one arm and kids arguing outside the door! But babies are life, and I am not going to teach my older children to respect life (innocent, helpless life!) by putting the baby aside because I'm too tired or overwhelmed. Society is not set up to help me in this style of living, but oh well. Still I must forge ahead, and if I don't have anybody else to help me feed the kids lunch, then I just have to do it with the one hand I have free while holding the nursing baby with the other.
So the first 12-18 months with a new baby is full of conflicting emotions. I love my babies, I love holding them, nursing them, watching them fall asleep and wake up, stroking their soft fuzzy hair on their perfectly rounded little heads, watching them learn about the world and master new tasks. But I feel the pull of societal expectations: to accomplish various other tasks throughout the day. Truthfully, homeschooling takes up the morning, with various diaper-changing intermissions and such. Then is rest/nap time after lunch. After that, I like the kids to get outside time, and while they are probably getting close, they aren't quite old enough to be sent to play outside alone, so I have to be out with them, preventing me from doing chores or dinner prep in the house. I bring them in before they've had enough outdoor time to prep dinner and then, dinner and bedtime stuff, and the day is over. I could do chores after they're in bed, but the baby... the baby sleeps on me throughout the evening, and only if I am sitting still. No, I can't lay her down; I can never lay sleeping babies down and have them stay asleep. I tried and tried (and cried and felt like a failure) with my first baby and decided it wasn't worth the stress, so I haven't tried as much with the next two. I'm much less stressed this way, but I'm limited in what I can feasibly accomplish. Some people may call this lazy, not putting the baby down and that it's my job to "train" her... or people will say "You just have to lay them down every time they fall asleep from the beginning to make them stay asleep on their own," but holding a sleeping baby is one of life's greatest joys and it would be such a shame to miss out on that! But while I know from two previous experiences that I won't ruin her by not trying to force her to sleep alone as a baby, I do feel that "lazy" word creeping in... that I could get more done, that I should do more housework, that people might think I don't deserve any help anyway because I'm lazy... but really, I think all moms need help and support, physically and emotionally, and we just don't get much in our isolated way of living. We resort to the internet for some of our support, but that can never replace real people in the flesh.
What prompted me to start writing this a month ago is this: my baby was not gaining adequate weight. I have nursed both other babies with no problems as to weight gain, and I have had training in breastfeeding support, so I should know what I'm doing. Apparently I really hadn't been feeding her enough. Apparently I needed to be more lazy, and sit down to encourage her to nurse more often. I brainstormed with a lactation consultant who was doing weight checks for Lucy, and after trying a few things, her weight gain has now been brought up to the very bottom of what ould be considered a "normal" range (update: weight gain is slower again after being checked today, but at least the pediatrician doesn't think there's a problem... she can hopefully glide right along that 3rd percentile curve... I'm still concerned being so close to falling off the bottom of the chart, so I'll remain vigilant about lots of nursing and taking herbs to boost milk supply). The lactation consultant told me not to feel like an idiot: I am just trying to take care of two older kids and homeschool one of them. That's time consuming. I have to complete 180 days of school, and so the pressure is there. But I have to make sure my baby is getting enough calories. We did more laid-back schooling during Advent with lots of read-alouds as our school time. Maybe it wouldn't count in a public school, but it's going to have to be "good enough," and I can confidently say that my daughter is well head of most of her public school peers. Plus, she is learning how to nurture a baby. And she is getting to be so good with Lucy! I imagine in large families there gets to be a tipping point where there are kids old enough to really be a big help: preteens and older who can really help with cooking, childcare, even helping younger ones with their schoolwork... but how to handle it until you get to that point?
So if somebody who knows her stuff regarding breastfeeding can still end up with her baby not gaining enough weight, then perhaps she has a lot on her plate. Either that, or she's just really bad at multitasking, although I did simultaneously nurse a baby and place an order at Chick-fil-A just last week. Even when she has an awesome husband who does nearly all of the housework. And since she's female, she feels a little guilty for not touching the broom more than three times since the baby's birth while trying to homeschool the six year old, even though clearly the baby's need for more calories trumps the sweeping. Oh, and there's a middle child in there too who needs her rear end wiped and to be attended to in other ways here and there... she doesn't ask for much, that sweet easygoing little one. It's just the little things that happen that can end up with the baby not nursing enough... me trying to eat a bowl of oatmeal, being called to the bathroom by the aforementioned child, deciding to rinse off the dishes so food won't be hardened to them later when I come back to actually wash them, checking weather and gathering coats to go outside and then realizing that it's really too cold out there for the poor baby anyway, but how else to get the kids some outside time? Oh, the day when I can turn them all loose outside alone and stay inside cleaning something instead of going out with them... then I might feel a bit more accomplished.
So, back to the thoughts on large families... how I'd love to have more children! But how I also dread the inability to do much around the house, the lack of help (on weekdays, that is... my husband is awesome when he's home, and he shouldn't have to do all the housework on his days off, the weekends!), the inability to drive five minutes without a crying baby from the back seat. The fact that my three or six year old complains of a hangnail and I'm appalled to see their super-long, curved-down toenails, evidence of the few months it's been since I got around to cutting them. Heck, I finally cut my own toenails the other day for the first time since, hmm, a few months? I think I have swept three times since Lucy's birth. So I can see why people sometimes feel a need to get past these years - but I am so thankful to the families out there who persevere despite the difficulties of raising many children with little help, the families who refuse to say, "Oh, we're done, thank goodness!" They are inspiring to me, and they show that there are things more important than just being comfortable and "done" with babyhood. What could be more beautiful than the creation of a new soul? As hard as it is, as much as our society isn't set up to encourage us (in fact, society goes against us - have you heard of doctors encouraging newly-postpartum women to get their tubes tied? Totally unethical to push that to somebody in a vulnerable time!)... continuing to raise babies leads us to a future without loneliness, but it is a sacrifice when caring for a helpless child constantly.
I just came across a post at Practicing Mammal the other day, one describing the reasons for the Church's teachings against contraception and regarding use of NFP. It is absolutely correct that the natural mothering of babies is a form of natural family planning, as it tends to give some length of natural child spacing. But reading it got me thinking, as I have been composing this post over several different days: is lack of help a serious or grave reason for avoiding pregnancy? Seeing as humans have not always lived in such isolation, we are social creatures, then I'd say perhaps it is a grave reason. But then again, time with an infant is fleeting. Those first 18 months are really the most intense for me, the months when I feel like I can't accomplish much else, but they do pass. However, repeating them for each child adds up... with three children, it will be a total of four and a half years of the most intense months. Add a fourth child and we get to six years, and so on. In those years, things like driving my kids an hour to a museum won't happen, because all my babies (so far) have hated the carseat. Not that my children need to go to museums and such to learn and have fun, but it's nice to do it sometimes. It seems like when we get to the point that we can actually have an enjoyable long car ride, then having a new baby feels like going back to square one. Again, modern living with cars as necessities since we are so far-flung from each other... a present day problem. A first-world problem, perhaps? Living in a third-world country, I assume one would be near relatives to help - but of course, they would have other problems to deal with. Another first world problem: the I HAVE TOO MUCH STUFF AND AM OVERWHELMED BY IT syndrome. This syndrome gets worse after December and makes me seriously consider implementing the Flanders family's "Imagination Christmas." [Sorry, can't seem to find a clip of that on Youtube for those of you who are unfamiliar with The Simpsons 15 years ago] But where does all the stuff come from? Why does every single person my child encounters - the neighbors, the dentist, the old lady at church - feel the need to give them stuff?? Now I'm just sounding ungrateful. But the management of clutter overwhelms me, personally. My three year old had 34 short sleeved shirts last summer - no kidding. We rotate toys, but that in and of itself requires management. And I will readily admit that I have willingly obtained far too many picture frames all by myself, making dusting a nightmare. I would love to simplify, and I often clean out and make donations, but when there's a baby, it doesn't happen. I think the reason this overwhelms me so is that as a homeschooler, there is a certain amount of stuff I need to already have in my home that others would never have, because it would be in their children's classrooms instead. So I'm already starting out with more necessary stuff in the first place. I can't imagine if I had a son where I'd store the boy clothes... no more room! We're going to try those "vacuum out the air" storage bags for clothes that supposedly make things 1/4th of their original size... sorry, just rambling here, but I will get to an actual point.
So perhaps human difficulties are inevitable, because persevering through struggles for God's glory only makes us stronger and gives purpose to life. Maybe the giving of ourselves to raise these helpless babies is part of our path to Heaven. Not maybe, but certainly. Life isn't about individual happiness, but about helping each other get to Heaven.
And we teach our older kids the valuable lesson that those who are helpless deserve compassion and help and love. My older children are seeing how I care for the baby around the clock, constantly, and they are internalizing this. If she starts to fuss and I'm not holding her, they immediately say, "Mommy, Lucy needs you!" And you know what? Even though I am holding her almost all the time, there has been no jealousy of the baby. There wasn't any with Caroline when Cecilia was the baby, either. Maybe it's just the spacing between them, but maybe it is also because their needs were met so continuously as infants and young toddlers that their cups were full. They are learning that living in a family is about putting the needs of others before yourself particularly when the one with the needs is helpless to help herself.
So, regardless of how difficult it is to continue having babies with very little help, or how our society views babies and large families... it is worth it, it will certainly pay off down the road, it will eventually get easier (not that raising all teenagers is going to be "easy," I am sure - but different from having helpless babies screaming as soon as they realize you are in the vicinity of The Evil and Dreaded Car Seat or who instantly start rolling towards the space you dared to leave when you moved away from their warm sleeping little selves, for instance).
Something that I need to always keep in mind is this poem, and I hope other mothers do, too, whether they have just one baby with no hopes of any more or if they are on their fifth baby while just in the middle of their childbearing years:
Our babies, no matter how many we have and how many years their baby-hoods span, are only this little once. Whether or not we have little outside help, over many babies and many years, one day we will be 70 year old grey haired ladies sitting in quiet cars, actually hearing no cries from the back seat as we drive to the gas station. That will be nice, but it will also be sad not having little ones to cuddle. So the best we can do is to enjoy it. Try to be as intensely wrapped up in the mothering of our babies as we can, even if that means that the dishes pile up, the too-big and too-small kids' clothing remains homeless in the middle of the guest room, and the schooling for the day was read-alouds, "science time (aka playing in the backyard)," and home ec (kids helping with diaper changes and making sandwiches for lunch). It will just have to be Good Enough. Babies can't wait, even if we live in a society set up against us in that way. We can't do all things, so we need to drop most of it when we don't have extra help around and just take care of the babies.
Because God doesn't give us more than we can handle. And sacrificial love for our babies is, I'm sure, pleasing to God.
A special thank you to mothers of bigger families who parent in the attachment style. It is inspiring to see you doing what you do and gives me hope. :)
**Update: Just came across this great and timely article: To the Mother Who Only Has One Child. Check it out; it's much less long-winded than me!
I also meant to mention in this post the idea another Catholic mom shared once many years ago... wouldn't it be great if there were an order of nuns who came to live with young families and helped them out? That would be perfect!