Sunday, May 13, 2012

My Labor Day is Today


I have many thoughts about my mother today, whom I love beyond all measure, but I think my love story with her is for another day.  Except for this:  when I was growing up I wanted nothing more than to do as she did--raise two children, go to work, love my husband--but it was the seventies and lots of things changed my mind.  In the end my husband and I decided for varying reasons to raise as many children as we thought we could competently manage, and then maybe one or two more.

Over the years I have have not been entirely honest, perpetuating a myth that raising a large family well is not so much different from raising two or three.  In some ways I know this to be true;  most parents are taking care of their family or home when they aren't sleeping or working so we're all at it for the same number of hours.  But in that time we have to do so much more that it's qualitatively different, as though walking on a high wire rather than a road but expected to go the same distance in the same time.  Sometimes nigh impossible.

I have underplayed this when asked what it was like out of embarrassment, or an effort to reassure the person asking, or because I couldn't put what I truly felt into words but today I will try.  Being a mother becomes exponentially more difficult with every child, and the effort of raising a large family is a lot like the labor of working a very large farm with just the two of you:  the demands of it, the back-breaking work, the constancy of it, the thanklessness, the anxieties, the fights, the tenuousness, and the rewards.  This reality speaks to me, and it says:  but who said life was supposed to be easy?  You, sweetheart, would be wasted on easy.  

So we had eight kids, four of our own making and four others made but couldn't raise, and it’s been incredibly hard.  Not just the organization—finding a system not only to track the sporting events, med refills, school conferences, camp deadlines and early dismissals but dozens of baby teeth, hundreds of parties, thousands of pictures and infinite rides—but even more the constant need, the exponential heartache.  

With a big family you are almost guaranteed as a parent to have at least one academic genius, entrepreneur, athletic star, household helper and social wonder.  Someone is going to make you proud every day.  You are also due at least one alcohol or drug intervention, high school suspension, car crash, bad breakup, explosive temperament, jarring financial crisis, teenaged pregnancy, legal problem and psychiatric crisis.   It’s just more of everything, good and bad, the joys and the troubles almost evenly matched, both walking in the front door and sitting on the couch, staying for the duration. 

The pleasures are of course easy to take but the troubles cause intense and life-defining conflicts between this thick web of connected people.  The strain involved in disentangling all these conflicts, or in maintaining self-control while watching them sort themselves out leaves you bereft, exhausted and confused.  Unless you are possessed with the kind of self-confidence that borders on arrogance, a sureness that one is on the right path at all times, it shakes your belief in yourself as a parent and leaves you feeling like your best is nowhere good enough.  Not only is it not in the ballpark, it’s not even in the parking lot or surrounding county.

My daughter, in a well-deserved pique against one brother last week threw at me:  “Can’t you at least control him?” and I had to say, sadly, no.  All this work and effort and still most of the outcomes, not only of a child but even just an evening, are almost completely beyond my control.  The most I can do is vaguely steer towards what I see as the best course, the safest shore, and pray. 

So why do this?  Some force pulls you to this big-family life, says if anyone can do this you can, and then you just swim hard and fast, staying barely afloat, living just above that break line between happiness and insanity, dipping below it occasionally but then fighting your way back and being ever-grateful for the gift of that fight.  For that’s the thing about hard and devoted work—it pays off with the sense of life lived fully, at the edge of one’s capacity, and one tiny part of that payoff is today.   Once a year I am absolutely flooded by the love of eight affectionate human pups, kissing and hugging and dropping presents at my feet and accepting all my nuzzles and smiles and winks and kisses in return.  On this one day, I bask. 

I know that it’s hard for them too.  As much as they enjoy the big gatherings and ready-made companions, being in a big family is like getting a perfect, hot pizza and then getting just one slice--the rationing is incessant.  Even everyday treats like a Happy Meal are a landmine of want and inequity when those not similarly treated feel ignored and neglected.  You may have nice parents and live in a big house but those parents and that house are shared by a host of other kids, teasing from first wake-up and jockeying for every inch of closet space, each minute of bathroom time.  It’s a hornet’s nest of activity and competition, with precious few hours in any week or even month of peace and solitude.  It’s almost not possible to grow up in such a space without the compulsion to get away for a while, live with the loneliness and the blissful appreciation of unshared bathwater. 

But when you do, whether parent or child, you carry with you the imprints, the shadows of everyone else, like slipping your feet into favorite sneakers and finding only one toe in the well-worn pads for ten.  I cannot go anywhere, literally, without thinking of who I left behind, still linked to them like we are all one set of appendages, my husband and I each a palm to their fingers.  I’m not sure when or if ever this will fade;  if you count some time I spent mothering my brother and cousin I’ve been at this for thirty years.  In my life the thoughts of them, the worries, the aggravation, the amusement, is still constant.  Though I seek solitude to write, walk, even cook, I also know I am happiest in their company,  flawed as we all may be together, and much as they tap from me.  We make a good life with each other.  

I wrote about reading romance novels last week because they appeal to my desire, my expectation, for a happy ending.  But I started writing adoption novels because trying to explain their complexity, and their richness, can’t be covered in a conversation or an essay, and the happy endings are muted, though in that way we're like most families.  Today I got to write because it’s Mother’s Day and they all know their greatest gift to me is some time to think.  Unerringly, my thoughts turn to them.  

Last week my son came to me for some conversation and reassurance, a little help and the slightest bit of ass-kicking and I realize that this is it:  the real payoff.  It’s the honor of knowing all these people in such fine-grained detail that I can do all these things well, and in good measure.  In return, they study me too, and know exactly who I am, my tribe, whom I protect and provide for and who are set to defend me even knowing all my flaws.  Being known and yet still loved like this is a lifelong guarantee of my worth in this world, which is itself utter relief—a life not wasted.  Not exactly a sentiment printed on one of my cards today, but imprinted outside my heart as a quick approval stamp, leaving the inside free to fill with love for them, and then to overflow.  

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