On a rainy, dark and cold evening in the middle of the week, Liam's friends and family showed up to celebrate his ninth birthday with him. Liam, dressed as Zed from Disney's Zombies (as he always is these days), had the time of his life and it was a fitting birthday, I think, for this boy teetering on the brink of tweenhood. He told me on the way home, clutching the bubble gum machine he had bought with his tickets to his chest, eyes heavy with sleep but still full of excitement, that it was his best birthday yet and I think that it will live on in his memory as a magical night.
Today, at 7:19 p.m., my firstborn baby turned nine years old.
Nine. He is nine.
As I sat down to write his birthday letter, as I have done every year on every blog... I realized that this year, the other two boys' birthday letters sat languishing unfinished in the draft folder because life these past few months has been thrown into chaos by our last little human's ridiculous arrival.
Rather than lie to my future self by inserting them where they belong (it would only take one tweak of the date), I have decided to own it and leave all three here.
Note to My Future Self: see... you have never been perfect, don't lie to yourself and pretend you used to have it all together.... but you also don't let your imperfections stop you. I hope that is still the case.
The truth is, this birthday is breaking my heart. Of course, I play it off, act silly and make you laugh because nine is a really big deal and you are enjoying every minute of it. And, of course, I do not take it for granted for one single second that you are here with me at all..... but, really and truly, it is breaking my heart.
I was so young when you were born. I did not realize how young I was when you were born. But I was young enough to feel we would stay young forever. I was young enough that the first few years of your childhood passed as slowly as my own and your growing up felt distant and blurry and not really real. We would laugh about the absurdity of five... or six... and then we would jump right to the impossibility of sixteen. Nine never even crossed my mind. You would never be nine. You would never be on the heartbreaking edge of childhood, one foot out the door and so, so, so eager to leave it behind. No.... never.
And yet, here we are.
Some days, I can hardly stand the ache of wanting to hold your tiny body in my arms again, of wanting to hear your sweet baby voice, to see your small arms reaching up to me begging to be held. Some days, the sadness of never seeing small you again, of never smelling your sweet curls, or holding your precious baby hand is tangible...as if I have actually lost someone and you are not simply growing up and up just as you should. And so, nine is hard. This halfway point feels like a marker. I feel like we are crossing the finish line of one race and entering a new one. It feels like saying good-bye.
When I found out I was pregnant with you, more than anything else, I wanted to not screw it up. Just not screw it up. And yet...I did. From the minute you were born, I did. I couldn't even get that right-birthing you- and you were so tiny and helpless and I had failed you so spectacularly from your very first breath.
I have continued to fail you, over and over and over again.... and you forgive me, over and over and over again. You have the most resilient and forgiving spirit of any person I have ever met. Perhaps, it is simply because you have no choice. Walking two newbie parents through life requires one to have thick-skin, to survive all their missteps. But what is so precious about your forgiveness, as I watch you extend it to others and feel it given to myself....is that it is done so completely. Once you decide to forgive, the slate is washed clean. My hope for you as you enter this new part of your life- the part where many of the hurts that you will carry through the rest of your life will occur- is that you keep that superpower of yours, to forgive with your whole heart.
My other hope for you is that you will know, that you know, that you know....that you are worthy. I hope that you retain your tender heart. I hope that you keep your fiery spirit. I hope you never, ever forget that you are desperately loved.
The truth is, buddy, things are about to get weird....
I can feel it when you shove your hands in your pockets and whip your head to the side in that way you saw that teenager do, and in the way you clear your throat to try to keep yourself from crying, and in how you slap your hands over your eyes, but peek through your fingers, when you see kissing on television. Things are about to get weird, and I just need you to hold on, okay?
And before they get weird....please keep wearing every costume in your costume trunk and change fifteen times a day if you want to. Keep talking my ear off about superheroes. Keep coming to tell us every detail of every nightmare. Keep burying your head in my neck when you get hurt. Keep making awesome sound effects while you play with your action figures in bed. Keep wrapping your legs around my waist when you hug me tight. Keep reaching for my hand when we cross the street. Keep laughing at The Wiggles when your brother watches it. Keep jumping up and down with excitement over your favorite foods. Keep crying when you feel sad. I know you are so eager to grow up, my love...but it is coming so fast now. Please, please keep being little as long as you can because when little is over, it doesn't come back.
I love you, big or little, forever and ever.
I remember not wanting my kids to look or act too much like me before I had any, because I was afraid it would make it harder for me to love them. But, the truth of it is, Dexy-K, you look quite a lot like me, there is nothing about you that is hard to love and....you have made it easier to love myself. When I look at you, there is no question that you are beautiful and, if you look like me, there must be something beautiful about me too, right? Thank you for that gift.
You have brought so many gifts in your first five years of life. Most obvious is the gift of laughter because you are funny; absolutely, positively, side-splittingly hilarious. You have brought us so much joy in some of the hardest moments.
You have also brought the gift of flexibility because we have all had to learn to bend and twist our way through your many mood swings, quirks, and particularities. You know what you want and you know how you want it and you are not at all afraid to fully express every emotion. I do so hope you keep that gift, sweet boy: I hope you always feel your emotions as fully as you do now. Perhaps, one day, with less throwing yourself on the floor and wailing...but always with your whole heart. Your world is so vibrant and it is because you are always bubbling with joy, seething with anger, melting with disappointment, sizzling with excitement, and feeling every feeling with your whole entire heart and usually expressing it with your whole entire body.
You are such a careful and thoughtful person, Dexter. You put so much care into any work you are doing. You put so much love into every gift. You are aware of other people and their feelings in a really magical sort of way. My hope for you is that you learn how to hold that magic carefully and not let it overwhelm you because you and your feelings matter too, and that is a delicate balance to learn. If you can learn it, it is going to bring such rich and beautiful relationships into your life.
You have such a creative spirit. You often choose to express yourself with your fashion choices and that is something I absolutely adore. I love how you can equally rock a camouflage t-shirt and tennis shoes, a bow tie and buttoned shirt, or fiery red lipstick and fairy wings depending on your mood, and wherever you go, people compliment you on your unique sense of style.
Thank you for your funny way of always stripping when you walk in the door, and the particular way you clean up after yourself so thoroughly, and the way you pronounce your S's. Thank you for your expressive eyebrows, your gorgeous dimples, your five billion freckles and your gapped-tooth grin that melts my heart into a puddle of mush every time you flash it my way.
I hope you never let anyone tell you who to be, Dexy-K, because anything they come up with could not be nearly as spectacular as what you are becoming all on your own.
I love your beautiful face and your beautiful heart, my magic boy.
I wish you all the fruit snacks and rainbow sprinkles your precious heart desires on your birthday.
This year, "You Are So Beautiful To Me" has become our song...or at least the chorus of it, which is all I know. You find it funny for a reason I do so wish you could share with me, but, for me, it is the perfect song for you. Every time I get to the lines, "you are everything I hoped for and everything I need," I hold you close, your cheek squished against mine, and I sing them slowly and softly in your ear. Sometimes, I repeat it over and over and you giggle and giggle. I cannot know if you understand the words, but I hope with my whole heart that the message will seep into you somehow; that you will know, right down to your bones, that you are so loved and treasured for exactly who you are.
I worry sometimes, as we have pushed you harder this year, that you wonder why we don't like you the way you are- why we are always pushing you to be different. I hope that you don't. I hope so much that you understand that we love you for all that you are, and that our goal is always to support you and to give you as many tools as possible to enjoy everything this life has to offer you in whatever way is possible.
Sweet, beautiful boy of mine, I could stare at you all day. Your face is so full of magic and watching your big eyes soak up the world is one of the most beautiful mysteries I have ever witnessed. I so want to know what you are thinking and when I ask you, you often give me the funniest knowing smile as if you truly have been sent here to teach me to stop being so desperate for things I cannot have, to learn to be content with what is. I am trying, Roo… I promise I am trying.
Rory, you are the easiest and hardest thing I have ever experienced in my life. Days with you are sweet and mellow. You are just so sweet and happy and curious and fun. Everything you do makes me smile. I adore being around you. There are only a few things you protest: being changed, being put in the car, being shut up inside, being told no basically ever. (That last one is probably because you rarely hear it and so it is confusing for you...because you are spoiled!) If I always took life with you one day and a time, it would be bliss...but, of course, sometimes things get away from me and I start to worry about the future and that is when things get a bit tricky. As you have gotten older, this has gotten trickier...but I think it is a learning curve, and one day we will be over it. We just have to hang on until then. I know you already have the hang of it all. At four years old, your patience is already worlds above the rest of ours.
You have learned so many new things this year! Truly, I think you have changed more this year than any other year of your life and it makes things, that last year I had started to accept may never be, feel like real possibilities again! If I had to pick the single most amazing thing that you have learned this year, it would have to be nodding yes. There is so much magic in that tiny gesture; I know you feel that. I can tell by the ways your eyes light up when you nod and we understand and things happen just the way you hoped. When we are pushing you to try new things, Rory...when we are stretching out your legs and it doesn't feel good, or we keep urging you to tell us what you want, or we force you outside of your comfort zone, I hope you know that we only want more of the "yes" magic for you.
Thank you for working so hard to stay connected to us, Roo Bear. Thank you for your beautiful smile and your super tight hugs. Every thing about you is my favorite. I love being your mama. Happy, happy, happy, happy birthday!
Ryan and I were talking the other day about faith, god and spirituality and I mentioned that the two things that have most deepened my understanding of these subjects are parenting and gardening. This is true for many subjects. I have all my best epiphanies in the garden and parenting has taught me more than any other experience in my life.
Just as I believe that a person can be a completely satisfied, whole, and fulfilled individual without.... climbing Everest, volunteering in a soup kitchen, or taking a feminist literature course, while still missing lessons that could only be learned by having one of these experiences, so I believe that a person can be a completely satisfied, whole and fulfilled individual without ever becoming a parent, but there are lessons that can only be truly learned through the experience of parenting.
For me, one subject I have learned about from parenting in a way I know I never would have understood otherwise, is shame.
Through both passively watching my children grow, and actively participating in the process, I have thought more and learned more about the idea of shame than I think I ever would have without my children.
Shame is a powerful motivator. It is also an unhealthy one. We often carry the lessons we learn through shame with us for the rest of our lives, but these lessons come at a hefty price and are usually carried as a wound that never healed quite right rather than a beautiful moment of awakening or a positive turning point in our lives.
If I say to you, "think of a time that you were shamed," chances are a moment immediately comes to mind. Probably it is not a positive memory. Probably it is not something you got over quickly. Probably you can think of other ways you could have learned any lesson you learned from that moment if you learned anything at all.
Shame often slides into a child's heart when they are small, when grown-ups are always right and so they are always wrong. This hurts... but the pain is often mistaken as remorse, which those powerful giants in a child's life then feed without even realizing what they are doing. So, the pain-not-remorse grows up and becomes an Ugly Thing. It becomes an Ugly Thing that paces around in our heart, growling and bristling any time a flaw is brought to its attention. It gets harder to listen and to say we are sorry. It gets harder to see things from another's point of view. And the funny-not-funny thing is, sometimes we grow up and we realize the point of the shame and that we were wrong all along...but the Ugly Thing has already moved in and resists being evicted.
I have noticed that there seems to be a turning point in every person's journey where they have traveled so far from the beginning that they forget what it looks like. They forget what it looked like in the beginning and how they felt and all they have learned since then. They also forget that there was a before the beginning and a before that and a before that. And then they meet someone who is at the beginning or at the before and they are exasperated that the person has to take the journey for themselves. They are shouting back over their shoulder, "I already did all the hard work for you! You should be here already!!" But that is not how it works.
We do this with children a lot, don't we? We decide things for them before they are ever born. We decide their religion or their diet or their lifestyle. We decide that they will be homeschooled or that they will go to college or that they will get their ears pierced. We decide that they will be activists, pacifists, naturalists, environmentalists. We decide that they are vegan, paleo, keto, sugar-free, gluten-free, dairy-free, GAPS, WAF, farm free, clean eaters, breast-fed, free range, organic.....
We buy them certain toys and clothes. We play them certain music. It is all so intentional. We have such an agenda. And why? Because we've done the work, of course- we have done the research.... we know what is best.... we are raising good humans!
It works for awhile. But then one day they are almost nine years old and they just want to buzz their head and eat potato chips and watch the Disney Channel. Or they are 19 and living off McDonald's and really into football. Or they are 25...or 32....or.....
It doesn't look like we thought it would look and that is kind of scary. "I already did all the hard work for you!" you want to shout, "You should be here already!" And just like that, you forget your own days of drooling over Dunkaroos and being a bully on the playground, your days of plastering your walls with posters of Blink-182.... and that screaming match you got into with your mom over the JNCO jeans she wouldn't let you buy. You forget all the experiences and conversations and little moments and big moments.... and the one day you stumbled onto that blog about that family... and the year you gave up meat, and the book you read that felt like the author had plucked your thoughts right out of your head and, for the very first time, you did not feel like a total freak... and the skirt you saw at the thrift store that you wore until it was riddled with holes.
You forget all the millions of ways you got from who you were to who you are and you forget that everyone has to take that journey for themselves...……
NO, everyone GETS to take that journey for themselves... and you have no right to try and steal that from them.
It won't work anyway.
We often shame people for being on their own journey. That is futile. We often shame to pass shame we are feeling onto others, to align ourselves with the "right" side, or to alleviate our own discomfort. That is cheap. We often shame to punish someone for or attempt to change someone's behavior. That doesn't work.
I am writing this post because I have made a decision for myself.
I have decided that I will no longer participate in any action or conversation that is meant to shame another human being for their behavior or mistakes or any aspect of their being. I will not shame my children, or my partner, or friends, or strangers, or myself. It won't be easy and I am sure I will fail...but I can do hard things that are worth doing.
This is worth doing.
* Not to be confused with conscious conviction. (If you are unsure about the difference look up the definitions of both.)
To ensure he is not lost in a sea of Haddock children, Salem has chosen to differentiate himself from his brothers by being the absolute worst sleeper we have ever experienced. Which, if you know my children, you know is really saying something. Therefore, the days of the past week and a half have all sort of bled into each other. A constant stream of nursing and pumping and feeding and snuggling and changing and dozing off and soothing and reminding each other to wash our hands.
And in between there is cleaning up and making messes and playing hard and laundry and three other little humans that apparently still expect parental attention. And doctor's appointments and dentist appointments and friends and family eager to meet the newest addition (and us eager to share him) and gatherings and grocery trips . And a lot of hungry mouths to feed multiple times of day.
In some moments, it feels entirely natural- almost easy! In other moments, I am paralyzed with fear over the sheer magnitude of the situation. An infant. A preschooler with special needs. Two school-aged homeschoolers. A lot of animals. The end of Ryan's paternity leave inching closer and closer with every tick of the clock and the settling back into a normal routine. Juggling schedules. So many doctor's appointments. Multiple children in multiple therapies. Making sure everyone's physical, spiritual and emotional needs are met. Not letting anything or anyone fall through the cracks. Inevitably failing and having to repair the damage. Maybe eventually possibly having a minute to do things I like to do again?
A lot of times, people, including myself, conclude after looking at a messy situation that they "wouldn't change it for the world." But....the truth is... there is a lot about our situation I would change. To make things easier. To make things more pleasant. To be able to take a deep breath. To feel the weight that lives on my shoulders lifted.
But it is really a silly thing to think about at all because no one is given the power to edit their life story to their liking. You get the ugly bits along with all the beauty. You soak it in, you process it, it becomes a part of you. Maybe you let the ugliness take things over and you become bitter and brittle. Maybe you try to ignore it, pretend it isn't there, while it haunts you like a ghost. Or maybe you figure out a way to use the ugly bits, weave them into the fabric of yourself so that you are stronger because of them.... or you sit with them until your nose longer crinkles in disgust, until they become familiar and you can coexist with them or, one day, even embrace them. However you deal with the ugly, it is there.
The truth is, our ugly isn't so ugly. Or maybe I have just sat with it long enough that it has become familiar. If you had shown a snapshot of my life to my 20-year-old self, she would have been horrified. Particularly by the dark circles under my eyes, the fact that I so rarely make it to the gym, how little control I have over everything, the number of people I cohabitate with that pee all over the bathroom floor. If I am being honest...these things can still manage to horrify me...but in a muffled sort of way, you know.
On the other hand, I never could have accurately expressed to my 20-year-old self how stunning my life is. My 20-year-old self who had never felt deep, bone-aching love for another person, who had never experienced the sweetness of true forgiveness, who had never known the freedom of letting go of expectations. She would have seen the mess and not how lucky I am to be in it. How it will never, ever matter that I had a flabby belly or no make up on my face during any of the exquisite and horrifying moments that make up the meat of my life. How close I came to not having any of it. How it can all be taken away in an instant. How it will all disappear eventually. How the impermanence of it is what makes it so sweet.
And it is so, so, so, so, so sweet.
Today, right now, it is raining and I have coffee. A beautiful baby I never thought I would get to have is sleeping by an open window. One boy is at a school he loves, thriving. Two boys are spending the morning with a Papa they adore. And, if you read between the lines on any of that...you could see the ugliness behind it...but today, right now, it is all woven together beautifully.
Today, right now, life is good.
Eight weeks ago, I had a baby.
But you probably already knew that because it seems that everyone does. At least, the food dropped off on my porch with notes signed by names I don't recognize indicates that everyone does. I am so grateful to these friends and strangers for their thoughtfulness though....and also the food. It doesn't bother me that they know about the baby, but I cant help but wonder how those conversations go. Does how irresponsible it was come up every single time?
When we discovered we were expecting this fourth little one, there were a lot of things I was afraid of happening. So far, every single one of those fears has been realized.
Every single fear I had ever feared...and some I had not thought of... has come true.
I have not quite figured out how to be okay with that. Mostly, for now, I am learning to be okay with not being okay with that. I think that might be the first step.
A lot of people have reached out and said that they did not even know I was pregnant. That makes sense because I never really made any sort of announcement.
Even though I knew from the very beginning, I never got used to the idea of being pregnant again. I kept not telling anyone until it "felt real"... and it never felt real so I just kept not telling anyone. I told a person here and a person there and finally spilled the beans to family after we knew for sure that it was a boy. I wrote about coming to terms with not having a daughter for the local mom blog I am a contributor for and that is as close as I came to any official announcement. I guess now I know who actually cares about what I write, hm? (This is a joke. The "serious" tone of this post makes me believe I need to be specific about that.)
I was not pregnant very long really. I only have a single photo of my belly; a blurry photograph in a dirty mirror I snapped before I climbed in the shower. One that can never hang on the nursery wall or be put in a baby book. In the days I was bed-bound prior to delivery, I spent a lot of time with my eyes closed, trying to memorize the feeling of a tiny human moving inside me because I will never feel it again and I hardly had a chance to feel it at all. It was really quick and life was busy.
Any time we had a minute, we sort of sat around stunned at the idea of a baby instead of actually preparing for the inevitable arrival of the actual baby.
Because.....we were done. We were out of the business of creating new human beings. The idea of being done was too hard to examine closely... so I would pretend like maybe, possibly, in the future, if the stars aligned, in some way, some day we might have another baby
....but we were really, really, really done.
I knew exactly how done we were the instant I saw a positive pregnancy test. I could not even say the words out loud for weeks but only sort of whisper them vaguely in Ryan's direction while he nodded slowly and the conversation always ended with, "But....what are we going to do?"
And my body does not keep babies safe. My body actively tries to hurt the babies it so readily creates.
Well...that isn't really fair. Really, my body just tries to stay alive to the detriment of the babies it so readily creates....but I am still in the phase where my body feels like the enemy and I hate it so you are just going to have to give me a minute.
And also kids are expensive. And they eat a lot. And also a four bedroom house is starting to feel really small. And also we have Rory. Rory is our baby. We don't know if Rory will ever not be our baby...and how can we make room for another one? And what if adding another one diminishes the quality of Rory's life because we are distracted and cannot give him the attention he needs to thrive? And how will we ever give the big ones the life they deserve with a baby and a Rory? The answer is we can't and they will inevitably suffer so congrats on failing them. And what if something happens and this baby has special needs also? I know, for a fact, that I will crumble if put under the pressure of two special needs children. I just can't do it. And do we even remember what to do with a newborn? I am pretty sure the answer is no. And these are all the horrible things that can happen if everything goes right, so now let's think about all the things that could go horrifically wrong.....
So, there is a small peek into my brain at any given minute of the day. Isn't it a trip?
There is so much to be grateful for in an experience like this and everyone likes to remind you of that....including your own guilty conscious. You find yourself angry that feelings other than gratitude for your life and that of your baby keep welling up inside of you. But if there is one lesson that this life keeps trying to teach me over and over and over again... it is that things can be painful and beautiful all at the same time.
Things are usually painful and beautiful at exactly the same time.
You don't have to feel better about the things that are bad to acknowledge the things that are good.
Gratitude and disappointment are not mutually exclusive. You can mourn for what you are losing and treasure what you have and probably that is what you are doing most of the time anyway.... it is just that big life experiences tend to get more scrutiny. It is okay to be scared. It is okay to be angry. It is okay to be sad. You can also be brave and calm and happy. You can be so many things.
You are human. Humans are complicated. Sometimes, this can cause problems...but it also means you can do really neat things like feel many things at exactly the same time!
And in the middle of it all, is this sweet baby.
This sweet baby that feels like such a mystery to me. Who are you? Why did you come?
They came into my room and told me they were taking him. And I cried because this is not my first rodeo and I knew I would not get to meet him...and if I did not get to meet him, I could not make him real.
I really, really needed him to be real. Finding out he was coming was shocking and overwhelming and I needed that experience to not end with me splayed open on a table, womb and arms empty.
Except that it did.
So, I kept my eyes closed while they prepped me for surgery, wheeled me down the hall, explained everything to me, put in an epidural, took my baby, wheeled me to recovery, put me in a room and for almost every single one of the 26 hours I had to wait until I got to meet him....
I kept my eyes closed and focused all my energy on these words: Please stay with me, Little Stranger.
And it did not look like I hoped it would look but.... I think that maybe....he did.
At least for now.
WHO AM I?
I am Michelle: a wannabe hippie in love with a bonafide geek. We also spawned. I spend my days with our four wild, beautiful boy children and I overshare about our life online because I am a Millennial and that is what we do.