I was on the phone with my younger sister last week, and she asked me, sort of wistfully, to describe for her what being married with children is like. It’s all either of us ever wanted, I think, and the only firm life plan we ever had for ourselves. Now she is a college student, trying to work up assurance in her chosen major, and I am living the life that I wanted when I was in her position ten years ago.
I tried my best, verbally, to describe these things, but as usual I had to sit down and write before anything of sense came out… here are four of the things I tried to explain on the phone that day.
- It feels faster than single life did, and just as difficult to capture.
I remember being eight years old, keeping a diary, and realizing at some point that I was losing things. I had an impression of thoughts, like flies or stars above my head, rushing past at an uncertain rate. The frustration of never being able to grab all of them and slap them down on the paper was excruciating to me. I wanted never to lose things; this was why I kept a diary in the first place.
But that was the year I understood that I would never remember most of the things that happened to me. One day I sat down in front of my family’s bookshelf in our little farmhouse in Gordonsville, TN, and said to myself, “This I will remember, at least. This moment right now, I will commit it to memory and even when I am old I’ll remember it even if I forget the rest of this whole year.”
Apparently it worked. I have that one moment. But I was right; a lot of the rest is gone.
Now, with a husband and children, that feeling of losing things is only intensified. Except now, when I lose something, it is the memory of what my daughter’s first word was. It is the thought I had during labor, that I swore I’d be able to repeat and laugh about. It is the memory of the layout of our first apartment, or at least the number of steps from the bedroom to the bathroom. The feeling of loss is intensified because now you are responsible for other lives and other memories—your daughters will grow up and they will want to see pictures. Why aren’t you printing more pictures? What if Facebook goes away? Even worse—will you lose more memories now because, like the news has told you, social media is sacking our abilities to experience and remember things?
And you would sit down and write about motherhood, like you always intended to when you were journaling and praying to God to send you children, but now there isn’t time. Toddlers don’t like when people journal; they do whatever they can to prevent it.
- You find out terrible things about yourself.
People used to tell me that marriage would be an awful mirror in which I’d see new character flaws. I don’t know that this was my experience—I think maybe marriage alone just wasn’t squeezy enough to squeeze all those secret things out of me. When I got married, it made life easier, not harder. But what marriage didn’t do, parenthood has officially set to work on.
I used to think that my worst character flaws had to do with pride, lust, and gluttony. Now I feel that anger—pure and unadulterated rage—should have been in that list all along. It’s just that I didn’t know about the anger because life had not found an opportunity to show it to me.
I didn’t know the rage that would bubble up in my heart when my toddler fusses all afternoon and deliberately disobeys me. I didn’t know the language that would erupt from my mouth when I’m home alone and I hear the cry of a baby who was supposed to be napping. My rage is the kind that believes God has simply not given me what I deserve. Apparently, I don’t deserve to experience sleeplessness, messiness, rebellion, boredom, and hard work that never gets finished. I deserve better. This is what I clearly believe—and my anger is just a previously-unknown arm of all the other sins I was already aware of, sins that aren’t blaring in my face anymore.
I see heavy-duty repentance, again and again and again, in my future.
- Back to marriage—marriage is no fun unless you decide to have fun.
The thing about having children is that it is similar to being separated from your spouse by work schedules or travel or something. You just can’t always feel with one another. Children are simply the most distracting thing either of you has ever had in your life. You must work constantly to connect with each other around them.
Marriage always has a little lonely edge to it.
Here’s what I mean. You marry a person who you know decently well (not that well). Then you start to build real intimacy. You talk and talk and talk, and you sleep for years in the same bed and share the same meals and start to get a stock of shared experiences. And one day you know each other better than anyone else; your children even look like each other. You get to a point where he no longer owns any underwear that he bought for himself. You get to a point where you know exactly what his opinion will be on any given issue before it is even discussed, just because you’ve got a feel for each other’s prejudices and quirks and priorities. He knows what your hypocrisies are, and you know what his are.
But you are still lonely together sometimes. You are not alone, but you still feel loneliness. You are sharing a home, but you are still pilgrims waiting to get home. You are seen and (generally) approved, but you are still waiting to be finally seen and approved. The hungers still run rampant through you.
You still feel, at times, like you are two people just clamoring through empty air to get to one another, and never quite connecting. He’ll never know every memory, every thought that you have, and it would be boring if he did. He’ll never be able to totally know what it’s like to be a woman, and you’ll never know exactly what it’s like to be a man. Your opinion on some things will still not matter to him as much as his male friends’. You’ll still find that other women can ‘get you’ in ways that he can’t.
And there are some things that you just absolutely disagree about. Some of them are things that affect you close to the heart, and things that will inconvenience you for the rest of your life. And there are things that he does that you will always wish he’d stop doing, and things you don’t do that he wishes you’d do—some of them things you don’t even know about.
The moments when you claw your way through the air and meet minds again, and feel those things for one another that you want to feel all the time—those moments never come when you expect them. They don’t come on birthdays or anniversaries or at Christmas. They certainly don’t come on Valentine’s Day. They come at six am when he kisses you before leaving for work, or when you are driving to Nashville to a doctor’s appointment and you start talking about something you’ve never talked about, or when he is on the floor wrestling a toddler girl child. You just don’t know when the feelings you’ve always associated with love will come and go, but the thing about marriage is that you don’t have to wonder whether they will be back, whether he will be back.
But I’ve still always thought that those fun feelings were worth fighting for. Just because they aren’t the main point of marriage (or the engine of a marriage or the foundation of a marriage; pick your analogy) doesn’t mean they aren’t important. I feel that fighting for fun in marriage is part of the Good Fight.
- Being a mom feels like being part of miracles revived.
I know that it’s not technically a miracle, because it follows all the rules of natural law, and it happens every day, and almost everybody experiences it at some point. But becoming a parent has still felt to me like standing next to a wall where the mysteries of God’s very nature are lying just on the other side, and I am allowed to touch the wall, to put my ear up to it, and feel its very vibrations under my palm. I feel like I’ve been able to stand on the cliff’s edge of divinity itself, eternity spreading out before me, because of having participated in the manufacture of a new eternal soul.
It’s a reinforcer to my faith. I know that we are eternal creatures, sinners born with a string in their stomachs who want to find their home and are under obligation to their maker—I see it in my baby-turned-toddler. I know that life is emphatically a good thing, because I’ve looked at an infant’s eyelashes, a mere minutes after she was inside me, and called them good. I know that God is a father who makes other fathers, because I have seen a young man become one and to suddenly know that he’d give a loaf of bread every time it was asked for, not a stone. I know that God gives with pleasure because I now know the pleasure of watching a toddler eat the soup that I made, or the pleasure of watching an infant body go from stiff and rooting to relaxed and drunk after a session at the breast.
The physicality of pregnancy, birth, and breastfeeding—that alone is enough to make me a believer in magic. It’s too much—too orchestrated, too chemical, too incredible. Who could possibly have made this stuff up?
And then, as if that wasn’t enough, these little miracles become little children who are capable, themselves, of asking questions about the miracles. And so you see the miracles again because of them. Today I read this quote from Robert Farrar Capon, out of a book on doubt by Barnabas Piper:
“We are so impressed by the scientific clank… that we feel we ought not to say that the sunflower turns because it knows where the sun is. It is almost second nature to us to prefer explanations… with a large vocabulary. We are much more comfortable when we are assured that the sunflower turns because it is heliotropic.
“The trouble with that kind of talk is that it… tempts us to think that we really know what the sunflower is up to. But we don’t. The sunflower is a mystery, just as every single thing in the universe is.”
A small child is a person whose job it is to remind big people that they are living in a magic world.What’s this, Mommy? It’s a tomato. Why does it have seeds, Mommy? Because that’s how we get more tomatoes, because God is never tired of there being more tomatoes. Why does God like tomatoes, Mommy? Because they are so good in lasagna. Why is lasagna good, Mommy? Because our tongues were made to taste lasagna and God likes to give us good things to taste with our tongues.
Adults forget about lasagna, see, and I think that is how we get atheists.
These are only a few of the thoughts that rushed through my mind during that conversation with my sis. They feel scattered, like marriage and motherhood are. At this point, catching any thought at all before they all fly past my head is a triumph… maybe if I ever manage to get back to journaling, sis, you’ll get a few more.