Youngest was born into the crumbling of my idealized adult life. I spent most of my pregnancy hardly believing she would be born, still reeling after my recent miscarriage, the death of a friend, and loved ones’ health emergencies. The secure job we were sure my husband would land right after finishing his doctorate had not materialized, and all our hard work only seemed to produce more hard work.
Youngest did not have a freshly-painted nursery (she slept in a portable bassinet in the hallway outside our bedroom door), and she wasn’t a neatly-spaced two years younger than Middle, the way I had envisioned she would be. Our health insurance ended a week after she was born, and we spent the first year of her life paying as we went at the doctor’s office, hoping that the health emergency that could ruin us wasn’t just around the corner. We had friends, but I felt close to nobody, out of touch with old friends after moving several times, and unable to feel like I connected with the new ones. I sat with acquaintances while they compared notes about home renovations and quietly hated the white walls of our apartment, wondering what everybody around me had done to be able to own a home. I was not the gentle, abundant, glowing homeschooling mom I wanted to be. I was tired and disorganized, and my husband worked long hours and got paid only a few dollars an hour more than the babysitters we hired once in a while when there was no other choice.
And then, Youngest herself spent the first two years of her life showing me that my determination to have well-behaved, disciplined children and a perfect, well-groomed family was pure fantasy. She was loud, emotional, headstrong. She got into things my older two never dreamed of—kitchen knives, for example. She seemed bent on mischief and destruction. My parents referred to her as a force of nature. It was fitting, actually, that when a tornado struck our town two years ago, she couldn’t shake the idea that it was a person, not a thing, that did all the damage.
People love to say that being a mother is hard. What I wish they would say, even though it isn’t very good advertising, is that motherhood will probably at some point not only take you to the edge of yourself, it will hold you over the edge and let you dangle. Older women would stop me at the grocery store sometimes, and say things like, “You’ve got a big job there. I remember what those days were like. Hang in there—these are precious times.” The way their eyes held mine when they said it assured me they knew what they were talking about and had most likely spent a fair amount of time dangling, themselves.
Youngest stretches me. But somewhere along the line I realized that she is in many ways the girl I always wished to be. She is strong and feisty and outgoing. My social advice to my children is based on my experience as an introvert: be nice, make eye contact and answer people’s questions, and if you can’t manage anything else, a smile will get you a long way. My four year old, on the other hand, will march up to a complete stranger at church and say, “I haven’t seen you here before. What’s your name?” She won’t even blush or stumble all over her words or feel like an idiot like her mom would. She sings and cries loudly, loves being on stage, endears herself to everybody, and asks for what she wants. She is a free spirit, completely comfortable in her own skin, and I have a lot to learn from her.
Two years ago when we finally bought a house, we decided that each child should have their own room. Youngest was barely three, so I helped pick the color for her room. She loved purple, and the day-glo orange she wanted was not an option, so I found what I thought was the perfect purple for her: something light but somehow deep, passionate and mysterious, feminine but not frilly. It was a color that seemed to define everything I love about her.
It turns out she wanted pink, like Middle’s room. Not only that, but within a month of moving in, Middle and Youngest started sharing a bed again, and insisted that they hated being alone in their rooms. For a year and a half, they had sleepovers, alternating between their two rooms. They played together in whatever room they slept in, and the other room was always empty and trashed.
This summer, I did something I’m pretty sure I learned from Youngest: I asked for what I wanted. Not everybody was excited about the idea, but my daughters are sharing a room again. They both have the pink room they wanted, and they have loft beds, so each girl has a top bunk with her own private space underneath. And the purple room—I swear I didn’t choose the color for myself—but it is my space, now. My office. I still stumble over that word “my,” but there you have it.
There were a number of years that I truly believed that to be a mother I had to completely pour myself out, give up all of myself. As my children are getting older, though, I’ve had to rethink that. I feel like I am growing up alongside my kids, trying to help them discover who they are, but also rediscovering who I am. That idealized adult life I thought I wanted—a good portion of it was based on how I thought I would best fit in, how I could look good and feel accepted. But the times in my life where I have felt the most accepted were when I was being myself, doing the things I loved and being the person I was made to be.
I started writing seven years ago, during a time of great hope and great stress. It was something I did a lot of as a child, something I always loved, but I pushed it aside for years simply because I thought I had to. Recently, though, it has become a lifeline. I write to think, to pray, to connect the things in my life that I otherwise don’t know how to connect. To understand, and also to communicate. I refuse to call writing a hobby, but I hesitate to say it is a calling because I don’t know how you determine something like that. But it became clear that I needed to carve out a place for myself in this wonderful family—a physical and emotional space just for writing, and oh, it is the loveliest shade of purple.