Over on Facebook I left a comment about how it's easier to have five children than it was to have two children. When I had two, I was worried and frazzled a lot of the time. The toddler wanted that baby to go right back where he came from, things were often tense between Elwood and me, and I could never seem to finish the dishes before 11:30 at night. We have our struggles these days, but the kids are reasonably kind to each other, Elwood and I genuinely enjoy each other, and the dishes are always caught up. (The basement is a mess and Stella's fingernails need trimming, but...I'm working on it.)
You learn how to be a mom. Recently two colleagues were talking about the wretchedness of the newborn period: it was so repetitive, so unrewarding, so miserable. I enjoyed that stage immensely with my three youngest, and I think part of it was feeling more competent and less worried. I had learned how to nurse a newborn, how to change an epic diaper, how to accept the reality that tiny babies generate an astonishing volume of laundry. I was in a better spot to enjoy those newborn noises and fleeting smiles, to see the goodness in meeting simple needs. The same thing is true of later infancy and toddlerhood and the preschool years: it's easier to enjoy something you already know how to do.
You learn how to be a wife. Adding a baby to the mix was a strain on our marriage, and adding a second was even harder. While I am not holding up our marriage as any sort of model, I do want to say that it works much better with a large family than it did with a small one. We have a division of labor that works for us, and, more importantly, we sincerely appreciate each other. In late 1999, when our second son was tiny and things between us were fraught, it would have been hard for me to imagine how affectionate and encouraging Elwood would be in 2014. It makes an enormous difference in my peace of mind and in the climate of our home. (Because it's easy for me to be envious of other people's happy lives as seen on the internet, I will mention that we have been through a couple of rounds of marriage counseling, and we still have some unresolved crud.) (Also, superstitiously, I fear this post will mean we are about to have a ridiculous argument about something minor that sparks a three-day coolness between us. "Happy" still means far, far from perfect.)
You learn how to be a homemaker. Last week the boys were having trouble finding clean socks, but it was the first time in a long while. (It was time for a Target run -- too many socks had sprouted holes at once.) When I had two small kids, I had to do the housework myself while keeping them from trashing the parts of the house I wasn't actively trying to put to rights. These days, I have to be disciplined about making sure their jobs are done (and done to a reasonable standard, because their idea of "wiping down the bathroom" still diverges from my idea of "wiping down the bathroom"), but less of the physical work of running a home rests on my shoulders. I fold less laundry with five children than I did with two. (And my sloth is less of an issue than it used to be. It is a little embarrassing to admit that I had to go to such lengths, but it made a world of difference: I made a promise before God that I would prioritize prayer, dishes, laundry, and meal prep above goofing off on the internet. If I slip up, I take it to confession.)
They learn; they teach. When a new mom is struggling to nurse her baby, it's hard for her to imagine the future. It's hard for her to see that her baby is learning at every feeding. It's not just that she has to figure out a magic solution: her baby is wired to grow and learn and feed successfully. They can figure it out together, given time and patience. In the same way, it was hard for me to see the future when my oldest was having 45-minute tantrums over trivial things. I learned a lot about managing tantrums, sure, but he learned even more, proportionally speaking. First he learned not to hit his brother, and then he learned how to be kind (not just not-hitting) to smaller children. And his example was such an important help to the younger kids. Older siblings can be even more effective teachers than parents, because they're respected peers rather than authority figures. If I eat squid happily, it's because I'm from Planet Grownup where everyone eats weird things and pretends to enjoy them. If the big kids eat squid happily, then squid is less like alien food and more like cool-people food.
You gain perspective. For the six weeks that it took my oldest to smile at me, I had a hard time seeing him as a person. I mean, don't get me wrong -- I didn't think I had given birth to a llama or anything; I just couldn't imagine that he was something beyond a bundle of needs. I couldn't have predicted that he would grow into the whip-smart hilarious irreverent 6'1" guy he is today: it seemed approximately as plausible as his growing up to be a llama. Having watched Joe grow from a boy who took over the homily so he could talk about King Kong into a boy who asks me to read him the Old Testament for comfort, I don't worry so much when Stella starts singing Let It Go during the Lamb of God. (I shut it right down, but I don't worry that it means I have failed to transmit the importance of the Mass. Or at least not very much.) It's important to take the long view in motherhood, I think-- to remember that your task is to obsolesce, to prepare your kids for adulthood and for heaven and not to obsess about micromanaging childhood.
Just last weekend I was fretting about Alex, who wants to travel to Chicago with a group of college-aged boys and no chaperone. How much independence is healthy for a 17yo? How much supervision is necessary? They're not easy questions. In the middle of my tizzy I had a glimpse of golden certainty-- that the Lord loves Alex more than I do, and has good plans for him that I cannot predict or understand. My job is not to stand wild-eyed with a metaphorical broomstick in hand, swatting away hypothetical evils. My job is to love with open hands-- to pray, to teach, to hope, to wait, and to love some more.