This mother and I had never met before (it was Stake Conference) so we swapped info: what ward are you from? How many children do you have? What ages are they?
She listed off her children's ages - three, two and a half, and the three-month old baby she was nursing. Then I gave her the run down of my own - eight, six, four, two, and the baby (for a brief three-month period they're perfectly spaced two years apart and then it's back to eyebrow-raising territory). "Five children!" she gasped, "How do you handle that? I'm barely able to handle my three!!"
I always chuckle when I get that response from mothers of little children and then assure them that I would much, much rather have five children at the ages my children are than ever go back to three that are three and under. And then they scratch their head, trying to figure out how adding two more children is supposed to make your life easier.
But the truth is that having five children has its benefits. Some of these benefits come with any number of children - they're just a result of children getting older - but some of them really do come from having a lot of children.
When I had three little ones, I was everything to them. Just about the only thing any of them could do alone was use the toilet - and that was just Kathleen. I dressed everyone, put everyone's shoes one, fed everyone, cleaned up everyone's messes, changed two sets of diapers, played with everyone, sorted out all of the fights, cut everyone's fingernails and toenails (yes, that's eighty in a day when I did my own too), brushed everyone's hair, and was the center of everyone's universe (including my own). Everything I did, I did with three adoring fans in tow.
Now not only have I trained up the majority to be mostly self-sufficient, I have actually trained some to be helpful. It's amazing. Every morning after breakfast, Kathleen and Sophia have the same discussion. "No it's my turn today! You did it yesterday!!" When they've sorted out whose turn it is, they both dash for the
After the bottle, the loser looks on forlornly while the winner picks out Eleanor's outfit for the day before giving the baby her morning bath. They both get to dress her while brainstorming what exciting thing they could build for Baby Eleanor Playtime that morning. Eventually I pry her out of their clutches so that Eleanor can get some sleep and time away from her adoring fans. If I wasn't nursing her I don't think I'd have to do a thing if I didn't want to (which of course I do, because who can resist such a cute baby?).
When we were in Baku and I was busy with a project, the girls would take the boys outside for walks and playground time. I remember cooking dinner one day and realizing that I hadn't seen the children for at least an hour. Joseph was keeping me company, but nobody else was crowding around to surround me in a forest of chairs as I stirred the soup. Another center of gravity had been formed in the family and it wasn't me.
This summer we've traveled quite a bit, and the last three times we headed out of town, I printed off packing lists and handed them to the girls. Kathleen was in charge of packing her and Joseph's clothes and Sophia helped Edwin. At the end of an hour or two, I had a duffel full with everything the children needed. And then they unpacked it when we got home!
It's been years since I hovered around my children at the park, keeping up the continual patter that includes frequent repetitions of 'watch out!' in all of its forms. As soon as Joseph learned to walk he was off with his siblings, doing whatever he could to keep up with him. Not once did he turn around and ask him to come play. I often take my Kindle to the playground because there's nothing else for me to do.
But most of all, aside from the practicalities of having five children, they've taught me how to love. As I've had each child my capacity to love had increased. When Kathleen was born, I looked her and saw a gaping hole of Need. I didn't see chubby baby cheeks and tiny little fingers and a perfect rosebud mouth, I saw someone who was going to interrupt my regularly scheduled life with constant needs that only I could fill. I was worried about getting her to sleep, I was stressed about feeding her, and I was terrified about forming bad habits.
When I look at Eleanor, I see her irresistible baby cheeks and overflow with delight when she squirms, wriggling with happiness every time she catches my eye. When Joseph has made yet another dripping mess, I can't help but laugh at his devilish cleverness even as I'm paying for it. I relish the time spent cuddling Edwin when he has been hurt and runs to me for comfort, fitting his soft body into the folds of mine as I rock the pain away, running my fingers through his soft blonde hair. When Sophia steals a look at me in church, I can't frown at her inattention, I can only smile back at her, co-conspirators in crime. And I am amazed to find, despite the sarcasm and jokes, underneath it all, I love being a mother.
I never ever thought that I would ever love it, especially with young children. I knew it would be work and I was prepared for the work. I knew that it would pay off in time when I was old and someone would be there to care it was my birthday. I felt it was my duty, religiously, to have as many children as I could take care of. But I never could never even begin to conceive of the joy that my five children bring to me every single day. It fills my entire existence and literally changes my life every single day. Not only do I love my children, but because of the love that has grown from them I love my friends more. I love my family more. I love strangers more. I view the whole world differently because I am a mother. I am transformed.
So when you see a mother trailing multiple children behind her, don't feel sorry for her, for the time she spends wiping noses and cleaning up messes. Don't wonder why anyone would willingly give up their life to bring mouth after mouth after mouth into the world. Don't think of all of the things she gives up. Think instead of everything she has gained - many to love, many to love her back, and her whole world transformed. I think it's a pretty good exchange.