The Medicine of Motherhood
Our first seven years of marriage were marked by joy, sleeplessness, deep exhaustion, and five positive pregnancy tests. Our family arrived fast and furious, in a flurry of diapers and minivans and more trips to the grocery store than I'd have believed possible.
I struggled mightily through my early years of motherhood, chafing against the restriction of my enormous pregnant body, crying hot, salty tears of disappointment and pain over births that didn't go as I'd planned and breastfeeding that was more difficult than advertised.
Even as the babies began sleeping longer stretches and the house began to regain some semblance of order, I moved like a zombie through our endless days at home together, these babies and me, a dark cloud of postpartum depression draped like a physical weight around my shoulders.
With medication and practice, I became adept at mothering through the heaviness, in spite of how I might be feeling.
In time the feelings, too, began to ease into something approaching happiness some days. With each new addition to our family, that cloud has thinned out a bit, proving the odds and the world's wisdom wrong. What was nearly impossible with two children has become manageable with five; it defies reason.
Confession: I never dreamt of becoming a mother. I never imagined how many children I would have, or what I'd name them, or the color of their eyes. When strangers ask me in grocery store parking lots if I'm done, if we're planning to have more, my evasiveness springs not from any social discomfort caused by their probing, but from honestly not knowing the answer.
When we got engaged I was open to life in the same way I was open to monogamy: I just assumed kids came with the territory I was entering into.
In this sense, at least, I had wildly culturally divergent expectations of marriage from many of my peers. My parents, by modeling openness to life for my siblings and I, helped to hardwire the natural connection between marriage and babies into our developing brains.
So while I wasn't daydreaming about the colors I'd paint my future nursery, I did walk into marriage with eyes wide open, understanding that if everything went to plan, sexual intimacy with my husband could lead to new life.
When the babies came – and boy, did they come – I was staggered by the weight of my new responsibilities. I loved each of them fiercely and marveled over their immediate and instinctive love for one another. And I was tired. So tired, and utterly overwhelmed at the thought that I could possibly be handed more responsibility in the future.
The autumn after I gave birth to our fourth baby was perhaps the most exhausted I have ever been in my life. My oldest had just turned five and started preschool, and I had to have all four kids in the car and out the door by 9am. It was an almost Herculean task. Nobody could tie their own shoes, three wore diapers, two couldn't talk, and my one-month-old screamed like a wounded mountain lion any time he touched his car seat.
That was three years ago now, though it feels like it could have been another lifetime entirely. Now we have five kids, and the oldest is eight. There are school lunches to pack and uniforms to wash and endless, endless piles of dishes in the sink, but life is much easier now.
The newest baby is 13 months old and toddles around after her four older siblings, shrieking with delight and eating any scrap of food that falls to the floor if we're not quick enough to retrieve it. I fall into bed exhausted by 10pm most nights, and rise early, but life is manageable and, for the most part, sweet.
There is almost nothing that could have convinced the younger and more exhausted version of me that things would get easier, but they have.
I'm a better, stronger, and softer mother than I was a few years ago, and each new baby has opened up a new space in my heart that wouldn't have existed but for them.
And I'm so glad I didn't miss out on it.
I'm so glad I didn't get what I wished for in my darkest hours, a removal of this seemingly impossible cross of so much fertility, so much life.
I can empathize completely with anyone who is tempted to permanently sterilize their marriage in the crucible of early parenthood or the throes of postpartum depression. Honestly, there but for the grace of God – and the precepts of His Church – went I.
If you're in the trenches of early motherhood, hear this: it does get better. The nights eventually regularize. Sort of. You learn to run on less sleep and more grace, and to moderate your coffee intake in a way that respects the delicate balance between insomniac and energized.
I am more confident in the Church's wisdom on contraception now then when I first started bringing home babies. I would not be the mother I am today had we purposely limited our family size.
“Oh, NFP, that's the thing that makes Catholics have so many kids, right?” asked a friend at a Superbowl party recently.
Well, yes, and no. Instead of making the call on our family size once and for all, we have to make it over and over again, every month. Some couples get more opportunities to discern than others do. It's a big responsibility and sometimes it's really hard, but honestly, I wouldn't trade it.
She looked unconvinced, and I don't blame her. Some things you have to experience for yourself in order to believe. And our culture has done everything in its power to paint children as the enemies of happiness, to paint parenting as a drudgery and a punishment to be suffered through and quickly put in the rearview.
That life could be better, sweeter, more fulfilling and more enjoyable as our family grows? That's math that only God can perform. Hard times will come again, of that I'm certain. But so will the grace to face them. I don't want to sugarcoat any of the suffering, only to offer that sometimes God wants to season our suffering with just enough sweetness to help us tolerate it, to help, as they say, the medicine go down.
Jenny Uebbing is the author of the popular blog Mama Needs Coffee covering topics of sex, life, marriage, culture, and the Catholic Church. She is a revert to Catholicism with a deep love for the Faith and a desire to grow in knowledge and understanding of what we believe, and why.