Dear Mom of little kids,
I met you at the pool earlier today. I see you in the grocery store. I watch you as you get your kids in and out of your minivan at church. I read your status on Facebook.
You have anywhere from two to five kids ages six and under (and sometimes more). You are sleep deprived and emotionally exhausted. You are up most nights with babies and toddlers who take turns making sure you can never get a full night’s sleep. Your house is a chronic mess and the idea of “consistency” in your meal plans is a joke. You feel lonely even though you are never alone and you just want to be able to talk to a grown up without being interrupted.
You try to get together with your friend’s but spend the whole time worrying that your kids are making too many messes, getting into something they shouldn’t, or (as always) making too much noise. You try to exercise at home but it’s difficult to do a yoga video when your toddler climbs on your head the minute you slide into downward dog. You try and go to the gym but your heart breaks when you leave your 1 year old in tears in the childcare. Even if they don’t cry you can’t really concentrate on your workout because you know they are going to call you down to change a poopy diaper any minute.
Sometimes you are even pregnant and for some reason toddlers don’t magically entertain themselves when mom needs to throw up. You feel guilty about the time they spend watching TV or playing on the iPad and you just know that your best friend is doing a better job than you are.
You love every one of those little people more than words can say but you are TIRED. You look at me and my ever growing brood and wonder how on earth I manage it! How can I be having my sixth child when you are drowning with “only” three??
I get it. I’ve been there. I remember those days vividly and sometimes with feelings akin to PTSD. I don’t have more patience than you do. I don’t have anything that you don’t have other than a few years of experience under my belt.
I’m not going to tell you to “enjoy the moment”. I’m not going to tell you to “embrace these days while you still can because they go by so quickly”. I’m not going to tell you that because it’s just not helpful. It may be true that these days can be filled with joy and wonder… but it’s hard to feel that joy when you are wiping poop off the walls. These days when you have only young children are quite possibly the hardest days you will ever experience in your entire life. I certainly didn’t always enjoy those days and asking you to push aside your feelings of helplessness isn’t helpful… ever. The people who tell you those things are so far removed from that time in their life that they can’t remember the mess, the noise, the diaper rash, and the overwhelming weight of responsibility. They only remember the smiles, the kisses, and the one time they weren’t frustrated when they cleaned fingerprints off the wall. These same people who tell you to enjoy this time would be horrified at a noise level that they once were able to tune out. They don’t remember what it’s like.
I can remember. And so I won’t tell you that. I’m going to tell you something else…
It gets better. It gets easier.
I know today it seems like you are drowning. Give it some time. One day your oldest child will wake up and you won’t have to remind her to get dressed. One day you will ask her to do something and she will actually do it… the first time you ask! One day she will clean up her toys when she is finished and one day she will figure out how to accomplish something on her own without you needing to hold her hand through the process.
One day you will wake up and have an older child mixed in with your many young ones.
That day, my friend, is a glorious day! That is the day when you realize that all of your work is starting to pay off. They WERE listening! They WERE learning! All this time you felt like your life lesson’s were going in one ear and out the other but it wasn’t! It just takes them a lot of time to learn. They are learning these lessons every day, but it’s really hard for us to notice when we are up to our elbows in laundry, dishes, and diapers. But that day that your oldest starts to help you with those very things that are overwhelming you is the day the lifeguard throws you a floatation device. You are still treading water, but you can breathe a little easier and keeping your head above water doesn’t take everything you have in you.
I remember with great clarity the day it happened for me. My family had just moved across the country after joining the Air Force. Because our housing situation was still up in the air, our family of five was living out of boxes and suitcases in a one bedroom apartment for almost a month. I was six months pregnant, in a strange place, with three children ages 7, 5, and 2. I cried daily. In the midst of this nightmare Lucy (age seven and a half… which is, in my opinion, the earliest you can expect this kind of change) began to be part of the solution rather than “the problem”. She started playing more with her sister and brother and diffusing fights rather than causing them. She asked to learn how to make sandwiches and eagerly helped make lunch from that point on. But more than anything else, she began to see a bigger picture. I could see that she was thinking before she acted and therefore she made different choices than she would have made just a few weeks earlier.
She was growing up.
That’s how it will be for you! One day you will notice that your oldest child has started growing up. Not just physically but emotionally. She will be far more capable than she had been and that is the day things will start to get easier. It’s not all smooth sailing by any stretch of the imagination. She will still have days when you wonder where her brain is (yesterday I had to tell that very same girl–who is now almost 12– to stop licking her little brother), but those days will happen in less and less.
It gets easier, I promise. You won’t be alone for much longer.
Maybe you are right there… on the brink. Maybe you have started to see it in their eyes. You can tell that the light is going to switch on any day now. I know you are eager but I have a warning for you, because while it does get easier it doesn’t ever get “easy”. Each new stage has different challenges. I’d like to tell you about some of the challenges to come.
You need to keep yourself in check. As soon as your oldest is able and willing to be helpful it will be so easy to rely on them more and more. Try not to. Some days it will be necessary, and they should certainly participate in the running of the house, but remember that you are still the mom. For a few more years most of the grunt work will still need to fall on your shoulders. Remind yourself that she is still just a kid and still needs to have time to BE a kid. Remember that she is only 8 (or 9, or 10, or 11) and that you can’t expect her to read your mind and that she is still learning. Remind yourself to give her a break.
I have another word of warning for you. You may wake up one day and wonder why it’s taking SO long for your second child to start the process of growing up. You will tell yourself that every child is different and that some kids just need a little more time… and you would be right. But after a while you’ll think to yourself “she’s three years older than her sister was… WHY isn’t she getting it!”. You realize that time isn’t helping and that your second child is developing some very unfortunate attitudes about work and responsibility.
You have relied on your older child so much, and she has done such a good job at being your “right hand man”, that you have robbed your second child of the opportunity to develop those skills that your oldest has honed to perfection.
Spread the work. Our children will rise up to excellence if we give them the opportunity. Relying too much on one child while letting your younger children skate by will only cause problems. Your oldest will become very, VERY capable… and your younger kids won’t. Your oldest will be stretched too thin, and your younger kids won’t be stretched far enough.
I recently had to have a conversation about this with my oldest. She is so used to taking charge and doing what needs to be done, that even when I ask one of the other children to help out, she jumps up and does the job. I took her aside and said, “Lucy, I count on you a lot to help me with our family’s needs. And you do a great job, but when I ask one of the other children to do something you need to step back and let them be helpful. It’s not fair to you for me to ask you to help with everything that needs to be done but if you don’t let them do the little things I ask, they will never be able to help with big things like you do. I know you want to have time to read and play and have fun with friends, you can’t do that if you don’t let me teach the younger kids to be more helpful.” Lucy completely understood and is much better and grateful to be allowing her siblings to participate in family work.
Of course I know right now, having that kind of conversation with your oldest (who is likely no more than five or six) is an unrealistic dream… but that’s why I’m writing to you. I want to give you a tiny glimpse into a future in which you can breathe.
It DOES get easier. In a few years you will be amazed at your children’s growth. One day you won’t only have “littles”.
In the mean time don’t give up! It may still be years away but I can tell you there IS a light at the end of this tunnel. Until then know that I’m here for you. I understand. I remember. Stock your freezer with good ice cream and keep a secret stash of your favorite chocolate. Don’t beat yourself up over those few extra pounds… there is plenty of time to work it off later. Don’t stress so much about the sink full of dishes and DON’T compare yourself to Pinterest!
You are already doing great! You read to them, you keep them clean and fed, you take them to the park, you snuggle and play with them. You take them to the pool in the summer and sledding in the winter. You push them on the swings and do your best to make them presentable in public (though it it doesn’t always stick). You tell them you love them and wipe away their tears. You are their first teacher, their first love, their first superhero and their world revolves around YOU! They don’t care if you feed them GMO free and organic gourmet butternut squash soup for dinner or Lucky Charms. You are their mom. That is all that matters. And if Lucky Charms is all you can pull out of your hat some days, that’s ok.
When that wonderful day happens for you I want you to promise me one thing: don’t forget. Don’t forget what it’s like to feel like you are drowning. Don’t think that your children’s maturity means that you have “figured it all out”. Remember what it feels like today and reach out to others who are struggling. They need you, and for Heaven’t sake don’t tell them to “enjoy” it!
🙂 I don’t have littles anymore… my little will be 7 in a couple weeks, sniff. I can relate to your description of child #1 and 2. My oldest is always helping and is quick to jump up with I ask her brothers to do things. I think #2 is slower to do things because he is a boy… I’ve had to chat with #1 more then once about letting him learn to do things, she can’t do everything for him all the time.
Yeah, it can take boys a little longer 🙂 But my second is a girl so she doesn’t have that excuse… she also got to be a little on the snotty side, which is why I knew it wasn’t just a developmental issue but a learned one. She’s doing much better these days!
I tried to cut and paste some of your words directly into this response box so that I could respond particularly to them, but you’ve blocked that feature, so you’re going to get a more generalized response: No! No! No! You’re so very, very wrong. I do remember! I do know how hard it was! I had 6 children under the age of 7 at one point and my oldest was slow to maturity. She was still so much like a toddler in her abilities in so many ways at that age. I was drowning, but I was also terribly, terribly happy. I did look for the good. I did find a reason to smile every single day. I did treasure the moments. I let go of worrying about the messes and the noise and the chaos and I embraced it as a special season that was just that–a season. I loved it when old ladies at the grocery store smiled at me as I pushed/pulled 2 shopping carts–one full of kids and one full of food–through the store. I loved it when they told me to enjoy it while it lasted because they were right! They were right! It is imperative that we see the children as more important than the yoga or the clean house or the pretty clothes or the organization. It is imperative that we see walking the halls during church as just as valuable as sitting quietly in the meetings. It is imperative that we give more value to our small children than we do to a sense of peace and quiet. We more experienced mothers are wrong when we tell less experienced mothers to just endure instead of enjoy. We must not define motherhood as drudgery or isolate it in a moment of wiping poop off a wall (and believe me I’ve done it!). We are serving as humbly as our Savior did when we are changing diapers or doing dishes or scrubbing toilets. Would we be more than He?
I know this is a terribly emotional and impassioned response, but we mustn’t fall prey to the idea that we are victims in early motherhood. And in truth, the physical labor may get easier they grow, but the emotional work deepens in intensity beyond anything you can imagine when you are toting 3 (or more) in carseats. There’s so much more to say . . . but I’m stopping here . . . just please, rethink what you’ve written here and how it actually harms the mothers of young children.
As a current mother of little ones, I must say I read this post COMPLETELY different than you did. I am so happy for you that you were able to be extremely happy through your time as a young mother. I really am. I think some people are very blessed in that regard. I know it takes work and effort to find happiness, but I also think there are some that are more predisposed to it. I personally have a hard time, not because I don’t love my children greatly, not because I have selfish desires which my children obstruct, not because my children don’t make me smile and laugh every single day (they do!), but mostly because I wonder every single day if I am failing.
Regardless, I read Courtney’s post and found encouragement. It wasn’t just another one of those “I know it’s hard” posts. It contained advice. Realistic advice. I read this post and felt like I can do it. I felt inspired to continue working hard–to teach my children, keep up the home, AND find joy in it all. I agree, there are more important things than peace and quiet (and the other things you mentioned), but it’s much easier to enjoy the chaos when you know it has an end. I often feel overwhelmed with my responsibilities as a young mother (not just the “I just want to pee alone” thoughts, but the sincere “I hope my children are learning SOMETHING good from me” thoughts, among others). Reading something like this inspires me to keep going and keep trying, even when I find it hard to see positive results on a regular basis.
I don’t feel like this was damaging at all. It didn’t encourage me to just white-knuckle my way through these years. She didn’t tell me to stop looking for non-existent joy in little kids. Quite the opposite. It encouraged me to keep working and trying, to make the most of these years, and to ENJOY them because they do come to an end. I am a young mother and I AM happy. Little kids are a lot of fun and bring me a lot of satisfaction. But there ARE hard days, and there ARE overwhelming feelings, and there ARE days I long for older and more capable children–so I am grateful Courtney took the time to sit down and share some of her encouraging thoughts.
Anne, I understand what you are saying. Really, I do. You will not find a stronger advocate of the joy of motherhood than me… I promise you (all you have to do is read my “why I homeschool” series to know that). I know that you get out of motherhood what you put into it and I know that I am far happier on a daily basis when I am actively serving my family. I know that the world encourages women to be selfish and that our children and husbands are usually the first ones to suffer when we give into that selfishness. I know for a fact that there is no reward in the outside world that can come close to comparing to the rewards you find with your family within the walls of your home.
I’m so happy for you that you were able to feel only contentment instead of regular bouts frustration and loneliness during that time of your life.
But the fact of the matter is that not everyone feels that. I suggest that you reread my post because I never once said that the work of young motherhood was drudgery or unimportant. I never once said that there wasn’t joy to be found every day. I never once said that our children were less important than any of the other things that we find ourselves needing/wanting to do throughout the day.
I said it was hard. And it is. Motherhood is hard and dedicated motherhood is even harder. We no longer live in a time in which we can depend on neighbors and family close by to help us lift us up when we are down. Families are scattered across the country, neighbors can’t always be counted on (and are often more of a hinderance to our family unity and culture than a help).
I feel compassion for those women who feel lonely. I understand what it was like to live in the middle of no where with no friends to connect with even on the smallest level (by knowing that she was there if I needed her). I know what it’s like to feel like everyone is judging you because you struggle with something. I know what it’s like to feel like no one understands and that you are the only one who feels this way. I know what it’s like to struggle with post-pardum depression and feel worthless that I couldn’t just “snap out of it”.
I was there… and I’m not wrong. Knowing that I was fulfilling a greater purpose didn’t stop me from crying the day I had to clean vaseline out of my six year old daughter’s extremely long and thick hair (it took weeks to come out, by the way).
Life isn’t a Bounty commercial and frankly, suggesting that we shouldn’t acknowledge the struggles that often go hand in hand with motherhood isn’t helpful. In fact, I would argue that invalidating the very real and often debilitating emotional experiences of other women is more harmful than a virtual hug of understanding and the promise that, as Elder Holland has said, “Don’t give up… Don’t you quit. You keep walking. You keep trying. There is help and happiness ahead… You keep your chin up. It will be all right in the end. Trust God and believe in good things to come.”
Just one more thing–I’m not sure the best way to say this, but in all reality, I feel like the thoughts expressed in your (Anne’s) comment are actually more damaging. There have been several days when I have spent a long time on my knees pleading for help and I have expended every single ounce of effort to find joy, but some days are just plain hard. Overall, I do find joy and satisfaction in my position. But when I have those hard days, and I read something like what you wrote, or even think I see people like you all around me, I feel like a complete failure. I wonder what is wrong with me. I feel like giving up. Your words are NOT encouraging like Courtney’s are. Like I said, I am truly happy that you had a completely pleasant experience as a young mother. But please realize that this doesn’t come very easily (or at all) for many of us, regardless of how much effort we put into it, for various reasons. Who knows, maybe I’ll breeze through my children’s teenage years while you are searching the internet for encouragement like this.
Dear Courtney and other commenters, I read Courtney’s post 3 times before I responded. I tried to cut and paste particular sentences to respond to in order to more make a specific and more careful argument than I did. I did respond from a powerful and impassioned emotional place. I can see clearly how and why you disagree with what I wrote. I accept your comments and am glad you found encouragement and understanding. My years with only little ones (I still have several) were not easy nor simple. I was on anti-depression meds twice in the early years. I spent a year in therapy with my child who has serious emotional illnesses. I have suffered death, sorrow, and serious trials. I have spent hours on my knees wondering where my Savior was. I am not naturally bubbly, easy-going or fun-loving. Every day I must strive to find joy because otherwise I am inclined to despair. When I read this post I felt attacked at my very core. For me to have let go for even one minute of my quest for joy would have resulted in darkness that would have taken over. When I read this post, over and over again I could only understand the message that the early years are only to be endured. My emotional response has clearly attacked others at their core. I apologize for my not-careful words. I do not apologize for my powerful testimony that even the most menial tasks are worthy of our love and best affections–especially the most menial tasks. And when we are at our most alone, we are most likely to turn to our Savior . . . and find Him. I am sorry that we don’t know each other’s stories and have faces to look at and voice inflections to hear so that we may take comfort instead of misunderstanding. I guess I misunderstood. I still do. But I will rest now.
You say “These days when you have only young children are quite possibly the hardest days you will ever experience in your entire life.” Actually, the hardest days are when you precious children are grown and have families of their own and living so very, very far away.