“I became okay with imperfection.” Amy, a 42-year-old doctor and mother of four told me over a martini last week. “The imperfection makes it perfect.”
These words of wisdom came when I asked her how she acquired her palpable chill factor, for all the balls she juggles between home (four children under 10) and career (serving 13-15 patients a day at the hospital where she works). When so much is happening at once, she seemed to suggest, you automatically have to start choosing what matters most and deserves the most attention; after that, you have to accept imperfections as a part of life.
It seemed like a lesson most women could benefit from hearing. It made me wonder, what other hard-earned truths could moms of four or more kid share with those of us who aren’t at that state in life? What I found was insightful perspectives I could try to add to my own.
Prioritize What Matters Most
“Life is full of excellent opportunities, but we simply cannot grasp all of them. Because of time and cost commitments, we have had to decide what is truly important to us,” said Shae, a 37-year-old mother of six in Fort Wayne, Indiana. “As our family grew I have had to become more intentional about my priorities,” Jessica, a 33-year-old mother of four and volunteer, agreed: “priorities have to shift. My free time is much more limited so I've had to grow in my ability to be deliberate with how I spend it (it shrinks with every child so I've definitely had to refine it).”
“Having children is teaching me to be detached to ‘things,’” said Kathy, a 36-year-old mechanical engineer who worked at an aerospace company in Cleveland before choosing to stay at home with her growing family. “Children break and/or ruin things. All. The. Time. Or, the things we need to accommodate a larger family make it easier to have things inadvertently get broken (*cough* minivan runs over some toy/etc while trying to get out of the narrow garage *cough*).”
Improved Tolerance and Responses to Stress
“I'm more relaxed, less stressed with 4 than I was with 1,” said Ana, a 35-year-old writer living in Munich, Germany. “I think it has to do with me being more comfortable with the intensity of the experience. Perhaps also I finally learned that getting upset about a situation usually makes it worse, whereas staying calm and cheerful enables resolution.”
Shae noted, “I have a more relaxed disposition than I used to.” In addition to growing more flexible and “willing to adapt to changes in plans,” Shae said, “I don't let inconveniences steal my joy.” Along the way she’s learned not to “worry about the little things that don't matter [or] about what other people think of your life choices.”
Sarah, a registered nurse and mom of four, noted that while she does feel frazzled sometimes, she may have a greater tolerance for stress than others. “Levels of noise don’t bother me; a bunch of shenanigans and running around don’t bother me; the kids are doing what children are supposed to do, explore their environment and have a good time, as opposed to sitting in front of the TV and veg out their little brains. Noise, clamor, running around—that stuff does not bother me.”
Kathy explained kids haven’t brought so much of a relaxed disposition for her, “but the recognition that I have to roll with whatever happens. I can have my plans, but if someone wakes up sick, or decides that the red shirt will not work today, or that the favorite food is now abhorred, I have to be able to adjust my day and discern which battles are worth fighting, and which ones to let go. I also find myself more willing to be understanding of others, because I know I can't keep up, so I might as well try to think the best of them.”
The Integrated Life
A number of women mentioned how their career enriches mothering, and mothering enriches their career or other endeavors. Ana, who was a high-school history teacher before staying at home, said motherhood actually gave birth to later ambitions. Before kids, she said, “I didn't have strong career ambitions, so I didn't feel like I lost anything when I gave up my job, got pregnant, and moved abroad.” But now, four kids in, Ana said, “I have a lot of ambition to get out into the world and fulfill my creative potential. Ironically, it was mothering that inspired me to go for it. I want to make the world a better place for my kids . . . I find that my experience as a mother has honed my skills and habits to manage an effective career launch—creative problem solving, resourcefulness, [and] organization.”
Sarah, an ICU nurse, explains that she wouldn’t have her current career if she didn’t have kids. “I became a nurse because I wanted to be able to support my children financially, so it was a much more stable career option than what I wanted [before kids], which was to be a chef.” Still, Sarah, emphasized, “I am happy I became a nurse.” She added that the things other people complain about not wanting to do in nursing, such as “wipe bottoms, clean up vomit”—these are exactly the things that “make me enjoy being a nurse because I can help people maintain their dignity and feel like I’m really helping [and] with a happy heart, so the patient knows you are happy giving them that care. Maybe having children helps [me be a good nurse] in that way.”
Finding Joy in Simple Things
Perhaps the biggest contributor to these moms’ chill factor is the addition of certain ingredients that serve as antidotes to stress and resentment. Shae explained, “having children has helped me to remain more optimistic and joyful. My children can take such delight in simple things that I often take for granted. Watching my children play happily for hours with little more than cardboard boxes reminds me that material possessions are not necessary for happiness.”
Jessica echoed this sentiment. “Children are such a joy to be around. Their perspectives add so much . . . They can be surprisingly perceptive as well as just very funny. But you can't plan the funny or touching moments. They just happen as you dwell with one another.”
Kathy explained that her personal sense of “joy has expanded watching my children grow and love each other.” But she also added that children have added a gratitude for her body that she didn’t expect. “Having children has given me a much greater appreciation for the way my body works (or doesn't work at times). For the first year and more of our marriage we weren't able to have children, and I had no idea how much infertility would make me feel inferior as a woman; never mind how I graduated with a degree in Mechanical Engineering, the fact that we wanted to have children and couldn't felt like a personal failure that I was unable to unravel. Going to a NaPro doctor and resolving fertility issues (and lots of prayer!) has given me a deeper appreciation of the fact that every child is a miracle.”
Basic Strength Training
For Shae, “the idea that kids take away from personal growth is patently absurd.” For her, having kids have influenced her to grow in certain areas, including to become more confident “I used to be terrified of driving in traffic,” she told me, “but when my second son had numerous health problems which required doctor's appointments in various cities, I had no choice but to overcome that fear. If it had not been for his needs, I might still be nervous driving outside of my hometown.”
Shae also told me she used to struggle with asserting herself, but “caring for the needs of my children has caused me to learn how to express dissenting opinions with kindness.”
For Jessica, this aspect of growth rings true as well: “Each of my children has required me to overcome my own self-absorption in different ways and have revealed areas I need to grow, but I'm so grateful.
“I learned that I was a lot stronger than I ever imagined,” Ana said of the experience raising her four kids. “At first, I really doubted myself. I didn't think I could manage my responsibilities as a mother, but then the kids came and I realized that I had to find a way. . . . I would let go of something I thought I needed—down time especially—and barely be comfortable with one degree of relinquishment before something would happen that would require me to give up another,” Ana said. “Mothering has taught me how to have grit—how to find the inner strength to learn my way out of what initially seems impossible.”
Doing What Adds Meaning to Your Life
Another stress-neutralizing theme that came out of my conversations with these moms of four or more kids was a sense of meaning. Shae explained, “one of the greatest ways having children has personally grown me is in increasing my compassion for others and my understanding of them.”
For Kathy, the biggest takeaway is “that children are worth it, [and] things that are worth it aren't usually easy,” and “that there is something priceless about my 3 older children loving on the baby.” She feels the best thing she has given her children are their siblings.
Jessica agreed with this outlook. “Each of our children is so unique, so amazing, we stare often (sometimes in exasperation, but often in joy) at these little humans that exist all because we fell in love. It's incredible. … We didn't know we were missing something in our family until we added the next one. At each stage of our marriage, life has been good, often great. We really enjoyed where we were at, but then we'd wonder, what if? Who else could we have join us? Then we add the next one and a new normal comes into existence and life is all the fuller for it.”