Recently, just weeks before our youngest child had his first birthday, my husband and I found out we are expecting our fifth baby. While reading that sentence no doubt horrifies some people’s modern ideas of what an appropriately-sized family should be, for someone like me who has always wanted a lot more than 2.5 kids it was great news.
Was the exact timing of this pregnancy less than ideal and unexpected? Sure. But the truth is, nearly every single one of my children has significantly surprised and challenged me in some way, whether it was the timing of their arrival, a special needs diagnosis, or a strong personality that tries me daily. Bearing and raising children inherently brings with it a demand to embrace the unexpected. And not just embrace it but, more importantly, to allow ourselves to be changed by it.
We are not in control of others
Facing the unexpected through parenting my children has made me painfully aware of the depth of longing within me to control others. Pre-parenthood, I never considered myself to be a controlling person and (to my knowledge) have never been described that way. Personality-wise, I’m a pretty laid-back, Type B kind of gal. But here’s the thing about motherhood: it doesn’t care. Once your entire life is affected by this little human, suddenly you are forced to confront how very much you do value your autonomy, time, sleep, and, yes, public appearance—and how very much you want to retain control of them.
Like any new parent, I was shocked by the strength of that impulse within me, because again, I tend to be a “live and let live” type of person. But as I faced the fact that I wanted to control my children not for their benefit but to preserve my own peace and to look good in front of other people, I realized this was not who I wanted to be. I wanted to be free enough on the inside to seek the good of my children for their own sakes, not mine. This often has meant responding to their behavior and needs in a way starkly different than I instinctively would.
Over time and with a lot of inner work, I have made some small progress in mothering my children in the way they specifically need to be mothered—not in the way that is easiest, most convenient, or even the most logical to me. For example, when my inexplicably clothes-conscious son melts into tears because the shirt he had his heart set on isn’t clean, I’ve learned to resist the temptation to matter-of-factly pull a few alternatives from his drawer and tell him to deal with it. Instead, I have learned that this is a deeply important disappointment in his tiny world, and so I have the opportunity to make him feel heard and supported as he learns to handle setbacks. It takes more time and emotional energy than snapping at him to pull himself together, but it honors his dignity far more.
As I intentionally practice this way of parenting, I’ve found that this freedom and generosity of spirit has carried over to the other relationships in my life as well.
Surrendering control in my marriage
Through accepting the loss of total control that came with motherhood, I slowly came to realize I had been subtly trying to control not just my kids, but other people as well; namely, my husband. Adding more children to our family has brought its own stress in some ways—I would be lying if I said it hasn’t—but our marriage has actually become much stronger than it was before we had kids.
There are a lot of reasons for this, and it hasn’t happened without work and intentionality on my husband’s and my part, but I believe a big part of it is that we have both learned to release some of our own desire for control, whether that’s control of circumstances or control over other people. Parenting a big family necessarily forces you to deal with both.
As my children have taught me how to see and honor the needs of an individual rather than forcing my own will on them, I have become a more supportive and attuned partner for my husband. Whereas strong differences of opinion between us used to make me feel threatened, I am slowly learning to accept that he is his own whole person, as am I. We are autonomous and different people, not mere extensions of one another. So now when he has a personal choice to make, for instance, I don’t expend a lot of energy trying to convince him that my advice is best as I did in the past. I understand that only he is responsible for himself: that is not my job.
As a result, I have felt my husband grow more connected to me as he trusts me to relate to him in a way that is not critical or imposing but compassionate and affirming—and the same can be said of me about him.
Embracing the unexpected people in our paths
Finally, through motherhood I’ve learned that generosity is always worth it. Things like inviting neighbors in for a cup of coffee, pulling up more seats at the dinner table for impromptu guests, or penciling in time to meet with a hurting friend are honestly not things I was very good at doing before I had kids. I am an introvert, and have always guarded my time and energy pretty zealously. But welcoming surprise babies has taught me that it is always worth it to say “yes” to another human being. I am much more accommodating of disrupted plans now if it means honoring the value of another person.
Further, by embracing some of my children’s unexpected personalities and special needs I’ve learned to welcome and appreciate others as they are, not as I imagined them to be or think they should be. Differences in personalities, outlooks on life, and ways of living have become welcome additions to my friendships—even qualities I seek out in relationships.
My children have made me see all human beings in a more gracious and loving way. I am learning to accept the things about others that I cannot control, and finding that I honor their personhood and dignity in doing so. Because it turns out, it’s a lot easier to love someone when you’re not busy trying to change them: that is the gift of embracing the unexpected.
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