A few weeks ago, my kids had a sleepover at their cousins' house. They had a great time, and came home full of things to report. Annie, in particular, had a bone to pick with me:
"Aunt Alison always does such fun things with us when we sleep over. She had all of the ingredients for us to make smoothies and brownies. They made a huge breakfast. They even got Bryce to drink a smoothie. Why don't you do fun stuff like that?'
Ouch. The truth of it hit, and hit hard. Because when my kids' cousins come to sleep over, I figure that everyone is entertained. Since my niece and nephew can't get enough of our babies, sometimes I'm even successful in getting them to watch the little ones, which allows me to do something totally indulgent, like, you know, clean out the coat closet.
When we get together with my sister-in-law and her family, I always end up feeling a little frenzied, a little jealous, and a little bit like I'm not pulling my share. She helps her mom in the kitchen, she goes on walks with Maren. She does the things I'd like to do if I didn't feel stretched so thin. Ed sometimes looks at their family, who can all go to the movies together and who spent three weeks in Europe last summer and says to me, "You know, that life could have been ours."
My brother and his wife, Patience, also have six kids. But when I visited them at their home in Alaska a few years back, I noticed differences between their house and ours: the kids all ate lunch at the same time, and sat at the table for snack time (not the free-for-all snacking that happens here). My sister-in-law knows how to keep things simple. Her kids come home from school and read or jump on the tramp. Part of it is her personality, since I know she'd rather stay home than run around, and part of it, to be sure is geographic, there is no mall or nickelcade for her kids to beg to be taken to. Their home had a sense of calm that is absent in ours, and that I wish I could provide.
When Annie, my second child, was a baby, I was a leader in the Young Women's organization for teenage girls at our church. I was preparing a lesson one Sunday, and a story in the manual really struck me. It was about a girl who was the oldest daughter in a large family and her mom was often overwhelmed (at least they got that part right). I can't remember the details, but the takeaway of the story was that the girl should have been more willing to help out with the little kids instead of hanging out with her friends or doing things that were important to her. Blatant sexism aside, I found myself dying inside a little bit as I read the story and looked at my sweet baby, who would probably one day be the big sister of the house. I promised myself and her that day that she would never have to make sacrifices by being in a large family-- she is not the mother of these kids, I am.
My sisters-in-law both have great lives. They have great kids who are nice and successful and all the good things you'd want kids to be. I also have a great life and, I think, pretty darn good kids. But I feel like I spend a good part of each day with my little ones, refereeing fights and willing the hours to pass smoothly, and the rest of the day running around like a crazy person. Tuesdays, for example, go like this: I go grocery store and swimming lessons with the little ones in the morning. Then I try to get dinner made and laundry done and work on writing projects while they nap (if they nap). When the big kids get home, we have piano practice times four, clarinet practice. I drive to and from the dance studio four times, and to and from church the same. By the time they're all quiet and settled in for the night, I feel like I've been run over by a truck.
I read an article that's been floating around Facebook about why it's really not that hard to have six kids. The author, Julie Cole, talks about things I've seen in my own family (like how her kid with an ASD benefits from having siblings, which is something I've definitely seen play out at our house) but also how her kids are learning to work hard, and she passes clothes down from kid to kid. A lightbulb went off in my head-- I have six kids, but I'm trying (and failing) at raising them like I have two. All four of the older kids have private piano lessons that require daily practice. Bryce also has clarinet lessons, scouts, and church activities. Annie dances upwards of 12 hours a week, Maren puts in three. Isaac also has scouts and basketball. They all play regularly with friends. Heck, even my babies go to swimming lessons and story time and mornings out at the children's museum. And while I welcome the busyness more than the times when I feel idle and tied down, sometimes I feel like I can't even take a deep breath. But I also don't think my kids should have to sacrifice their enriching activities because their parents chose to have a big family.
Ed and I grew up in houses that quite different approaches to work. At his house, the kids' primary responsibility was to do well in school, and then to be successful in extracurricular activities. He got his first paying job after we were married, but he learned hard work every afternoon on the piano bench with his mother. On the other hand, I started working at a softball concession stand when I was eleven, babysat my way through junior high school, and had after-school and summer jobs all throughout high school. Between early morning seminary and AP classes and extracurriculars and waiting tables, I was familiar with going-going-going from before sunup until I fell into an exhausted heap at night.
My kids have chores, but they're pretty easy, and truthfully, often go undone. They don't have to scrub toilets on the weekends like I did as a kid, because we're fortunate to be able to pay someone to do that. My mother-in-law spent every afternoon making sure that her kids got
their practice done, but I'm often driving to dance or breaking up
toddler fights or carrying Eli around or helping someone study for
something while my kids are practicing, and I know it's not the quality
it should be. I worry that because hard physical labor isn't expected, and hard mental effort is difficult for me to monitor, it means they won't learn to work hard and won't have the grit they need to be successful.
And I'm stretched too thin. I think I used to be fun and friendly, like Aunt Alison. I thought I'd be a natural at managing a large family, like Aunt Patience. Now I just worry about what needs to be done next.
So what's the answer? I know that part of it is to be as engaged as possible in the late afternoon, to put away my phone, to stay off the computer. We have family dinner and check in on what is done and what still needs to be. Simplify isn't really part of my vocabulary. But I'm starting to realize that throwing activities and experiences at my kids can't totally make up for the times I'm stretched too thin to help them. I do my best, really I do, but most days I feel like it's not enough.
And I've been writing long enough that Rose and Eli have taken all of the cushions off the couch, covered the bathroom floor with q-tips, toothpaste, and Ritz cracker crumbs, and had at least five "nooooo" screaming matches. But that's life, and I have to run-- it's time for swimming lessons.