Thankful Thursday: Parenting Changes Everything ... And I'm Glad

I was barely eighteen years old when I got pregnant for the first time, and I was thrilled. I was in love and I was going to be a mother. I was young, yes - but I was ready. I quit smoking, I quit coffee. I quit chocolate. I took vitamins. I did everything right. And my baby died.

Just before it would have started to develop ears, ears I was already anticipating filling with music and stories and words of love and encouragement ... it died. It left my body and faded into the past just as certainly as if it had never existed, and now, thanks to an unfortunate system crash resulting in mass record loss at my doctor's office, there is barely even a record of it happening. Aside from a blip in the archives of the hospital emergency department I went to when the bleeding started, the most complete and accurate record of that lost child's existence can only be read in the jagged little scar it left on my heart in the brief few weeks of its life.

Even though nothing changed on the outside, that miscarriage made me childless in a way that I hadn't been before, and left me with a void of grief I had not previously experienced; it left my arms open and empty and craving the weight of young life.

We tried again. And again and again, for months with no results. I spoke with my doctor about fertility issues, had consultations discussing how long you had to "try" unsuccessfully before seeking help. Around the ten month mark, I was told 12 months was the customary time of "waiting to see."

15 months after my miscarriage, I was pronounced pregnant for the second time.

I spent my first trimester in fear and misery; I was plagued endlessly by hyperemesis gravidarum, coupled with an odd mix of emotions - an almost desperate hope to see this pregnancy through, but also an incredibly defiant rage.

I didn't smoke and I did take my vitamins - but I also ate chocolate and drank coffee whenever I wanted to, each bite of chocolate and each sip of coffee taken with a daring eyebrow lift into the ether, as if to say, "Come at me, Universe. I dare you."

The child lived, and in the moments of her formation, I became a mother - no longer childless.

In the years since her birth, I have become an entirely different person, with different views on nearly everything - with more wisdom and knowledge, yes, but also with more compassion and understanding, more patience, and a far more selfless heart.

Which is more than fair, I think, since it's also her fault that my breasts changed, my hips widened, my stomach lost what little tone it ever had, I still have GERD to this day, and my back has never been the same. And that was just Joey!

Today my oldest daughter turned fourteen.

Fourteen years ago today, I was lying in a hospital bed, nursing my fresh new c-section scar, arms full, heart bursting. I was doped up on morphine, relieved of the burden of a miserable pregnancy, and feeling impossibly pleased with the reward for my troubles. My fresh, pink, new baby girl had huge blue eyes, a full head of jet-black, glossy hair, and a perfectly pouty little rosebud mouth.

I wept, holding her - it felt like my heart was splitting open with love and gratitude, and everything I had every experienced suddenly felt worth it. (PS. Childbirth + Morphine = Endorphin High) I wept again when she was taken from me hours later to be examined, leaving my arms achingly empty. How had I existed before her?

I watched the seconds turn into minutes as the hands of the clock made their way around the dial, and hardly made it half an hour before I was ringing the nurses, demanding my child's return. No, I didn't want them to keep her in the nursery for me to rest - yes, I was sure she would be fine right in the room with me. In fact, she would be absolutely perfect right in the bed with me, cradled in my arms, her little head pillowed by the very flesh that worked so hard to form her.

Now, fourteen years later, that first live child has been joined by a second - and because of these two little girls and everything their existence has meant in relation to my own, everything about me is different.

And I love it.

Motherhood made me fierce.
My upbringing was not quiet and peaceful. I wasn't raised in a quaint little townhouse with delightful neighbors and sidewalk-lined streets, with gently loving parents who were able to see to my every need. I was not reared in an environment that took great pains to instill confidence and a sense of value in me.

But being raised with challenges made me resilient as a woman - and surviving those challenges mostly intact gave me the confidence to be fiercely protective as a mother. Twice now, I have looked down into the tiny face of a child borne of my own flesh and vowed, with all the intention I could muster, that that child would never be exposed to the same struggles I faced, that she would never be placed in violent hands, would never be exposed to substance abuse, would never know the crushing weight of believing that nowhere in the world is safe. I vowed to protect them, to watch out for them. To choose them and guard them and fiercely protect them. Always.

Motherhood made me selfless.
It doesn't matter how determined you are as a parent, you can't control the world. You can't protect your children from everything - and sometimes it's when you think you're doing the best you can, that you unintentionally expose them to things you would never have wanted for them. When my oldest daughter was 11 months old, I made the choice to leave personal security and the relative safety of complacency behind, to abandon a marriage that was no longer even pretending to be healthy. In addition to everything happening in my marriage, my infant daughter had also been diagnosed with a heart defect - and as I embarked on my first stint as a single mother, I was terrified at the prospect of dealing with everything alone. I was heartbroken and ashamed over the loss of my marriage, terrorized by violent threats, and struggling with the sadness of watching my child be abandoned. But I had become, above all, a mom - and my most solid commitment was to the idea of ensuring that my daughter grew up in a safe home filled with love, even if that meant risking everything about myself to create what I had hoped she would have.

So many years later, I am both awed and disgusted by the cycle of life's ups and downs - I am again a single mother, facing many of the same losses and challenges. Too, I face many of the same choices, with each path into the future carrying its own set of risks and promises, both for me as a woman and for my family as a whole. Despite my best efforts, my children have seen and been exposed to things I would have prevented if I'd been able to - but my children are secure in the knowledge that they come first with me always, despite any sacrifice, and that I would give my life to preserve and protect theirs.

Motherhood made me brave.
Completely disregarding the many challenges of single motherhood, motherhood of any kind is terrifying in itself - what if something happens to these children in my charge? How do you deal with sexual issues, identity crises, hurt feelings? Bullies? Dietary needs and restrictions? Are you putting them to bed too early? Not early enough? Is their diaper too tight? Shoes too small? How do you teach them respect for others, to be kind and compassionate? And how do you balance this with the need to teach them caution - the need to tell them that everyone is not a friend, that monsters are real and that we must be on guard? Where is the line between "Stranger Danger" and "Messed-Up Kid?"

It's a challenge, motherhood. An almost impossible balancing act. There is fear of failure, fear of loss, fear of shame, even fear of success. Motherhood is described as "the state of having your heart walk around outside of your body," and I find this to be a very accurate description indeed.

It's terrifying, sending my most treasured little "possessions" off to school each day knowing I might never see them again - and it's equally terrifying to have them with me, knowing that this world is full of chaos and life is such a fragile, unpredictable thing.

But moms? We rise to the challenge - and we do it with the kind of courage only love could create.

Motherhood made me conscious.
As a young girl, it was easy to look at the world around me with angry resentment. Everything was very clearly delineated, and right and wrong were incredibly easy for young me to label. My opinions were plentiful and always rock-solid - and I would defend my convictions with such passion that anyone who knew me was sure I'd grow up to be a lawyer. 

But there was so much I didn't know about the world, so much I didn't understand about the power of love, or fear, or rage. Over the years, I picked up lessons here and there, gleaned bits of compassion and glimpses of hope. But after all these years, it is in the eyes of my children that beauty blooms in the world again, all the lines blur, and black and white run gray together.

Because of my children I read books differently, listen to music differently, watch the news differently. And because of my children, I look at my life - and the world as a whole - so much differently. Because of them, because of the future forming right before my eyes, because of a family legacy that dies with me, because I wish so fervently to protect my daughters and give them what took me so long to find on my own ... because of my place as a mother and the lessons my children teach me each day, I have regained a hope for the future, an openness of heart, a willing eagerness to learn, and eyes that are opened to what matters in a way only motherhood could accomplish.

As a mother, there are so many things I "can't" do now, whether it's due to lack of time, lack of money, or lack of inclination - but I often find that I don't feel I'm missing out on anything. I'm not much of a party girl, the dating bar scene isn't for me, and I'm totally cool to curl up with my kids on a Saturday and watch movies together. For some, the dedication to parenting and resultant lack of external social life might seem like a sacrifice - but for this mom, it's purpose personified. But what about you? Are you a parent, and if you are, how has parenting changed you as a person - what do you see or do differently now? And how do you see your own parents differently now that you're an adult? I'd love to chat with you in the comments below!

Don't forget, this BLOGuary is a writing partnership! David Elliott from the Single Dad's Guide to Life has been partnering with me this month to balance my single mom perspective with the single dad side of everything from fitness to travel to music and movies. Make sure you check out David's blog for his thoughts on these topics and more - you can even read about how fatherhood changed him as a man here.

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