Imagine standing in a hot room in June, you are sweaty, sleep-deprived, and starving because for the last 24 hours you have barely slept and have had only a few handfuls of peanut M&M’S. Around your feet are three 2-year-old toddlers, crying because they have decided to go ahead and forego their nap for the day.
As you stand in the room, in the nook of your right arm, you hold a newborn, 2-week-old, who is breastfeeding for the ninth time that day. With your left arm, you try to corral your triplet toddlers because they have decided its funny and entertaining and a sure-fire way to get their mom’s undivided attention if they, instead of napping, decide to poop in their diapers and then proceed to smear and wipe the poop on themselves, the walls, the floors, and curtains.
And this is just one answer when people ask me, “What was it like to have triplets and one more baby, all in two years?”
I was made to have babies.
I felt alive with purpose when pregnant. I knew it must be a glimpse of heaven when babies laid on my chest breathing in and out without a care in the world. And nursing babies? Don’t even get me started.
Since I was a child, I had dreamed of these very things in vivid color and hoped they would all be mine. So after two frustrating and down-in-the-dumps years of thinking we may never be able to have kids, I was elated to become a mother. I just knew I would be my happiest and best self. Until reality hit. All my dreams were delivered to me essentially all at once by way of triplets on December 16, 2010, followed by one blue-eyed bundle of joy two years later.
I pride myself on finding structure and sanity. The problem is, as a new mother, I kept thinking something must be wrong with me because there was little structure and next to no sanity.
Why am I tired? Why I am frustrated?
There must be a better way to do all of this. There has to be a system, a way to organize, a method or a diet that will give me more power to swoop in and be the perfect mother, wife, daughter, friend.
We built a new home the winter and spring our triplets turned three and our baby turned one. If you have ever moved, you can imagine how this went. My favorite picture from this move was our youngest, completely naked, taking some of her first steps down the sidewalk out toward a U-Haul while the triplets literally ran in the street and up and down the ramp on the moving truck.
We proceeded to move, and move again two years later. We lived in a rental home for 14 months while we built yet another home. All while still managing to feed kids, sometimes bathe them, and hopefully get them to school with shoes on.
We have been in our current home for almost two years, have not had a baby, and are starting to feel somewhat settled. Just in time for our triplets to turn nine and ask how babies are made while our 6-year-old screams at us asking to eat candy for breakfast. We are committing to year-round travel baseball and saying yes to the gymnastics team, signing up for horseriding shows, and noticing that all four kids have asked for a $1000 go-cart from Santa. All of this as one of the children follows me around, happy to crawl back in my womb if she could. Somewhere along the lines, it started to hit me.
I really believed I should be better at this job, and I shouldn’t feel so overwhelmed.
If being kind to yourself means you accept your reality and your limitations and celebrate what you are doing well, I was doing the exact opposite. I was beating myself up and thinking I was serving my children by trying harder and striving more and more to be a perfect person, leader, and mother.
I told them to be kind to others but was leading by a martyr example. I have told my husband numerous times, I just want our kids to be kind—I know the reading and math are important at school—but being kind, being generous. . . those are the things you can’t get back if you don’t learn them in childhood.
But by being unkind to myself, I was leading with an example of beat yourself up and do better, chase your tail and basically be someone you are not.
I was 30 weeks pregnant with the triplets when I turned 30. I thought I had put my foolish 20s behind me, and I could now move forward with a serious ambition of taking on the world of mothering. Two weeks into bringing three very small humans home, each five pounds and under, I could not shake the nagging thought Why can’t I do what everyone else with one baby is doing?
Looking back, I was in shock, but there was no time for that.
I really truly went forward with a plan of breastfeeding triplets. They were on a schedule of eating every three hours. Every three hours, I would hold one small baby to one breast, while somehow ninja maneuvering a breast pump to the other side in hopes my body would know to make more milk. I would then rotate babies and somehow create a mad system of rotating bottles and breast—keeping a binder of the minutes each baby ate, what kind of poop or wet diaper they had, hoping this 3-ring binder would prevent accidentally skipping one baby on the 3 a.m. round of nutrition.
One night my husband looked at me. I don’t remember what his words were, but his face said Why are you doing this when we have formula and bottles in the kitchen? Trying to breastfeed triplets was like . . . well, it was like trying to breastfeed three mouths with two breasts. It was impossible. But you couldn’t tell me that—just try harder and don’t fail was my motto.
I had to completely break, hit rock bottom, and look around to realize I was being so hard on myself that I was missing the gifts of my very unique and special life. I had once thought I would never have babies, and here I was covered in them.
I spent a few years dreaming of living on a farm like Joanna Gaines. I followed women on Instagram and pinned Pinterest ideas I thought would save my life or make me better.
All the while, I was trying to be my best self by following someone else.
That someone else usually showed up on the internet with perfection. My inner voice was telling me the message—you aren’t perfect unless you measure up like these other women.
Well, those other women weren’t me, and that voice inside my head was everything but kind most days. I once heard, be careful when you talk to yourself, you are always listening. I wanted my kids to be kind, but I wasn’t being kind to myself.
Almost a decade into my mothering career and as I approach my 40th year, I am starting to give myself grace for the life I have been gifted and realize if I don’t know myself or take care of myself, I can’t expect to care of or love anyone else.
I wish I could say the noise and chaos volume has turned down since the era of three small children, two and under; however, you can guess the answer to that.
I have a real choice to make each day in this mothering gig.
Do I beat myself up for it not all looking and feeling like what I had dreamed of when I was a girl? Do I let go of the mythical unicorn of parenting and embrace the mess that this wonderful and crazy life can be?
Under the estimated 28,000 diapers we went through, there is a woman who loves her kids deeply, but also a woman who is finally understanding one thing—the path to perfection will only break your heart, even when trying to perfect something as good as kindness.
Last holiday season, I was thinking about teaching and practicing kindness. What a perfect time to be totally kind and teach these kids the way. Well, in the middle of teaching kindness, I received a text message from a friend and mother to another third-grade girl at our school. She was just reaching out to let me know my daughter had taken it upon herself to form a club that very gallantly included all the nice girls in her class but thoughtfully excluded the one girl who is mean. Her daughter. Let’s say the other girl is Abby. My daughter had formed the club and was working on T-shirts for the “Not Abby club.”
Progress, not perfection, folks.
They say the world is our classroom and even when we are focusing on trying to just get one thing right, like teaching our kids kindness, we are given the opportunity to just breathe, suck it up, and realize we are human. We were made to veer off the road and not be perfect, and when we do, it is the perfect opportunity to say to yourself or your child, I still love you anyway. After all, if kindness has a mother, surely it would be love.
Previously published on the author’s blog