31 October 2011

Then & Now :: A Story of Everything I Never Knew I Always Wanted

Like many college graduates, I donned the cap and gown on graduation day not only with a sense of accomplishment, but full of dreams for my life and ideals to guide me. I didn't know what it would look like, but I dreamed of a glittering career -- perhaps as a writer, or working somewhere in the upper echelons of academia. I was not sure of what shape my career would take, but I was sure of a few things: I didn't want to lose those pieces of my identity and those passions I had come to claim. I wanted to travel, to write, and to do it on my own. I wanted to explore my creativity. I wanted to make a name for myself.

college graduation

And I definitely didn't want any of it to be swallowed up by getting married and starting a family. Having graduated from a university whose unofficial motto amongst the student body was "Ring by spring, or your money back," this made me unique (in the years that followed, I often joked that I was still waiting for my refund). Many I knew who were graduating with me that day had worn or would soon wear gowns of a different type within months. Those were things I could invite into my life later on perhaps, but as I often reminded others, I didn't go to college and work so hard for four years, taking on the responsibility of student loans in the process, just so I could stand in the kitchen barefoot baking cookies with a baby on my hip.

The truth is, I was a bit envious of those who were getting married -- at least they had a bit of an idea of what was ahead of them. And I didn't really think that getting married necessarily meant that my talents and passions would have to take a back seat to sparkling countertops or hot meals on the table promptly at 6 pm -- not if I married the right person. My vociferous insistence that I was more than a uterus and a maid and about not finding my identity swallowed up in the roles of wife and mother was the result of a couple of things: 1) Resistance to a common stereotype female students had at the university I attended (the "I'm just here to find a husband" type), and 2) A display of bravado meant to make up for the uncertainty and lack of confidence I had about my future and what shape it might take. I had big dreams and lofty ideals, but in terms of specifics, I had no idea what I was going to do with them.

By the time James and I had reconnected in November of 2008 (nearly nine years since we had last interacted with each other during our college days), I had had my fair share of bad experiences with the opposite sex. Having compromised my ideals in the name of "being open," I had become more than well-versed in those qualities I didn't want in a marriage partner. It took a visit from a friend with her husband and toddler for me to clarify further that while I still wanted to write and travel and make my mark on the world, I also wanted what she had: to share my life with the type of man I could have children with -- one who would love and support me and my goals, and one who would be not just a "babysitter," but good a co-parent, engaged with his child and adoring of his wife. It showed me that a life of marriage and children could be different than what I had feared it would be: a husband too busy and too tired to do more than go to work and put his feet up at the end of the day, and me equally as tired and overrun, covered in spit-up and feeling like nothing more at the end of the day than an underpaid and horribly unappreciated cook, maid, and nanny.

It didn't take long for me to realize when James and I reconnected that he was that man. I had long since sworn off dating (and quite happily, too), but it didn't take long in the process of getting reacquainted to know that if I was going to marry anyone in the world, it had to be him. Unselfish, insightful, generous, and wise (not to mention funny), I knew I wouldn't lose anything of myself with him. I knew that where I was concerned, he would be an ideal husband and father -- and that if our brief period of courtship was any indication, I would probably find more of who I was meant to be with him than I ever would without him.

So then came his moving out to Seattle, and then getting married. At first I thought I wanted to wait a year or so before attempting pregnancy, but about two months in, we decided to be open (not "trying," but not "not trying" either). Six months after that, we were expecting Ewan. It surprised me as much as anyone else who had heard and were only too familiar with my diatribes, this eagerness to embrace the two things I had previously dismissed as obstacles to the life I wanted.

I learned a lot about myself in the course of pregnancy. Prior to that first ultrasound, we told others when asked that we were hoping for a girl, but that everything would be fine regardless of sex as long as the little one was healthy. When that ultrasound and a later fetal echo revealed a beautiful little boy with a very broken heart, I learned in the remaining weeks of my pregnancy that once again, what I thought I wanted wasn't what I really wanted at all. I wanted Ewan. I wanted only Ewan. What I wanted was my little boy with the broken heart. You could have offered me a hundred healthy baby girls in exchange -- I simply was not interested.

And so I look back on those college years now, not with derision for what I once believed about what marriage and motherhood would mean for me with all my passions and ideals, but with humor and wistfulness, and a deep awareness of how little we can know our own hearts sometimes (and how confident we can be about the things we are so wrong about). Though the years between graduation and marriage are ones that hold some memories and wounds I find I could do without, it is also true that I learned a lot. I learned I could do things on my own that I never dreamed possible.

But it was marriage and motherhood that taught me the truth of myself -- that, in fact, peeled away the false bravado, the world's idea of what it means to be successful, the nebulous and self-centered goals that could never give me what my husband and children have. They revealed the heart underneath. They led me to myself.


I look at these early pictures of me with Ewan and think, "He is my heart's delight." Prior to marriage and motherhood, there was nothing that even came close to this -- not the best concert I went to, not a single flight I made to places like South Africa or Ireland, not a single career accomplishment. Even with all we were facing, I was never prouder in my life than I was seeing him and holding him. He didn't need to be perfect and healthy, and he certainly didn't need to be the child I once thought I wanted -- he only needed to be ours. I can't imagine the world without him anymore. And so it is difficult to comprehend that  circumstances being less than ideal, there are many perhaps who wouldn't have given him a chance. But no matter how broken he was, it was love between me and the one man in the world I could marry that brought him into being. Even after all we went through, he is still my heart's delight.


In embracing those very things I was once so confident I did not want (marriage, motherhood, and a son with a broken heart), I found the woman I had been seeking all those years before. If you had told me on that graduation day about ten years earlier that I would be married and a mother (not only a mother, but one facing circumstances with her child that no one wants to face), and that I would not just like it, but find joy in it -- I can safely promise you I would have scoffed at the idea. I would not, in my mind, have given up so easily on what I "really" wanted to take on roles so humble and prosaic as those of "wife" and "mother."

So here I am, a little over eleven years after that graduation day. I do not have a glittering career, nor am I jetsetting across the world to exotic and exciting locations. I am writing and growing creatively perhaps, but I am not, in the eyes of many in the world, successful. I am certainly not in the "upper echelons" of anything at all. In fact, I have one of the humblest occupations in existence.

But I can promise you this -- I haven't given up a thing. My hands and my heart are full. And yes, there are challenges. Yes, there are days where I've had it with counter tops and dishes and toilets and recipes and vacuum cleaners. I know life will have added challenges and sacrifices when full-time infant care is added to the mix. But more than anything I've done in my life, I'm so aware that these dual vocations of marriage and motherhood are much, much more than the sum of their parts. I love my husband and my children are, without a doubt, my heart's delight. If you ask me who I am, I will define myself confidently in relationship to God first, and then to them. Nothing and no one else holds a candle.

I've never been so completely happy about being so horribly wrong about so many things in all my life.