"Again?" he asked with his eyebrows.
"My bladder's never been the same since my twin pregnancy," I explained.
Allan, who is childless and girlfriendless by choice, and whose primary goal that winter was to accumulate 100 day-stickers on his ski pass, asked, "Is there anything that gets better because of motherhood?"
This time, my eyebrows raised. "You mean besides the fact that I am completely in love with my children?" I said.
"Yeah. Besides that."
I began the list on our drive down the mountain, continued it, mentally, as I fell asleep that night, and, the next morning, came up with even more to add. I was glad Allan asked the question. I've always been grateful for my children, but suddenly, and with some perspective, I began to see how many tangible gifts they have given me -- and how many ways I am better because I am their mother.
Lessons of Love
1. I learned I was strong
Labor and delivery of twin babies informed me that I had an untapped reservoir of physical strength. This confidence has been useful as an athlete as well as in facing real-life challenges. I no longer wonder how much pain I can take. Childbirth showed me that I can take a lot more than I will ever experience in a 10K road race.
But maybe more importantly, I learned to trust my mental strength. One of my fears before becoming a mom was that I might not be able to react quickly and calmly in a crisis. Maybe it was childbirth, or maybe it was just the reality of having two infants completely dependent on me -- either way, with motherhood came the confidence that I would do anything necessary to keep my sons safe.
Luckily, I have only had to respond to minor events -- like when Gabe cracked his head on the coffee table and his eye swelled into a purple egg, or when Dylan, while practicing his Nutcracker moves on the hardwood floor, slid into a chair and spilled blood from his mouth. But I've heard of this force at work in other mothers who have faced more dire circumstances. While camping in Idaho's Sawtooth Mountains, my friend Mary Ellen went head to head with a bear that stood right outside the tent where her daughters slept. She didn't hesitate before growling and flailing her arms, and in the end, the bear sauntered off. My own mother once rescued me from a drunk man who tried to kidnap me from a grocery store. Some primal form of bravery seems to arrive with the role of mom, and whatever it is transfers to other situations as well.
2. I learned the rewards of stillness
Before I became pregnant, I lived the fast and frantic life revered by our culture. I traveled full-speed, full-time, and, for the most part, enjoyed my life at that pace. In retrospect, I must add, I didn't know any better.
Motherhood slowed me down as early as 25 weeks gestation, when I went into preterm labor. For 77 days I laid on my living room couch, a pitcher of water by my head and my palm on my round belly, waiting for the reassuring movement of my sons and trying to ward off the unwanted tightening of contractions. The rewards of that particular stretch of stillness were quite tangible. My sons were born healthy, ready to come home with me at about six pounds each.
Afterward, I figured I'd pick right back up at my old pace -- complete with multitasking and overlapping appointments. However, the only scribbles on my weekly planner for the months after my sons' birth show which boy I nursed at which breast and for how long. Not only was I too exhausted to do anything else, but I also learned that feeding babies, connecting with babies, and coaxing babies' first smiles requires stillness.
Occasionally, I laid the boys in the reclining seat of the stroller and walked around the neighborhood. And I began to notice things. For instance, horses graze less than three blocks from my house. I'd lived in that house for two years and traveled the road daily, but always going the 40-mile-per-hour speed limit. I'd missed the horses completely, along with the knowledge that the soft expression in a horse's eyes can open my heart and make me feel good for an entire afternoon.
When my maternity leave was about to lapse, I decided to take a leave of absence from my teaching job. Although I was afraid to be a full-time mom, I will always be grateful I made that choice. I learned that this slower pace was a requirement, not only for connection with my babies, but with other people, nature, and myself. Rather than becoming bored, anxious, and neurotic, as I'd feared, I became, on the whole, calmer, more creative, and more satisfied. Today my sons are older and more willing to rush from one activity to another, and I am once again prone to getting too busy. However, I no longer revere busyness and overscheduling, and I fiercely protect periods of calm. I never want to live at full-speed, full-time again.
3. I faced my demons
I'd come a long way by the time I conceived my twins, having given up mind-altering chemicals and anorexic tendencies while I was a teenager. Yet I still accepted a certain level of dysfunction in my life that manifested itself in my most intimate relationships. I'd often looked to whatever romantic relationship I was currently in to make myself feel better, and when it failed to do so, I obsessed on it. I ignored problems in the relationship early on because I wanted it to work at all costs. Later, I would become transfixed with those same problems and my complete inability to right them. Either way, it was a great way to avoid dealing with me.
Before I had children, I wasn't willing to look at this pattern -- which had followed me through three long-term relationships and into my marriage -- and how it was hurting me. I didn't let family or friends know about my concerns because I was afraid -- afraid of losing the relationship, afraid of disapproval, afraid that I would be adverse to change. But the day that my 5-month-old sons witnessed a horrible fight between their father and me, I finally woke up. I came out of my denial and began talking to friends -- and finally a counselor -- about the secrets I still kept.
I had little time and less money, but I knew that the price of ignoring the problems in my marriage and myself would adversely impact my children. I wanted them to have a healthy mom, and that desire pushed me over whatever edge it was that had kept me from confronting my deepest fears. My love for my sons wasn't enough to cure me; I needed to seek counseling and learn to confront life differently. But today I am free of those cycles that used to bind me. My most intimate relationships aren't always easy, but they are honest and loving. And I have my children to thank for giving me the impetus to change.
4. I lightened up
My mother has a photo in her album of me sitting on my grandmother's couch next to my cousin and uncle. Each of us has a copy of Mad magazine in our hands, and my uncle and cousin are grinning from ear to ear. I, on the other hand, am wearing a wrinkled brow and an intense expression. I'm probably 7.
I was born thinking hard. Somewhere in my 20s I began taking life and myself a little less seriously -- but at age 30, when my children were born, I had the opportunity to make the most of a lighter attitude.
One of the most exhilarating benefits of motherhood is that you get to sing along with Raffi, and your children either don't know or don't care that you're singing off-key. They are thrilled to have the company, dancing in the living room, swinging high on the tire swing, traveling down the winding playground slide on your lap. During this window of opportunity (my son was 3 when he first placed his palm over my mouth during a verse of "Baby Beluga"), I learned to run and laugh at once. In some ways it felt like I was experiencing childhood for the first time.
A Clear Perspective
5. Sex is better
I've actually read it documented in this very magazine that women who have had more than one child achieve orgasm more easily. I believe it. There's a secret mothers don't mention much, and it is that sex actually gets better. Yes, you do have to balance it against the fact that initially you never have enough time or energy to have it, but eventually you realize that you are more in touch with your body, more familiar with your own physicality.
I've also become more aware that the physical is connected to something far bigger and more meaningful. All it took was one experience of following the whole cycle -- love, conception, gestation, birth, love -- to shift that idea from an intellectual or moral platitude into something I knew in my bones. Add to that the fact that I had to throw modesty out the window when 18 medical personnel followed me into the delivery room to either help or to watch the birth of my twins, and the result has been that I am much less self-conscious and much more open during private, romantic moments. Our culture may try to portray sex as a superficial commodity, but motherhood gives powerful evidence to the contrary.
6. My perspective is clearer
It's not that I never get frustrated about traffic, because I do. But my children give me an opportunity to pause when I start stressing about the fact that I'm late for the dentist and the boys want a bathroom stop and I have reached the fourth orange construction sign en route.
I do not know how much my complicated pregnancy adds to this sense of perspective. When I began contracting regularly at 25 weeks gestation, we knew the chances of a healthy birth were slim. I began facing the possibility of my sons' mortality before they were even born. But my guess is that birth -- even uncomplicated birth -- makes most of life's happenings pale in comparison. I don't think about it every day, but when I do bring to mind the experience of watching the heartbeats of my twin sons on the fetal monitor, the rest of life's difficulties become their right size. Too many bills or tall weeds growing in the backyard still irritate me, but I don't focus on them for very long. Very little seems important compared to the fact that today my sons play baseball in our backyard, and tonight they will sleep peacefully in their bunk beds.
But even when something very big does happen, motherhood gives me reason to stay the course of hope and love instead of cynicism and apathy. During crisis, whether national or personal, the things that really matter crystallize, and all the unimportant details of life seem to recede. As a friend of mine wrote about 9/11, "Going to the grocery store felt wrong. Gardening or holding my children felt right." There are two main responses to tragedy: giving up and shutting down, or grieving and moving forward. My children give me both the reason and the method to stay the course.
7. I found a rhythm that works
Parenting seems to require finding the perfect balance between flexibility and routine. I learned quickly that if I was going to survive the early months with twin babies, I would have to feed them at the same time and beg them to sleep at the same time. As my children grew older, I learned that schedules helped them be more independent. When they knew that bath time came right after breakfast, they could toddle into the bathroom and grab their own towels. I'm convinced we had few meltdowns in part because my sons were able to help themselves through the transitions. They could go with the flow because they had a sense of the direction in which we were flowing.
What surprised me most, though, was that I actually liked having a predictable schedule. Before my children came along, I preferred to live on impulse -- to write when I felt inspired, run when adrenaline surged through me, crash when I was exhausted. Motherhood made that little fantasy lifestyle pretty much moot. If my life was going to be run on impulses, it would be the impulse of the baby screaming in the next room, not my own, that directed it.
However, as I began helping my sons into a routine, I began finding my own. Let me be clear -- this happened slowly. It was only after my sons slept through the night that I began waking before dawn to write. But once I cleared that time for myself, I became more disciplined with my writing than I'd ever been. I knew that if I didn't take the opportunity then, one would not present itself during the day. If I wanted to run, I had to find a place for it in my schedule. As a result, I became disciplined in the areas that were most important to me, and I created rituals and habits that today serve me well.
8. I have two more amazing people in my life
Finally, the obvious -- I am better today because I know Gabe and Dylan. When I used to dream of having a family, I imagined I would have to mold my children into being the kind of people I wanted them to be. This created anxiety -- I wasn't at all certain of my talent as a sculptor. But this is one way motherhood has turned out to be easier than I envisioned. I completely overlooked the fact that my sons would have hearts, minds, souls, interests, perspectives, and personalities all their own. Rather than molding my children, my job has consisted mainly of unearthing and encouraging.
This isn't just an idealistic vision, it's the truth, and it's apparent in so many of our daily experiences. When Dylan was 3, he began asking for a cello (we settled for a violin at age 4), and though neither his father nor I play an instrument, he has practiced joyfully, daily, ever since. Gabe has a way of turning ordinary happenings into something funny. He is at his best when he makes the people he loves laugh. These are small examples; there are many more. But my point is that all I needed to do was notice these qualities in my sons, not instill them, and certainly not create them. I have gained so much from my sons -- laughter and music, among other joys. What more could a mother ask for?
Laura Stavoe Harm is a freelance writer in Boise, Idaho.