I had it all planned—right down to where I was going to meet my future husband, when we were going to get married, and when we were going to start a family.
I come from a large extended family, so growing up, family was everything. My mom stayed at home with all four of us girls until my baby sister, eleven years younger than me, was well into her elementary school career. For most of my childhood, she earned extra money by playing organ most Sundays and teaching piano lessons on our living room piano. Gatherings with extended family were big and loud and sometimes chaotic, but always filled with laughter and conversation and lots of love. By the time I was in high school I was absolutely certain that I was destined to eventually be a stay-at-home mom to at least four, possibly five kids. It was the norm I had grown up with and I couldn’t imagine anything different.
But the future is often unlike anything we plan for ourselves.
First, from the moment I started my teacher education program in college, I knew that I was born to teach. Then I started dating a guy from my hometown, 600 miles away from the college where I had initially planned to meet the love of my life. Then I married the guy from my hometown, we eventually moved to a city we loved, and I discovered that not only did I love teaching, I was pretty good at it. And while I still wanted to start a family, I didn’t want to give up a fulfilling profession that I felt called to.
Then the kicker. One and a half years after making the decision to “stop trying to not get pregnant,” I still wasn’t pregnant. One year later, after a series of tests and hormones and ultrasounds, the stick finally announced “Pregnant.” Our daughter was born less than two months before my 30thbirthday, and when our son was born two years later, a mere five days after my 32ndbirthday, I was ready to declare my body done. I didn’t want to spend the rest of my 30s pregnant. I had a new Master’s degree and a teaching position tailored just for me. I was ready to be the matriarch of our ideal nuclear, all-American family, complete with two dogs.
Sometimes I look at two of my younger sisters with their broods of five and four and I wistfully consider what our lives would be like if we had decided to add to our family. Not because I long to have another baby (pregnancy number two, with the constant discomfort and unreasonable hormone related mood swings killed that desire in a hurry), but because I look at my two children and the love that they have for each other and their friends and cousins and wonder what it would be like if they had more siblings to share that love with.
But then I look at soccer schedules, piano lessons, and other various activities, and I wonder how we would work one more thing into our week, and we work hard to keep our kids’ schedules light! And then they inevitably go from their normal best friend play and start screaming at each other, and I contemplate the complications of adding another sibling into the mix.
My life journey as a wife, then a teacher, and then finally a mother has taught me some hard-learned lessons about the difference between childhood experience driven dreams and adult realities. While my husband and I frequently joke about the fact that we have no desire to go from a man-to-man to a zone defense, we also genuinely treasure our smaller family unit, often looking at each other while asking how our parents ever managed larger households. But we have several friends and family members who are doing just that, and they appear to be competently managing the chaos.
Our families shape who we are and who we will become, but our past family experiences don’t define us—an important distinction that changes the way we look at the families that surround us. When I was a young 22-year-old eagerly anticipating my upcoming wedding, I was paired with a single woman for my student teaching co-op. I’m ashamed to admit that I foolishly pitied her, believing she was wrong when she questioned my ability to balance work and family once I had my own classroom. (She was actually right, only my career-long struggle has been putting work in front of family, not the other way around, as she had believed.) It wasn’t until three years later that I began to understand being single and content was a legitimate possibility…when I became friends with a woman who became not just a teaching mentor, but a dear friend. When she unexpectedly died of cancer just over a year ago, the number of students who wrote on her Facebook wall and who showed up to visitation was a testament to the fact that she had lots of kids; she just didn’t give birth to any them. She reveled in her singlehood freedom and proudly wore the label of aunt to her two nieces and nephew. I’m not sure what she had imagined when she was a teenager, but I never doubted that she was fulfilled.
We each aspire to our version of the perfect family, but life gets in the way. Infertility, addiction, abuse, death, medical issues, mental instability, infidelity, and many other potential issues can send people running away from the best of situations. But positive, life-changing events can also derail an individual’s “plan.” Accepting this reality, and supporting our friends and family members who are in the midst of relational disruption or difficulties, helps us strengthen the roles we play within the families we are born to and the extended families that we choose to form.
I believe that my roles as wife and mother are my greatest roles, but I also did not come to it in the way I expected. Looking back, I’m glad that my initial life plans blew up in my face, because the challenging journey has been more rewarding than I ever could have expected.
This post reflects the views and experiences of the author, and is intended to start a conversation. Please share your thoughts in the comments below!
Or, if you’d like to hear some overall thoughts on family from Christians at THRED, you can find those over here.