Years ago, just after Simon was born, I remember looking at him and marveling at how completely my life had changed. Before baby, I was a productive force to be reckoned with – I could accomplish fifteen things before walking into work. I had my stuff together, and I knew it (humility has never been a problem over here). After Simon arrived, like most first-time mothers, my life came to a screeching halt. I was lucky to shower before the evening news, and making any kind of plan seemed like indulging in fantasy. My life quickly divided into two parts – before and after baby.
I sometimes missed that productive superwoman, but I was mostly comfortable with my new lifestyle. The care and keeping of our little lump was my number one job, and required my full focus. Everything was new: diapers, nursing, bathing, burping. All three of us were learning every minute. This new life as a family was like landing on a different planet and it captured our full attention.
We expected these changes, expected this new rhythm.
We’d made a plan. I’d taken a full three months off of work, and Billy took two weeks off. Neighbors brought food and offered to babysit. We cleared our calendars and project lists and just focused on learning how to be a family.
Still, the high of a healthy new baby wore off quickly under the strain of sleeping in two-hour increments. The weeks dragged on. I remember the relief I felt when Simon first smiled – I was so happy to have some tangible reward for all that work, something that meant we were doing this baby thing right.
The work started to get harder – he was rolling over, and crawling, then walking much too early, but the rewards got richer too. He had an infectious giggle, and his personality blossomed. Work and reward balanced, and there was no downside to this amazing new addition.
As we added Caden and Lottie to our family, looking back at that focus and concentration on just one tiny baby seemed funny. Parenting now included potty training and playdates and preschools. I often joked that by the time Lottie joined us, I had a diaper in my back pocket and a carseat in the van and we were ready to roll. The early days were still hard, but I had experience and recognized the rewards. Late nights? Check. Diaper rash? Got it.
Obstacles that seemed hard years before didn’t even register. Forming our family with each new addition was familiar work, still difficult sometimes, but familiar. Giggling happy babies, boisterous toddlers, chatty, inquisitive preschoolers were the reward, and proof we were doing this right.
Fast forward to when Gabe and I got married.
We took a three-day honeymoon, picked up the kids from school on day four, and started our life together. Our world was swirling at full speed. The kids were active at school, dancing, playing soccer and rehearsing for the school play. Gabe and I returned to busy, full-time jobs. Coming home was like a network returning to a regularly scheduled program after a news bulletin. Our life was already in progress.
Even though we’d planned for our transition, it was a difficult time. We had six children, under strain – the new stepparent was omnipresent, the house was unfamiliar, the routines different. Each child was dealing with the ramifications of this marriage and what it meant for him or her. Gabe and I were navigating those same waters, independently, as a couple and as parents. None of us had done this before.
One afternoon, I was talking to my counselor, Katherine, about how dejected I felt. This work seemed endless, everything was new and hard, and there was no reward in sight. This life seemed much more difficult than my former life as a single mother. My visions of a big, blended family happily bonding seemed like naïve fantasy. Without any reward, it felt hard to remember why Gabe and I were doing this. What was the point? How would we know if we were on the right track?
“No reward?” she asked. “Didn’t you just tell me that Caden made Honor Roll?” I explained Caden had been on Honor Roll before, it wasn’t anything new. She tried again: “Has anyone asked to leave?” Of course not, I thought. She continued, “How many huge, meltdown fights between stepsiblings have you refereed? How many times have Sara and Amy told you to leave them alone, you’re not their mother?” The things she was describing had not happened (yet, we’ve checked some of those boxes now).
Katherine gently reminded me that our whole world had changed, even though parts of it looked familiar. She recommended I redefine my expectations of success, look carefully for what was going right, and sent me back out to the real world.
She had a point.
Forming this family, like forming our families with each new addition beforehand, was a huge transition. Arguably, it was the biggest family transition any of us had experienced to date. And while we’d made a plan for it, we had not allowed ourselves the full time, support and grace required to execute that plan.
We had not reset our expectations.
Years before, one tiny baby had brought my life to a screeching halt. This change was a marriage, a move and six babies, all of whom could walk and talk and think and feel. The simple fact that the world was still spinning and we were all still gathered around the dinner table speaking to each other (loudly, and with our mouths full) was a win.
Resetting my expectations and redefining the reward became key to finding the joy in this new life. Just because something happened before – honor roll, sleeping at bedtime, respecting boundaries, doesn’t mean it is a given after a big transition.
Big changes require rethinking your definition of a win.
I found that once I started to look, the wins surrounded me. Sara asked me to bake with her, Caden asked Gabe to help him with his school shop project, the kids asked to stay home and watch a movie together instead of go out to dinner. Grades were stable and children as active and engaged as they were before we married.
As we’ve grown as a family, the rewards keep coming, sometimes bigger sometimes smaller, but always there, if we remember where to look. Finding the reward provides reassurance we are on the right track, and energy to keep moving forward. Baby steps.