Moms Make it Work: Valarie | Mom to Ten Kids, Grandma, Wisdom Past the Little Kid Years

I try hard not to have 'favorites' when it comes to the Moms Make it Work series. But I'm not going to lie when I say that today's poster ranks up there pretty high when it comes to hitting me hard in the (pregnant) gut with wisdom. It's lengthy and it jumps around to different subjects and I LOVE IT SO MUCH.

When I first put out the 'casting call' for mothers of older children, and mothers with large families I had no idea that Alicia would refer me to her mother-in-law, Valarie. And oh, what a gem we have for you readers today! Val has a blog called Well, Yeah. She has TEN children. She is a grandmother and her youngest child is nine, so she fits the bill for both 'big family' and 'past the little kid years.' She is a homeschooling, home-birthing, breastfeeding mom with an amazing outlook on motherhood. Mostly I love it when moms with older kids tell me it DOES get easier, and when they remind me to soak in the little babies as much as possible. I worry that Val has just sparked my 'thinking about four kids' fever a little too heartily but I'm going to ignore that part of my gut-punch and stick to the other take home points;) Hi, Nate.

Val emailed me about writing for the series after Alicia mentioned it to her, and instantly I knew I wanted her to post for us. Here is what she said in her first email to me:

"I would like to participate in the way that as mothers we all feel like we’re starting over from scratch, and really we’re not.   Raising a family is a universal human experience that we all share, and the rules are always changing, but babies and little kids do not change.

Okay, here’s a good example.  When my oldest kids were born we started cereal at two weeks, fruit at four, meat, blah, blah. It was a full schedule of poking baby food into tiny mouths and scraping it off their chins.   Then a few years later it was the popular theory that babies didn’t need any food at all until five months.  Why five months?  I don’t know.    Later on I had a kid who wouldn’t eat anything even at a year old.  He’d roll his eyes and throw the food to the dog and hold out until the meal was over and I’d take him to bed and nurse him.  ( He’s 6’5”  graduating the university next week.)

Then my great-grandma told me that the first food they fed their babies was graham crackers soaked in milk, at about nine months.  (Breastfed, no options in 1920.)    All at once a light went on over my head: ding-ding-ding.  It doesn’t matter that much.  Just so the baby gets fed somehow, that is the main thing."
Um, yes. I wanted to hear more and truly, the last four paragraphs of her post are THE.BEST. I hope you enjoy the post as much as I did!

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The Moms Make It Work series asks the big question:  How do you make it work?

We just do—Moms do, parents do.  We apply trial and error, flounder around with our priorities, and we make it up as we go, and that’s how it is for pretty much everyone.  And it’s always evolving.  What works for a while then doesn’t work, so we begin again with a new plan.

I’m a mom in my early fifties now, a mom of ten.  These days I really have six adults and four children: The oldest is 34 and the youngest is 9.

I refer to that littlest one as the maraschino cherry on top of a giant sundae of family.  She was born after our 25th anniversary and I’m glad I didn’t know ahead of time about these littlest kids.  I don’t think I could have stood the waiting.   How do you wait 23 years, 25 years for a child?   

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People all the time have observed my life and asked me, “How do you do it??”

I’d be so baffled. “Same way you’d do it.  I don’t have a special way.”

Truth is it wasn’t until we didn’t have babies anymore, and our toddlers turned to little kids that my life became amazingly EASY.   All at once the question made sense.  How did I do all that?  I just did.  I was too busy doing it to ponder on anything. 

Then I wondered at what all the rest of them did with their time anyway, the big slackers.

They’d also ask me if the kids were planned.

(Yeah, I know.   How rude.)

I wasn’t a jerk.  I’d tell them, “Nobody has ten kids by accident.”

I do love babies, love how life with a baby is living in synchrony, sleeping together, waking up together, the weight of them in the sling, the smell of their breath, bathing them, dressing them, carrying them around.   And I love having a baby in the house—the way they make things funny and sweet, and how much the other kids are soaking them up too—the aggravation and work, and also having them to share the goofy parts with and watching the relationships between them grow.


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James, Jay, Maria, Kari, Tim cropped

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This question always comes up: How did we afford them?    Their dad has a good job and we also watched our money.  Our oldest son complained when he was big about how now we were more prosperous and bought Oreos and he’d had to endure the chocolate chip bars his dad made every night.    I can’t tell you how that made me laugh—stories from his tough childhood, how he had to endure Dad’s baking constantly.   There were plenty of complaints he could have made against us, preoccupied and stupid as we were, but THAT?

This is to inform you that no matter how hard you try, they will complain anyway.  Do your best, but just know that.

Here’s a little known big family truth—the kids are a lot of help.    You don’t see it when you have a trio of preschoolers.  They can’t help. They’re crazy little twerps, prone to arguing over trivia and making huge messes.   Their demands are random and somewhat bizarre. 

BUT soon they are a bit bigger.   A ten year old is hardly any work at all, and is really good company.

So by the time our fourth child was born, the oldest two were eight and seven.  They could answer the phone, get the mail, investigate what the others were doing and report back, help pick up toys, amuse the baby  while they watched TV and I made supper.

The hardest of all is having a bunch of littles, with no middles or big kids to help.    Those extra hands are amazing and they are what make a big family possible—everyone who can pitching in.   

But there are some people who think this is bad.  I’m not sure why exactly because life is all about trade-offs no matter what anyone chooses, but there’s the idea out there that the MOM should do everything and the kids should not have to do anything for each other because of some abstract idea about something that is meaningful in some way to someone.

Interesting.  I don’t get it, obviously.    There was a day a friend with one child was at our house for lunch.   During the meal, Kirsten wanted to leave for a minute, and she prefaced her leaving with the announcement, “Listen to me:   This is my food, and I’m coming back.   Don’t touch it. I still want it.  I’m not done.”   Then she ran off.

The friend said, “Ohhh.  Ohh, that is so sad.”

(She actually blurted that out.)

I said, “Sad? It’s not sad at all. SHE is SMART.”

Case in point:   A lot is perception.

I bottle fed the oldest two, but nursed the rest.   It was pretty much continuous nursing from 1984 until about 2006.     I lived life with a baby tucked in my shirt, in the baby sling, on my hip.  ( You get used to it to the point you’re doing the side to side swoop with a bag of groceries if you’re forced to hold one.)   Plus I wasn’t working—I was home, and this was my job, keeping care.

Here’s another thing about why it was important for me to nurse those babies.   In a big family there’s always a lot to do, and it’d be just so easy to pass the baby and a bottle off to some older kid.   But because of nursing, I had to do it, so those babies got the undivided mom time they deserved—the cuddle connection was easily accomplished together.   

This is something the big girls have talked and laughed about too, big family stuff I probably will be slammed for:   When I was getting the baby to bed,  I’d turn the three year old over to the other kids at bedtime.  (Their dad was usually working in the office.)   If they’d fake they were going to sleep until the little one was asleep, they could stay up.

Bribery!

(Yep.  I recommend it, actually.   There comes the give and take—you do this and I will do that.  The motivation provided by Skittles can save a shit ton of yelling and whining.  Present it as a business arrangement.)

One night James was overtired and tucked in bed, prayers and kisses.   Little Jay did the fake going to sleep thing, but almost beat me down the stairs.  I said, “He’s asleep already?”

“Oh yeah. He always goes right to sleep when he’s depressed.”

Okay, he wasn’t depressed.  He was overwrought because he was little and tired.

Heidi and Kirsten had the same deal with Little Jay a few years before—get him to sleep and you can stay up as long as you want.

Well, their curtain rods were bent and he’d puked up a nickel and the stories went on and on.  I was annoyed about the curtain rods and a bit freaked out about the nickel,   “Yeah, I can’t believe you would blame a BABY!”

It actually was the baby, doing flips and skin-the-cats on the curtain rods. I’m sorry girls, and I know you didn’t feed him a nickel. That was all him.

And then there’s the homeschooling.   Our oldest child was dyslexic and that’s a whole huge story in itself.  If you really care to know about it, there’s a section in my blog specifically called homeschool.   The short version is the system was taking him down, his confidence most of all.   It’s tough to be little and dyslexic in school.  We tried very hard to make it work, and it didn’t.  In desperation, we decided we couldn’t possibly do worse by him.  

So we took him out, and his brother too for simplicity, and our entire family’s life took off in a different direction than we ever expected, and I love it so much.   We didn’t fit in with other homeschoolers, not religious enough mostly, and second not interested in the Young Genius crowd, and it seemed to always be one or the other with the homeschool parents.    But we figured out how to be us, and how little formal education kids actually need during childhood.     David Guterson referred to it as “a self formed in solitude.”   There’s not much solitude around here, but I know what he meant—the freedom to be yourself and figure out your own rhythm and style.   The kids had the childhood to do that, and I do also think that this is part of why we and they are so close.

Julia and Little Jay

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Here’s what I did not know while I went around with a baby tucked under my chin and a house full of rowdy goofballs:  They were going to grow up to be the dearest friends I’d ever have.  So while you’re planning your family, take a look out—way out past daycare hassle and sippy cups with curdled milk under the bed.   Look out past the music lessons and Little League.    What do you want your life to look like twenty-five years from now?  Specifically who do  you want in it?   You may not want ten people.   But maybe you DO.    I’m telling you the work was all worth it.

We did not set out to have ten children.    It is a wildly extravagant thing to have done, in every way.     First we had two.  We were students, so with two brothers a year apart, we took a break for a few years.   Then we had two more, two little girls, and it was five and a half years before we had the fifth one.   It was a hard transition going back to a baby again, and he was such a little dictator we called him Napoleon behind his back and agreed he needed a sibling his own age. (Maria was his beautiful, curly haired equalizer.)   But then we had a few more just because we were having fun.  Homeschool had become fun.  Homebirth is fun.   Life had become so far out of mainstream and we didn’t even know it, and really did not care.

When I was a girl I went to nursing school and then never worked much as a nurse.  It has never really felt like me.   In my thirties I went to college for a bachelor’s degree in finance of all things,  with a minor in ethics.   When my baby was four, I started selling real estate, which I enjoy, and it’s also flexible hours, work from home mostly, but also unpredictable income, capricious clients.  

I have felt lucky to be able to provide care to my grandbabies when their parents were at work because I know how impossible childcare always seemed to me.  Expensive.  Scary.  Imposing.      Well, I cost nothing, and am not scary, and I don’t feel imposed upon.    I enjoy their craziness, and feel proud of the contribution to everyone’s peace of mind and well being.    Nobody has a bad day at Grandma’s.     I know kids are squirrels and grow in different ways, and sharing is hard, and working out conflicts is a complicated skill set that even adults struggle with sometimes.  There are ice cream treats in my freezer, and the love is forever.

One of the questions Julia specifically asked was what to expect as the kids move on into their own lives and do the struggles and bad parts fade away and the good parts remain?

Kids do separate in late teens and early adulthood, and it’s confusing for them too.  Sometimes they fight a lot because it’s way easier to leave feeling angry than it is feeling wistful.  Others withdraw more quietly, but they all need the space to do it.

And yes, with teenagers I use guilt to my advantage because how else are you going to influence a teenager?    When they genuinely feel bad that you’re upset?  This is a good thing—they may not do what you hope they would, but they have heard.   We have no nefarious intention toward them, no hidden agenda, and they know it.  Our intentions are all about their protection, safety, and well being.  That they may have a different version of this than we do—possibly.  We can talk about it.   We haven’t had any troublemakers and honestly even when they pushed the boundaries they stopped far short of self-destructive behavior.

What I wish for them is that they be independent in adulthood and have sustaining relationships with family and friends.  The forms that could take are infinite.  So far, so good.


And remembering the good parts vs. the bad parts?  The big picture is splendidly good, so yeah, the cream rises.

But the kids love to bring up and laugh at me about the times I was Mommie Dearest, my channeling Joan Crawford, having an adult tantrum, throwing shoes in the stairway at midnight, the time I cracked  wooden spoon against the cupboard in some kind of fury and it shattered, the workbook I tried to rip in half in a  moment of pure outrage.   (The little turds LIED and I found out.)

The million-zillion times I was appropriate, and civilized and kind?   Nah, forgotten.   I have taken the point of view that I’m glad my asinine moments do stand out—that they were so far off the norm that they’re memorable.  Regrettable and embarrassing yes, and there are a few times when I truly was an ass and wish with my whole heart I could have a do-over, but it doesn’t work that way.     Some saint said, “When you know better, then you do better.”

It doesn’t fix anything, but it’s helpful to hear that—hopeful that we can grow into kinder selves.

I’m going to close here with the last part of an article I wrote when Tim was a baby.

“...Of course going from childless to caring for a baby is a shock, but they are taking themselves way too seriously. Their baby will be a baby only a single brief wonderful year, and then they will have a toddler. Soon after that they’ll have a little child, and then soon a bigger kid.

I understand right now they are reeling under the responsibility and time issues a baby creates, but if they think they are the first people to go through new parenthood—wrong.  They are not. It's just life. My first child overwhelmed me too, and then the second one was still hard work, though not twice as much work as one. By the time we had that third baby though, I just enjoyed her—knowing that everything with a little child is a temporary situation.
  
I think if you want them, you should have babies and kiss them all the time. Wrap them in blankies and carry them around. Laugh a lot, sleep together when it suits you, and ignore dust and crumbs as much as possible. Go to Little League games and scream, "Good hit!" and "Run! Run!" Rent them instruments and cover your ears while they practice.  Buy them pets, take them swimming, and read magazines at the park while they play so you don't have to watch them dangling upside down.

Soon enough you'll be clutching the dashboard while they lurch around learning to drive your car, moving their stuff into the dorms at college, and dancing at their weddings, reminiscing about where the time went. I speak from experience here. Fear not any chaos. Love rules.”  

{Tear. Thank you, Val! Find the rest of the MMIW series here}

33 comments:

  1. This was wonderful! I'm nearly crying in my cube because it's so great to hear about every stage from someone who knows. Thanks for all the wonderful reminders. I'll hold on to them.

    (And I swear I know the oldest from somewhere - I recognize his face!)

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    1. Amanda - feel free to email me if it's driving you nuts, you might know him, it's such a small world isn't it?. I feel that way especially since we've established you and I live only blocks away from eachother. :) We could discuss. agracefuldisaster0 at gmail dot com

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  2. I swear she wrote so mAny thoughts straight out of my head! Crazy! And I loved
    Her sassy, down to earth, eclectic way of writing!

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  3. This was seriously an awesome post. Val is an amazing writer!

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  4. I think this is the best one yet!

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  5. Wow. By far my favorite MMIW posting yet. This woman is hilarious and wise and an amazing writer. I laughed, I cried. Loved everything about this!

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  6. The last four paragraphs ARE the best!!

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  7. What a wonderful post! I'm also sniffling in my cube at work over this. Very powerful!

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  8. I don't even have the words for how amazing this is. Just so SO good. Thank you Julia, thank you Alicia, and thank you Val! While I hate to pick favorites, ditto Julia. This was a gem of a post.

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  9. Major tears. Now that is some REAL advice - "bribery…present it as a business arrangement." Ha! I love it :) Makes me want a whole bunch more babies!

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  10. SO great to hear and read this one! So hard to see the big picture when raising a little one (and another one soon) seems to be so time consuming and overwhelming.

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  11. Wonderful post, simply wonderful.

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  12. Um, amazing. Fear not any chaos. Love rules.

    Hilarious, thoughtful, heart-warming post. Ali, you lucked out in the in-law department!!

    Thank you for sharing, Val!

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  13. This was awesome! My favorite part was to take a look at the family you want in years to come. SO true! We think about that a lot - that it's tough right now when the kids are little, but look at what we're creating for the future. We want a big family, lots of noise, lots of friendships and lots of family gatherings... so we need to keep having kids! Thanks so much for sharing your story!

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  14. Loved this post! This one just feels, different :) There are so many days where I feel like two kids are more than enough for me and that how could I possibly handle another. (on the fence of having a third or not) This post gives me faith that my dream for three kids someday might be a lot of work in the beginning, but in the end oh so worth it!

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  15. What a writer! Loved the chaotic flow of this post. And now I'm pretty sure I need 10 kids. We've been in serious talks that this will be the last one, but now I think I need to tell Chad NO WAY. I need all the babies to kiss and carry and cuddle because one day way too soon they will all be grown!

    I have loved so many of the posts in this series, but there is nothing like the wisdom of a mama who has been there. Thanks for sharing, Val!

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  16. Love this post, especially this line about the baby stage: I do love babies, love how life with a baby is living in synchrony, sleeping together, waking up together, the weight of them in the sling, the smell of their breath, bathing them, dressing them, carrying them around." That is exactly how I feel right now, as my second is 8 weeks old--there's something so nice about the living in synchrony stage. And even though I don't plan to have 10 kids (and I'm probably too old to have that many more anyway!), I'm sitting here nursing my little girl while I type and she just pulled off and looked up and smiled at me and I think, sure, I'll take a few more of these!!

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  17. Oh this is so so good! The look down the road 25 years part is a bit dangerous....!!

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  18. Oh, just lovely. Made my afternoon.

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  19. BY FAR the best MMIW post yet. Great job Val!

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  20. I loved this post so much! It doesn't make me want any more children than the 2 I have, but I do appreciate the fun of a big family :) Who knows, maybe when Annie is like 8, then I'll decide to have 2 more just for fun :) (probably not)

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  21. I have a two month old and I loved this post!!!

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  22. Love it! Such great advice and positivity! Thank you for sharing

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  23. Such a wonderful post!! Loved it.

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  24. Such a great post! Life feels crazy with two preschoolers in the house and baby on the way, so it's nice to hear it gets easier!

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  25. Loved this so much! On days when parenting two little ones is so tough, it's refreshing to be reminded it does get easier. Great post, Val!

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  26. Could not have loved or needed this woman's wisdom more. And although pregnancy and I are not the best of friends, I want ten kids now...haha!

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  27. fear not any chaos. love rules. amen - i want a tattoo of this somewhere.

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  28. It gets easier. Teenagers sleep like rocks and are actually funny if they even venture into conversation. The most fearsome age is that between 9 and 18 months, the chimpanzee stage. It's by far the most work. How we all survived from age 1 to age 2 is some kind of miracle, due totally to the people who adored our ridiculous demanding selves. love, Val

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  29. As the oldest of ten of Val's bunch and having three child and a forth on the way I just continue to tell myself a statement that I heard "Days are long and the years are short!" Some days are just so tough with little children, but when you do the math you will have adult children way longer than small children. My mom and I laugh about her as a teenager raising a child (Me). No matter how you raise a child it needs to be done with love. We are not perfect parents, but letting a child be himself and have support will bring a great adult friend. As an adult my mother (Val) and myself still have word about things, but it is always about the greater good of the family and the ongoing relationships. John

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  30. It's true, me and Dad were bewildered young parents back in the day, so ridiculous and clueless, but so crazy about you guys. I've said that somehow you survived all our blunders and grew up to be a really nice person anyway: responsible and kind, generous and funny, And even now when you say, "MUH-ther!" in that tone of voice, it makes me giggle. Oh yeah, hang in there with our grandsons. Those rowdy fools of yours are going to be about the dearest friends you'll ever have. love you forever, Mom

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