“You’ve got your hands full.” That phrase is apparently the new “hello”. At least, that is what random strangers typically say to me on the street by way of greeting.
I suppose it’s not an altogether inaccurate statement of the obvious. Particularly as I rush down the road – late for school again – with a baby strapped to my front in a sling, a scooter over one shoulder, a nappy bag over the other, trying to corral a wobbly four-year-old on her bike, while simultaneously negotiating a dispute settlement between the older children.
A typical day starts at 6.30 am and ends at 11 pm – with sporadic wake ups in the night, of course. Weeks pass in a blur of rushing to and fro between school, cubs, swimming, beavers, gymnastics and birthday parties. Somehow we both also manage to find time to do demanding jobs, amidst the chaos.
The moment you have the house clean and tidy, it immediately collapses into disarray. It is endless. Life as a parent of four small kids can be exhausting and frustrating at times, but the truth is I love it. As we bumble along to school in the morning, we walk a quiet path that follows a stream. The kids run to and fro playing and laughing, or spotting seasonal changes in nature, while the baby gazes serenely at the passing trees, occasionally smiling up at me. I feel my heart expand outward, from the warmth of the love I feel.
There was once a time when children were universally considered a blessing. Recent decades have brought a strange tendency in our culture to focus on the chaos and disorder children inevitably bring. I suppose, to the casual observer of harried families caterwauling around a supermarket, the chaos is all they see. Things like inner joy and love are invisible, after all.
Perhaps this is why so many nowadays see the advent of children a disastrous curtailment of their freedom – something to be avoided at all costs. Yet this view is fundamentally a misconception, since virtually all who’ve been there know that parenting is perhaps the most fulfilling aspect of their lives. Yet that widespread misconception about parenting as a negative experience persists, especially amongst young adults.
Whole European nations are under demographic strain due to low birth rates. There are multiple factors, but this quite understandable misconception must play a role. People only see the outward struggles of parenting, but not the inward joy those very struggles bring.
Nowadays, a family with four children is considered quite large. Yet I think of the past, and my father as one of eight, or my mother as one of six – in the days before dishwashers, washing machines and all the rest of it. They recall very happy childhoods. The difference was that back then, mothers invariably worked in the home. Yet nowadays, with a mixture of part time working, sharing the load and childcare working parents can manage quite well.
We’ve tried to avoid outsourcing as much possible. The right amount of exposure to childcare helps small kids to socialise, but too much is detrimental. The detail of their lives is important for small children. It’s being there for a football match, and being the one who drops them to school, and picks them up again. We may be tired and cranky when we do so. We are not always the ideal parents we want to be, but half of parenting is about simply turning up. Small kids just want their mum or dad around.
Even as the chaos increases as numbers increase, I can only welcome it, because I welcome each of the children. All their childlike needs and demands, and the attendant noise, mess, spillages and breakages are part of the package. The kids are profoundly welcome as the most precious things in our lives, and so we must also welcome all that comes with them. Perhaps the next time someone greets me with a look of pity saying, “you’ve got your hands full”, I’ll smile and reply, “I do, thanks be to God.”