When I was a younger mom, I used to count the hours. I counted the meager number of hours I slept each night, the number of hours I spent rocking a screaming baby, and the number of hours I spent nursing. I counted the number of hours I spent making meals and cleaning up the kitchen, the number of hours spent folding laundry and vacuuming. I counted the number of hours my boss was late in picking up her son, and how many hours I spent in traffic trying to get home. I counted the number of hours I spent editing my husband’s papers and the hours he spent away at class each day. I counted the hours until he came home.
With all the hours counted, I knew just how tired I could be, or irritated, or unproductive. I knew how much to require of other people and how much to coddle myself. I knew what I could or could not do.
I knew the hours were against me that first Sunday back to church after the baby was born. I smelled like sour milk and I was pretty sure I had forgotten to put mascara on my left eye. None of my clothes fit right yet and I wanted to burn the maternity skirt I was obligated to wear even though I was no longer pregnant.
It only took ten minutes to get to church, but by the time we arrived, the baby already needed to be changed and my toddler said she was hungry. Had I packed her a snack? I wasn’t sure. The entire morning had been a blur. How could two children be so much harder than one?
We were late, and as we walked in from the back parking lot, we could hear the sounds of singing coming from the open doors. I didn’t want to go inside. I knew I would spend the entire service in the cry room, changing and feeding the baby and trying to keep my nineteen-month old entertained. Other toddlers were content to play in the nursery. Mine screamed until her face turned purple and one of the nervous young nursery helpers was sent to find me before my daughter went into convulsions on the alphabet rug.
The cry room was already crowded with other mothers and babies in various stages of crying, sleeping, and nursing. I looked around for a seat, trying not to step on the clingy toddler clutched to my leg. Her little fingers were creating a run in my nylon the size of the Grand Canyon.
The baby decided he was no longer enjoying his stay in the car carrier. He rolled his head to the side and wrinkled up his nose, clutching his fists together in preparation for a scream. I rocked the carrier with my foot and dug around in the diaper bag. I knew I had packed a burp cloth and a blanket, but I couldn’t seem to find either. Within seconds, the baby’s face was bright red and his tongue had curled back to let out the full force of his dissatisfaction.
I found the blanket and decided the burp cloth could wait. I tried to cover up so I could nurse him discreetly, but his body was rigid and he refused to acknowledge the fact that I was finally prepared to feed him. Meanwhile, my daughter had found a book in the toy bin and was tugging at my sleeve. “Mommy, read it?” she asked. “Read it?”
“Jus’ a second,” I mumbled, trying to hold the blanket to my chest with my chin. I never understood how some women could nurse in public, as if it didn’t require and extra set of hands and a tent.
Somewhere under the blanket, my baby found what he was looking for and his screams subsided. My face was hot and I was developing a spasm in my shoulder. A woman in the rocking chair across the room smiled at me. It was a simple gesture, but I suddenly felt like I needed that smile more than anything else she could have given me.
I couldn’t remember seeing her before. She was tall and large boned, with deeply angled features and long, fawn-colored hair that had been warmed by the sun. In older times, she would have been called a handsome woman, with a strong, practical sort of beauty. She wore a plain linen jumper and summer sandals, like she had just come from a day at the ocean. When she smiled, the lines around her sea-blue eyes betrayed the fact that she was not a young mother, but there was a constancy about her that made me think she had always looked the same, and always would.
Just then, another woman came in the room, her arms loaded with supplies. Gigantic pink and purple flowers exploded all over her dress. She wore a hat covered in more flowers. A real hat, with fake flowers. People in the Northwest don’t wear hats to church, I realized. But they do in Ipswich. She took one look at the woman in the corner and cried, “Bryn! Are you back for a visit? Oh my goodness, look at that little one! So precious! And look at you! I hear you’re expecting another already?”
Bryn smiled easily. She patted the baby in her arms with capable determination, like she wasn’t concerned in the least about having two babies so close together. I guessed her son was no more than three months old, which meant that her two would be closer together than mine. Almost like twins. I was suspicious of her confidence. I wanted to tell her that she had no idea what she was in for, that having two wasn’t as easy as she seemed to think it would be.
“Let’s see, this will be number seven, right?” the boisterous newcomer continued as she refilled the baby wipes and checked the diaper supply.
Seven? I glanced over at the woman in the rocking chair. I was staring. I knew I was staring, but I couldn’t stop staring even though my daughter was stealing Cheerios from someone else’s purse. She didn’t look like the mother of six and soon-to-be seven children, although as soon as I thought it, I realized I didn’t know what a mother of seven should look like. I guess I thought she should be a little less rested, a little less like she just blew in from a week at the beach. She didn’t look like she might lose it if someone asked her what was for lunch.
Clearly, I was in the presence of a super-woman, and I felt small and inadequate and insecure, like she could see right through me with some sort of x-ray vision. She could probably see that I had a pile of dirty dishes in my sink at home, that I hadn’t read my daughter a bed-time story in a week because I was too tired, and that I was angry when the baby wouldn’t go back to bed after his 3 am feeding.
The baby squirmed. I had forgotten to burp him. My daughter flopped across my knees and let her book drop to the ground. I had not read it.
Bryn was looking at me and smiling. I wasn’t about to fall for that again. I was duty-bound to dislike her, no matter how kind she seemed. Seven children. My word. I couldn’t even handle two.
“The first two are the hardest,” Bryn said apologetically, as if she could read my mind. The cry room had emptied out and we were alone.
Her words melted me. Stupid super-powers.
“How do you do it?” I blurted out, even though I didn’t really mean to. “When was the last time you got any sleep?”
Bryn brushed a wisp of long hair behind her ear thoughtfully. “I don’t know. I’ve never really worried about that,” she said quietly as she rocked her baby back and forth. “I figure God is big enough to give me just what I need for each day. Maybe it’s not as much as I would like or as much as I think I need, but I have to believe that it’s sufficient for the moment. He promises that, you know?”
I swallowed hard. I was not in the mood for a sermon.
But Bryn started to tell her story, and I found the words settling deep into my soul, obliterating my defenses. She talked about how she had lost three babies before a doctor took the time to figure out why her body wouldn’t let her carry a baby to term. She talked about the fear that surrounded each pregnancy and a heart that wouldn’t let her love a baby she might lose. She talked about how something in her died when the tests that showed her baby would have Down Syndrome, and how she couldn’t stop crying when he was born healthy. They named him Samuel, after a baby in the Bible who was born out of a barren womb to a mother who had known the taste of tears.
“I don’t think Hannah worried much about sleepless nights,” Bryn said about that faithful mother.
I didn’t think she did either. I couldn’t help but think that in the middle of the night, when the stillness of Hannah’s home was interrupted by a baby’s cry, she did not take her eyes from his to think about how little she had slept or how much she needed her energy for the day ahead. How long would it take a mother like that to forget how much she’d been given? Eternity could not take the memory of it from her.
“I bet she held Samuel close as long as she could.”
Bryn shifted her baby to the other shoulder and sighed. “I’m not saying it’s not hard. It is. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done. My back hurts and my stomach looks like stretched out Silly Putty, and if you saw my house, you’d be embarrassed for me,” she smiled and I realized I liked her again. “But somehow, God saw fit to give me these babies for this time, and I can’t help but being awed by that.”
On the way home, I stared at my reflection in the window. Spring green fields flecked with dandelions passed over my face. The cherry trees were blooming and the songbirds had come back. My mind went to sparrows, who don’t have to worry about seed for tomorrow. I wondered why I had so little faith. Had I ever been in want? Had I ever been lacking? No matter how many times He’d proved it, I didn’t really believe that God could give me just what I needed for each new day.
I thought about lilies, which don’t labor for their clothes, and to the woman in a linen jumper who knew what it was to be buried deep, like a bulb in the frozen earth. There in the darkness of broken dreams and aspirations, she had died to the plans in her own heart and to the things she thought were certain, but which never came to pass. Then, in the coldness of late winter rains, when everything seemed hopeless and lost, God brought new life out of the ground and clothed her in radiance and splendor. I wanted to be beautiful like that. But dying is hard.
That night, I put my nineteen-month-old to bed and settled down to nurse the baby. But the strangeness of a Sunday schedule had left him confused, and he wouldn’t nurse, and he wouldn’t sleep. He didn’t want to be held, and he certainly didn’t want to be put down. I let out an exasperated sigh.
“You should go to bed,” my husband said, looking up from his desk. He was studying for a final. “I’ll take care of the baby.”
I was so tired, I couldn’t even think of what I needed to do to go to bed. “Just go to bed,” he insisted. “There’s nothing you have to do that can’t wait until tomorrow.”
I crawled in under the covers and pulled them up around my neck. I put a pillow over my head for extra measure. The alarm clock blazed 11:27. 11:27, 11:27. He’ll be up at three, I thought. That’s not enough sleep…
I got up and walked out to the living room.
“He doesn’t need you,” my husband teased, casting a look at the baby in the bouncy seat.
I handed him the alarm clock.
“What’s this?” he asked.
“Just keep that for me,” I said. “Tonight, I’m going to get enough sleep.”
I headed back to bed, and for the first time since I’d brought a baby into my home, I didn’t count the hours. When my newborn son woke up in the middle of the night, I remembered Hannah, and I held him to me and studied his face. His cloudy blue eyes looked inky in the dim light and he made little grunting noises that I knew wouldn’t last. One day, I’d hold him and realize that he didn’t make them anymore. One day I’d look into his eyes and notice they weren’t blue anymore. One day, I’d look at him and realize he wasn’t a baby any more, and I’d wonder where the hours had gone.
For just a moment, it seemed like time stood still. I considered all that I had been given, and I was awed into silence. A God who created such perfect hands and feet could surely care for me all the hours of my life. Finally, I was ready to believe it.
“And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work.”—2 Corinthians 9:8