10/31/2014 05:39 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

How Having Kids Helped Me Grow Up

When our youngest daughter Marilee was two, she woke up from a nap one day and I said, "I love you." She said, "Love me so much?" "So much," I said. "This so much," she asked, arms outstretched as wide as they could reach. I smiled and nodded, but what I wanted to say was I love you even more than that.


It hasn't always been that way.

Other than getting married young, my husband and I fit the mold of Generation Xers. Born in 1977, we dutifully pursued college degrees, applied for internships in the summers, and went to work right after graduation. Within a few years, we had bought a house and upgraded our wardrobes from the sweatpants and jeans of our college years to a rotation of three suits for him and seasonal runs to Ann Taylor Loft for me.

Even though we were married at age 22, we waited nearly six years before we tried to get pregnant. When we did, we prepared for our daughter's arrival in every way possible. Birthing class and books, a crib and a swing, a breast pump and a diaper genie. Someone even gave us a contraption to keep the diaper wipes warm through the winter. When it came to gear and information, we couldn't have been more ready.

Then Penny came into our life. For a while, I thought the most surprising aspect of her existence was her diagnosis of Down syndrome a few hours after she was born. But once her little brother William arrived a few years later, and a few years after that their sister Marilee, the most surprising part of parenting was how little prepared I was to love them.

I don't mean I never felt love for them. I mean that loving these kids required a depth of emotional and spiritual maturity I didn't seem to have. Waking up in the night -- because someone had a bad dream, someone needed to go to the potty, someone needed to nurse -- sapped me not only of energy but of all sense of order and contentment. I no longer could find the time to exercise. I couldn't journal and read in the morning. I scaled back my work to ten hours a week. In the past I had been able to write a ten-page paper in a few days or meet a fundraising goal at work, and now I couldn't even manage a positive attitude about Music Together class.

And yet through those sleepless nights of bouncing and shushing and praying I could hold on a little longer, through those cranky days of temper tantrums and spilled juice and dirty diapers, I was also learning something. At first it seemed as though I was learning how to accept defeat. I was learning that I couldn't have it all, if having it all meant the same waistline as when I was 22, the same work hours as when I was in graduate school, the same level of order within our household as before our children arrived. In time, I was able to see that our children were forcing me to let go of control, to let go of fierce independence. As I began, reluctantly, to let go, I was receiving the wisdom that comes from interdependence and the maturity that comes from even my relatively paltry daily self-sacrifices.

For all my capabilities as a student and for all my commendations in my first job, it was the work of cuddling a toddler through a feverish night, the work of reading Good Night Moon for the seventeenth bedtime in a row, the work of cutting 80 fingers and toenails week in and week out, that helped me begin to grow up. Growing up -- maturing in my ability to love by putting the needs of others ahead of my own desires -- came by way of listening to William as he pointed out the different types of trees in our neighborhood, by encouraging Penny in her goal of doing the monkey bars all by herself, by holding Marilee as she asked for one more snuggle before bed.

Having children forced me to slow down, to let go of concerns about order and deadlines and status. I was forced to accept my own limitations, and accepting those limitations ultimately led to letting go of control. Accepting my own limitations ultimately led me to learn how to love.