I have heard Brené Brown say, “Comparison is the thief of happiness.” While this isn’t her quote, she wrote a blog post about it. You can find that post here.
My husband and I decided to have our kids at a young age. We got married between my sophomore and junior year of college; between his junior and senior year of his undergraduate program. We thought getting pregnant would take longer than it did. Because we saw others struggling to get pregnant, or to stay pregnant, we just kinda assumed that it would be like that for us, too. It wasn’t. So while we wanted to have our kids young, we thought it would take a little longer than it did.
Our first daughter was born in August the following year. Mark was just starting graduate school by this time, and because I changed majors, I had a little less than two years left of school. Our son was born the following December, 16 months to the day of our daughter’s birth. He was due during finals and arrived just before Christmas. We couldn’t have planned that one better if we’d tried. I started back to school when he was just a couple weeks old. I was in the middle of sequenced courses, and if I’d taken off winter quarter (the University of Minnesota was on a trimester schedule at the time), I’d have had to take off an entire year. And I was so close to finishing, I didn’t want to do that. So I took 12 credits and was only gone from the kids during the times I had class. It varied from as little as two hours a day (a few days a week) to a maximum of six hours a day, once or twice a week. It was hard… and it worked for us. The following fall, much to our surprise, we found out we were pregnant again. I was going to be student teaching during the winter trimester and would not need to take any additional classes that spring, although I did decide to walk for graduation. When we had told my parents we were going to be getting married, my mom was concerned I wouldn’t finish college. So I wanted to do this (walk for graduation) for her and my dad. Graduation was June 5, 1989. Three days later our third child was born. Two months later our oldest turned three. And we had one in between.
I look back at this now and wonder how we did it. But we were so young and naïve then that we just did it. We didn’t think about it; we just did what we needed to do. I don’t think we would have planned to have our (three oldest) kids so close in age, and yet, I’m glad they are.
So what does this have to do with comparison being the thief of happiness? I remember very clearly feeling inadequate during that time. Mark was a graduate student, and we would go to his advisor’s house for dinners on occasion. Not only was I the youngest one there, and the only spouse or student who was an undergrad, I was also the only one who was ever pregnant. And I was always pregnant! In fact, a few years after graduating, I once was at a store where I saw a peer who had been in the same program I had been in at the U. I remembered her by name and smiled and said, “Lara! How are you?” It was obvious she had no idea who I was. I laughed and told her that remembering people’s names and faces was a blessing and a curse for me, and I wouldn’t expect her to know who I was. Then I offhandedly added, “I was the one who was always pregnant!” Her eyes got big as recognition set in, and she replied, “Oh, NOW I remember you!”
Fast-forward four years. We’d been living in Massachusetts for three years, and Mark was finishing up his post-doc and in the process of looking for jobs. Guess what? I was pregnant again. Once again I found myself in social situations where I felt inadequate, situations where Mark was being considered for professorships, and once again, situations where I was the youngest one at the gatherings, where I was the only person who didn’t have a higher ed degree… and once again, situations where I was the only one pregnant at these events.
I distinctly remember being at one such event at someone’s home. He (a professor) and his wife (a medical doctor) had two young kids of their own… and the couple was about 10 years older than we were. I remember being outside in their backyard, being near the kids while they played on the swing set. The truth of the matter is, I felt more comfortable hanging outside with the kids than trying to come up with small talk that didn’t feel authentic to me. Here I was, a stay-at-home mom. Sure I had a college degree, something I hadn’t put to use in the traditional sense since graduating four years earlier. Why was I still allowing myself to feel so inadequate? Who really cared? Apparently, I did.
So I was in the backyard with the kids, very big and very pregnant with Baby #4, and a woman wandered over towards the swing set and me from the patio where the grown-ups were congregating. Panic set in. She was coming to talk to me! This svelte, chic, well-dressed, THIN woman was coming over to talk to me! There was no place to run; there was no place to hide. I continued to push a kid on the swing and watch the others come down the slide. She introduced herself to me, and the next words out of her mouth, before I’d even had a chance to say what my name was, were, “I supervise 40 people in my division.” I don’t remember if she was in HR or high tech or what, but talk about feeling inadequate! I went right to that place. I shared that I work evenings at a psych hospital to help pay the bills, that daycare for three kids would have killed us; that otherwise, I’m home during the days with our kids.
She continued to talk about her job and what she does at work. As she stood by the slide, watching our three kids play, talking to the pregnant lady, she confided in me that what she wanted more than anything was to have a family. She told me that she and her husband had been dealing with infertility problems, and that it hadn’t happened for them yet. With tears in her eyes, she told me she hadn’t given up hope and that soon they, too – they hoped – would be starting their family…
Wow. I didn’t know what to say, how to respond. I don’t even remember if she just walked away after that or if we were interrupted by one of the kids needing something or how that moment ended. When I told this story later to friends who hadn’t been there, I always ended it with, “HEY! I’ve got that one! Three little kids running around and another one on the way!” and feeling like I had finally done something better than someone else.
I’m ashamed that was my reaction at the time. Now I jump to empathy, and I really feel her pain; the vulnerability she shared with me, the pregnant one, from one who so desperately wanted to be pregnant. For as much as I yearned to have a life outside of, or in addition to, my family, someone else was yearning to have a family like mine. Wow. Talk about a juxtaposition.
Why is it that we compare ourselves so relentlessly to others? Why couldn’t I be grateful for what I had and realize that my life was my life and choose those things that made me happy? On a day-to-day basis during that time when our kids were little, I was happy. I enjoyed being home with them for the most part. I liked having the freedom to come and go as I pleased, to focus on kid activities and living in the moment. There were times, however, when I felt like I wasn’t living up to my potential, almost an “is this it?” thought. And there were times when I was depressed because of it. Being a stay-at-home mom was the hardest, most rewarding job I’ve ever done. I am grateful that we were able to make that choice for our family. And I am grateful that I still have time to focus on living up to my (more than mom) potential going forward. And I’m grateful for what I have… and more and more I am realizing that my life is my life and I’m choosing those things that make me happy.
There are pros and cons to both ways of having a family; having kids right away like we did worked for us (for one thing, we were younger then… and had energy!); just like waiting to have a family works for others (like you get to travel and enjoy getting to know each other as a couple first!). There is no right or wrong way. They are just different… and not to be compared. Enjoy it in whatever way is right for you.
I also know it doesn’t always work out the way people had hoped or planned, similar to the woman earlier in my story. My heart goes out to those of you whose lives have been affected in this way. Please know that while I may have reacted (in private) the way I did as a young, naive girl, I wouldn’t respond that same way today. I wish I had words to ease the pain, or to encourage you differently, or to help you accept what is. To you I can only say, “My heart goes out to you”… and give you a big hug. The way I wish I had responded to her.