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These Are Not My Beautiful Children

By Virginia Woodruff

IMG_4070.JPGI was not someone who was meant to have three children, a house, a husband, a job and two cats.

In my pre-child life I wasn’t known for being organized. I moved every two years and often lived off of credit cards. A friend got in the habit of telling me things started an hour earlier so I would (maybe) show up on time.

I slept under piles of clean laundry, selecting my outfit the next day from the nest of clothes. I ate dinner—usually cold ravioli, sometimes cereal—in the bath with a wrinkled book.

I lived outside the world, confused about how people went about their lives of ritual and routine. Working in the cubicle. Making the money. Investing the money. Buying the house. Changing the diaper. Driving the minivan. It all didn’t make sense to me.

I wallowed in melancholy, taking long walks at night and watching people through windows as they watched TV, my own “little-matchstick-girl-out-in-the-cold” routine.

Mainly, I was scared, so I protected myself. I thought deeply and felt sensitively but shut people out of my intimate life. If I had a stance, it was “arms crossed.”

When I held my first child, my arms uncrossed. You can’t love something that much without some of it trickling over to the rest of the world. With his help, I became a fully manifested human who is both more alive and more tired than ever before. But mostly: open.

I didn’t know when you had a baby you crossed a river into another country, a country of mothers. Now I feel an instant connection to any other woman with a child. We know. It’s like a secret society. And I finally belong.

Seven years into parenthood, life is busy and hectic. I don’t have time for reflection, much less ennui.

But sometimes, when I stay up late reading the biography of honest, hurting David Foster Wallace, or when I pass the framed pictures of our smiling family dotting the hallway, I catch myself disbelieving.

Do I really have 600 Facebook “friends” with whom I share every nuance of my life?

Do I really have 2,000 digital pictures waiting on my phone?

Do I really wash, fold and put away the clothes of five humans, only to have to do it all again?

Do I really sob while reading blog posts about children with cancer?

Do I really drive a minivan to arrive (mostly) on time for school pick up every day?

Do I really spend weeks researching winter camps, spring break camps, summer camps and family vacations?

Could this possibly be my life?

And then, someone spills hot chocolate and someone punches someone in the face and someone wants to talk—again—about Minecraft.

There’s nothing like children to keep you bouncing along.

When I was a teenager my mother used to say, “I can’t believe you’re my daughter” after she watched me walk home from the school bus stop. It was meant as a compliment, but I didn’t understand. I thought it separated us—I was nothing like her.

Now I know what she meant. When I look at my kids, with their intricate worlds and sure sense of justice, I can’t believe these wild-with-life creatures are my offspring. It is just amazing.

And now I know how those through-the-window families did it: step by step. They did it because they had to. They did it just to keep their worlds turning. Turns out there is no magic to being a productive citizen, or having a fireside family, just hard work.

When I feel myself skirting that familiar existential territory—”Is this my beautiful life?”—I say: Don’t think. Just keep going, keep doing, keep swimming along.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s not as if every morning I spring up smiling to meet the reveille of young voices. And there are nights when I sit too long at the dinner table because I dread the routine that follows—I can’t wash another head of hair or read another story. There are times when I miss my old spontaneous life.

But I don’t miss the aloneness.

Virginia Woodruff founded the website Great Moments in Parenting, a SXSW Interactive Award nominee. She lives in Austin with her husband and three kids.

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