Natalie blogs about the beautiful, chaotic reality of raising three small human beings, with the added challenge of having a child with congenital heart defects.
How did your parenting journey start?
I was 24, in graduate school, and my husband and I just celebrated our one-year wedding anniversary. We had been excited about becoming parents since way before we were married, so we knew we wanted to start a family as soon as we could. Since I was graduating that May, we decided that fall that we could “see what happens.” We got pregnant immediately, to our surprise!
Our first baby was born in August, just after I graduated. We were living in my mother-in-law’s basement while we saved to buy a house, had very little money, and I hadn’t even started a real job yet. But, she made us so happy that none of that really mattered.
What were your expectations?
Honestly, being a brand new mom, I didn’t know what to expect with my first. None of our friends had kids yet, and we were pretty young and dumb. I was just excited to finally realize our dream of starting a family. The only real expectation that I had was that I would love being a mother.
With my second child, my expectations changed quite a bit. My second baby was diagnosed with severe congenital heart defects during a routine anatomy scan. You can read his full story on my site. This changed everything, and quite frankly, my expectations were pretty grim. Doctors expected him to be small and unhealthy, that he would need surgery right away, and that he may struggle with developmental milestones. My expectations included frequent hospital stays, worry, anxiety, and an unhealthy baby who was limited in his ability to enjoy his life. I actually wondered if he would even survive. My expectations leading up to his birth were not very optimistic, and I really struggled to imagine a happy life for him, and our family. I went through a major roller coaster of emotions after finding out about my son’s heart defect.
When I was pregnant for a third time, we were a little on edge, given the health of our second child. We were very worried the next baby would have heart issues, too. Our dreams were crushed, however, when we miscarried at 6 weeks.
Luckily we got pregnant for a fourth time immediately after the miscarriage. After such traumatic past pregnancies, I tried not to expect very much at all with the pregnancy until all of our extra testing came back. When we learned he was a healthy boy, I was able to allow myself to be happy! I had much more positive expectations about the birth experience and bringing our healthy baby home to complete our family.
I expected life with three kids to be more challenging than 2, and tried to prepare myself for that. But I figured we could handle anything after what we had been through.
How do you feel about those expectations now?
For my first, I think the lack of expectations made transitioning into parenthood much easier. I often hear of people being completely caught off guard by their new role as a mom. I definitely loved being a mom, but I didn’t know just how hard it was going to be. As many times as you hear how difficult it is to have a child, it just doesn’t really resonate until you are experiencing it yourself.
For my second, I’m happy to say that my expectations were completely wrong! My heart warrior has thrived, and has surpassed every expectation that others have placed on him. He is just like any other child now, even though he did have two open heart surgeries, and will have ongoing care. He is such a joyful boy, and he has been able to do more than I could have ever imagined.
For my third, I was just thrilled to have a healthy baby. My expectations didn’t matter anymore. As I learned from my second, nothing happens as you expect them to! I became much more flexible and open to handling whatever life threw at me.
My expectations for having three kids was way off! Nothing could have prepared me for how challenging it is having three kids! I thought I could handle anything because of our traumatic experience with my second. Anything else would be a piece of cake, right? I was so wrong! It was a totally different experience than I had imagined. I try to find the humor in it, especially on the hard days.
What has been the easiest part (or parts)?
This is such a tough question, because nothing about motherhood is easy! For me, the easiest part of becoming a mother was giving up my “single” lifestyle. I was completely OK with not going out with my friends anymore. And the truth is, I didn’t miss it at all. I knew I wanted to be a mother for most of my life, so when I finally got the chance, it was a dream come true. While my friends were out at bars and spending the day shopping, I was home breastfeeding and taking care of my baby girl. And I was totally fine with that.
Where have you struggled the most?
Being a mother of a medically complex child. It’s so hard to imagine having a baby with health issues. But when it happens, (and it happens more often than you think,) it just blindsides you. You go through so many stages of emotions before accepting this life for your child, and your family. Then, you have to go through all of the testing, procedures, and surgeries. Seeing my baby with chest open on the table, after his first surgery, was the worst experience of my life. Knowing the pain he was in as he healed broke my heart into a million pieces, every day.
While I struggled with these things the most, they also shaped me into a better person, and inspired me more than anything else ever has. I credit my baby boy for my optimism and desire to help others who find themselves in similar situations.
Have you always felt supported?
Not always. It’s difficult being a young mom. None of my friends were parents yet, and they just didn’t relate to our lifestyle. Not that they grew distant, or did anything to actually be unsupportive, it’s just that they didn’t know how to be supportive during certain events in our lives.
Especially when my heart baby was going through some tough things, many people around us just didn’t know how to show support. We had some people reaching out to us who hardly knew us, while people who mattered the most to us stayed silent. That was difficult, and really made me feel lonely at times.
Not only that, but there is always someone who is critical of the way you handle things with your kids. That person who steps in when they don’t think you’re doing it “right,” or who says, “If that were my kid…”
What helps you get through the tough days?
Bed time! If the day has been hard, I know that I can put my kids to bed, and have a few moments to myself. Probably with a glass of wine. Every mama needs some “me time,” especially on a tough day.
When we were going through our toughest days with my heart baby, it was the support we received from others that got me through. While sometimes it was lonely and I felt very isolated, there were also times when the support was overwhelming and inspiring.
What makes you smile?
Nothing makes me happier than when my kids smile. Their laughter just makes everything better. Sometimes I hear them playing and laughing in the other room, and I just start laughing to myself.
Also, my husband. Even on a hard day, he can make me laugh just by being him. In fact, he makes me laugh more, on purpose, on hard days, because he knows I need it. I need his humor in my life. When I am starting to lose it with my kids, he jumps right in and changes the situation from stressed, whiny children, to everyone running around and giggling. He has a special way of lightening the mood.
Anything else you would like to add?
Being a mother has been everything I thought it could be, but also much more than I expected. Particularly because life threw me a curveball when my heart warrior came along. It’s hard. It’s exhausting. It tests every belief you thought you had. It makes you do things you never thought you would, or could do.
But it also brings out the best parts of you, like strength, compassion, and empathy. I am a better person because I am Mommy to these three little people. Becoming a mother was the best thing I’ve ever done.
Natalie’s mission is to give moms tips and reassurance that they are not alone in this crazy motherhood adventure. She was born and raised in St. Louis, Missouri, where she is also a speech-language pathologist. Read more about motherhood over at mamadoingitall.com