I had 12 kids. This is the sentence that once defined me. It still can if I let it take center stage. The minute people hear it, they get stuck and cannot move past to anything of consequence.
Which would be a shame, because the having of them is the least part of me. Simple biology at work. With a helping hand from God, if you like, which I do. Which is the other thing about me that people get stuck on. They figure someone who has that many kids has got to be a religious freak. A Mormon, a Catholic, or based on my surname, they might surmise the truth: an orthodox Jew.
The sheer breadth of the number 12 when you think of 12 children, well, you can’t help but think of the Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe. You think household chaos. And the truth is, it was like that in our home a lot of the time for many years. But things are calm now for the most part. Left at home are just two teenage sons and one young adult plus me and my husband.
It’s kind of miraculous. Because I can remember a different time. A time when my family was growing and not shrinking. A time when I had to switch to a larger pot. There I was making mashed potatoes, setting one potato per person into a saucepan full of salted water, when I realized I could not fit the last potato in the pot without flooding the kitchen counter.
Back then, it was hell to stretch the portions and sometimes lunch was what I called creatio ex nihilo. Something from nothing, stone soup.
Today I throw away food. I’ve forgotten what it is to cook five portions of food.
I don’t know how.
And the heck of it is, things are WONDERFUL. AMAZING. I have a job. Writing. People read my blogs. They’ve heard of me. When I was no one but “Eema,” the Hebrew word for “mom,” for so many years.
For over two decades I birthed, labored, and lactated. From ages 19-40 I was sleep-deprived, and moving on auto-pilot; a living example of pregnant and barefoot in the kitchen. I had no other life, really, though I read books, scads of them every week. It was my husband’s job to bring them to me from the second hand book store until one day the shopkeeper said to him, “We have no more books for your wife. She has read them all.”
I was learning my craft, though I didn’t know it then, didn’t know I was learning anything at all. I thought I was escaping the noise and mess and fuss; the responsibility; the hard work of cleaning, cooking, and caring for the kids. Whenever I could, I’d read, traveling into worlds beyond my living room and other people’s lives.
But I was learning. I was learning that words and phrases have a rhythm and sound like music when they work. I learned that simple language can burn its way into the heart more than any fancy, ten-dollar word.
Now I didn’t think I could bear it when I weaned my youngest. Nursing is the crack of earth mothers. It brings peace. It brings endorphins. It makes you feel invincible. I didn’t want to stop. What would there be at the end of the rainbow?
What there was, was writing. Content writing and blogging. And if you work hard, you can pay the rent and a couple of utilities. This is what I have done in the years since my baby entered grade school. I write for Kars4Kids, a charity with the worst jingle on God’s green earth and I’m happy as a clam.
It means something to me. It means something that as someone who spent two decades bearing and caring for children, someone with a high school education I can do that. I made it that far in life. I gave birth to my children and then I gave birth to me.
I don’t have nursing anymore. But I do have blogging. And that lovely thrill that comes with watching a blog go viral, refreshing the page again and again to see the shares and comments. If you want me to say that nursing is nicer than that, I won’t do it. I can’t lie.
Everything is new and precious to me now. There’s community theater where I can act and sing and dance, some of the things I did before I got married and so busy, so terribly busy and tired all the time. There’s a local woman’s choral group where I remember that I am an alto. We work so hard and so together I sweat during our once a week rehearsals. It’s like a workout. It feels so good and true.
Sometimes I’ll see a mom nursing her child and my heart will ache for a moment. And then I’m glad. Because what I’ve got is so much better in a way. Because I had the kids, I did all that. I did it well.
And now I’ve got this. I’ve got life after kids. With so much more ahead.
Varda Meyers Epstein is a mother of 12 and contributing editor at the Kars4Kids educational blog for parents. Her work has appeared in the Huffington Post, Tablet, and Kveller. Find her on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.