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This Family Is Not Too Small

June, 2018

My husband and I browse family photos, digital ones and paper ones. Our only daughter’s wedding is coming up soon, and we’re planning a slideshow to play in the background while we present our family program. I think about how it will work in practice. The groom’s family of seventeen will be there, and no matter how we count it, there will be just the two of us. I call my sister to ask if she would come to be a part of the family, and she readily agrees. In fact, we are kind of like one family; it even feels like we share our children.

Baby pictures. There should only be one—this one of her with a dirty chin is charming. Our daughter was six months old, and I had just started my first permanent job. In retrospect, I have thought that at the time my prayers were heard. Oh, if only He had not heard them! I was afraid I would get pregnant again before my first day of work. What would my employer say if I was suffering from morning sickness when starting work? I hoped to work at least one year before my next pregnancy so that I wouldn’t feel like I was letting my employer down.

Why weren’t prayers heard after that? Shouldn’t the sincere prayer of a child be more powerful than the prayer of an adult who is seeking her own momentary interest? Every night for years and years, our daughter’s prayer ended the same way: “Dear Heavenly Father, give me a baby sister or brother!”

Vacation trip photos. The legendary trip of our family and my sister’s family in Southern Finland. We still laugh about the question of a passing couple: “Excuse me, but what is going on here?” Well, it was quite a show to haul all the kids and the luggage through the city into a parking garage.

A huge number of pictures taken at the cabin, from different years, in different seasons. There is a lake, a flock of children, and colorful beach toys in the cabin pictures. On one hand, our child has been the only one, but on the other hand, she has been a part of a large family. I remember when our daughter, as a teenager, came home from a weekend getaway at her older cousin’s place: “She told everyone that I was her little sister!”

Christmas photos. Always two in the picture, one behind the camera. For several years I asked the same question: “Should we invite someone over for Christmas Eve dinner?” Her reply was always the same: “Mom, not on Christmas Eve. I want to spend it with our own family.” That answer moved me every time: our family is small, but not too small in my child’s opinion.

Pictures from the time when we lived in hope that our family would grow. There is joy, sorrow, fatigue, hope, and despair on our faces. Infertility treatments are also physically hard on a woman. The doctor would give us hope every time, even assurance: “Everything looks so good that nothing less than a baby will be the result!” Disappointment, one after the other. During our last visit the physician said that going through all this was worth it in the sense that later we would not need to regret not trying. His last comment was: “You have received all the treatment for infertility that modern medicine knows. The only reason I can find for the lack of success of the treatments is that the decision has been made above.”

I remember one ladies’ night at a cabin when a certain mother of a large family wanted to unburden herself to me, even though we did not know each other very well. She told me of desperate moments when she did not have energy to cope with her family. She was not able to truly find joy in a new baby when the youngest was still so small. She felt she could share her feelings with me because we struggled with the same issue, just a different point of view. Both of us had to accept that we get exactly what God has meant for us. We must be content with what is given to us.

Pictures where I look tired. I still remember the feeling of shame: I, a mother of one child, was on sick leave because of exhaustion. In my head echo the phrases that I have snatched from conversations: “She has the nerve to complain about her fatigue to me. She only has three kids and complains that she has not been able to sleep for a few weeks. I have not slept well for ten years.” In my mind, I ask them: “How many children does one have to have before being allowed to feel tired? What about exhaustion? How many are needed for that? Does one get extra points if one’s job is mentally or physically demanding?” When I finally went to the doctor, I was only able to say a few words. Then I cried for the next 15 minutes.

The sick leave of several months and the support I received during it have carried me to this day. I dared to confess to myself and to others that I am weak. I can’t do this. I do not always have the strength even though supper for my family fits in a small pot, and I don’t have babies disturbing my sleep. I am not a superwoman. Someone told me once that she cannot help but envy my easy life. At the time, an old saying came to my mind: “Do not envy the joys of one whose sorrows you can’t know.”

A picture of our home filled with youth and laughter. We had gathered for our traditional game of Trivial Pursuit with two teams: “Elders” and “Youngsters.” When the “Elders,” my husband and I, lost for the first time, I realized that our daughter and her friends had grown up. I have thought to myself that the difference between having zero children and one child is bigger than between having one or ten. I am a mother. He is a father. A child finds friends and relatives of her own age around her.

A picture of our daughter leaving to the USA as an au pair. The trip was needed to cut the apron strings. I was able to understand that she needs more space to grow up to be her own self. We were attached, mother and daughter. We had gotten used to doing everything from daily routines to a festive table setting together. We were a good team. Afterwards, I realized that I was more the one who needed the detachment. My daughter was so kind that she never told me: “Mom, get your own life!” When she was across the ocean, I could not stay up and wait for her to get home. I could not call her every day to ask how things were. I had to look in the mirror and ask myself what else I was besides a mom.

A picture of us furnishing our daughter’s first apartment for her studies. I remember getting a call from her: “Mom, I have found someone who is in the same boat as me!” She was so excited that she had met a believing student girl who was also an only child. I asked my daughter if she feels like she belongs to a minority. I told her that I don’t have friends who share the same experience either—being a mother to only one child. We could name many singles, childless couples, and small families but not very many believing families with only one child. Perhaps we really are a minority who sometimes long for peer support.

In the end, I do not feel that I am labeled as a mother of a small family. I think that all of us mothers are the same, regardless of the number of children or where we are from. In general, I do not like categorizing people into different boxes: singles, couples, small families, large families, seniors, youth. Deep inside all of us human beings are the same joys and sorrows.

A picture of a happy, smiling engaged couple, sent by cell phone. I had been cooking Easter lamb for hours in the oven. When the young couple went hiking, I told my husband that I feel like we might drink coffee in honor of an engagement tonight. My mother instinct was right. I sensed the purpose of a trip better than my daughter did.

Afterwards, many asked if I felt I was going to lose my daughter or at least a part of her. I didn’t experience loss but rather that I was receiving something. Finally, I was getting a son. A son who was raised already and I was almost 50!

When the slideshow was finished, I wondered what kind of pictures we will see in the future. The richness of life is in not knowing what the future brings. Fortunately, surprises in life will not end in youth or adulthood, but life offers new perspectives at different phases of life.

Taina Palola

Translated from Äiti, SRK 2016

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