I got to tell my story to people today. We all have one, right? Our “story.” The one that defines us. I told mine multiple times today. And I’ve honestly told it a THOUSAND times. But here’s the thing you guys. It feels so good to tell it. We are who we are because of where we’ve been. The past is almost never pretty. It’s not always ugly, either. It’s just…messy. That’s mine. Such a mess. My brilliant brother, who always gets me, and who I never want to admit has the wisest insight into me, says “God does such wonderful things with our mess.” He is so right friends. And I want to share with you- because I know you have a story too. Your mess makes you, well, you. And if you haven’t practiced telling your story, I hope you will. In the meantime, here’s mine.
Did you know that I’m a classically trained singer? Or that I planned to be an opera singer when I graduated from high school and moved on to college? Probably not. Cora said to me yesterday, “mom, is it true that you sang in a choir once? How long did you do it and why did you stop?” It was true. I loved music. I actually thought I had some potential as a musician. Some other people actually thought that too, to my amazement. Even after I found out I was pregnant, a few months after graduating high school, I still believed I could follow music as a career. But you know how life goes. When you’re 18 and you’re the smartest person you know, it makes sense to get married to your high school sweetheart and follow your “dreams.” Tomorrow will take care of itself, right? Wrong. I got to teach Cora an important lesson yesterday- about sacrifice.
Shortly after getting married entirely too young and before I had a clue what I was doing, I realized I’d have to be the breadwinner for my family. The idea of pursuing an education in music, because that’s what interested me, became absolutely incomprehensible. It wasn’t about my interests anymore. It was about providing for someone else. So I switched my major and started working towards a BBA in finance and economics. I worked myself to death- after having Celia I never took less than 6 classes per semester, and I never worked less than two jobs- I babysat for a sweet family who fed me and Celia and paid for my gas and gave us a calm place to work on my homework and for her to nap, and I worked nights and weekends at Pier 1, which let me imagine what my house would look like one day when I could afford it. Living vicariously through others is a totally acceptable thing when your life sucks- just sayin.
Later, after Celia’s autism diagnosis, her pediatrician suggested a neurotypical peer would be ideal for her development. And so I had Cora. Looking back, I’m soooooo happy I took that advice. I knew my marriage was not ideal for raising children, but somehow I felt like having another baby was the right thing. And right it was. Celia’s development has always kept close to Cora’s, after being significantly behind her peers for years. It wasn’t easy- I worked through my entire pregnancy, had a C-section the Friday before Spring Break my senior year of college, then went back the following Monday (because I only had 4 years worth of scholarship money and HAD to graduate on time). I was exhausted, and I have no idea how I made it through those days, but I’m so glad I did. I remember all my friends having graduation parties and going on cruises or backpacking across Europe or doing a semester abroad, and I did none of that. I graduated on a Friday and started my first job the following Monday.
That job wound up being an absolutely fabulous career for me. I thought I’d stay long enough to pay down my student loans and then go to law school. I turned down multiple scholarships and acceptances because I couldn’t support my family without working, but I felt like somehow we’d turn it around as a family. Friends, if it ain’t working, it ain’t working. We couldn’t turn it around. I needed to work, and I needed to support us, and law school wasn’t in the equation. But here’s the beautiful thing: God works with our mess anyway. That little, temporary, job became the opportunity for me to create a future for my children. With that job, I started making smart, independent choices. I bought my first car (not my best choice), I bought my first house (not a terrible choice), and I started saving for my children’s educations (an excellent choice). Yes, I bounced some checks in deciding whether to feed my children or keep the lights on. But we survived. Yes, someone had to give me a microwave as a gift so I could stop warming bottles on the stove. Yes, someone had to buy me a washer and dryer so I could clean my children’s clothes without visiting family across town. But we survived (at the kindness of others, I should say).
I had to leave my small hometown, which I loved, in spite of its drawbacks. So many of my sweet friends still talk about how there’s nothing to do there. They’re right. There were no opportunities there that would have allowed me to both provide for my family and save for our future. I had to leave. That’s the sacrifice. In order to save enough money to send my children to college and provide a lifetime of care for Celia, I had to make significantly more money than I could ever make in my hometown. So I left. I went to Nashville, and continued an awesome career. And moved to Atlanta, and did the same. It was amazing. But not without sacrifice. For all the money I made, all the savings we developed for our children, they spent 12 hours a day in the care of someone else. The mom guilt that comes with being the first parent to drop your kids off and the last to pick them up is just the worst. My kids ate breakfast in the car and ate dinner in seconds before heading off to bed. Someone else helped with their homework and someone else kissed their boo-boos. That sucked.
And all the while, I left my music. You know the other reason I left the music behind? Celia hated it. Her autism left her so sensitive to sound that she couldn’t stand for anyone to be singing other than her. My mother’s piano, which I count among my most prized possessions, sat, largely unplayed, in 4 homes as I followed my career, because Celia couldn’t stand a single note to be played. That hurt. When times were so hard, and I was hungry, and I was tired, and I was missing my friends, who were undoubtedly having a great time at karaoke or play practice without me, I wanted to play a dirge and sing my sorrows into the night. But it wasn’t meant to be. Sacrifice. That’s what we do when we love someone else more than we love ourselves.
So when my career was taking off, and I was making great progress, and ready to leap to the next adventure, I saw that my children were suffering. They didn’t need 12 hours of daycare. They needed mommy. They needed a bath and a bedtime story. They needed dinnertime conversation about whether “excuse me” is appropriate after all burps, or just those that others can hear. They needed hugs when they were feeling sad and spanks when they acted a fool. I had to leave the career. It sucked. I can’t walk into a room and command authority based on my experience anymore. I can’t measure my success in profitability and retention. And I don’t get a bonus when I exceed the company goal. I miss it every day. Sacrifice. Knowing when you’re needed to do something bigger than what you want to do.
I’m excited that Celia’s incredible school has given her coping skills to deal with music. We’ve broken out the piano again, and I’m planning on singing in our church choir in the spring, although after nearly 10 years away from music, I don’t know how good I’ll be. I do know this: everyone has a story. Everyone has made sacrifices that we can’t see. They hurt. They cry. They wish we would understand them. And we should. So, mom who stays home and wants just 10 minutes without someone needing something from her (including an uninterrupted bathroom trip from time to time)- I see you. You’re making big sacrifices, and I feel you. Mom who works and feels the mom guilt the entire 90 minute commute to pick your kids up from daycare, who cries when she gets the text from the teacher showing her fingerpaints that you wish you could do with your child- I see you. Your sacrifices are big, and I feel you too. Friends who have waited and waited and have no baby in spite of your best efforts, only to watch other people complain about the ones they have, you’ve made sacrifices none of us can see. But I see you. And friends who are waiting for life to be ready for you to be one of these things- I see you too. We’re all there. Life is so messy. It’s so hard. We give up so much to get what we have. Some days it feels so good, and other days it hurts so bad. I see you. I feel you. You’re not alone.