Nineteen years ago last month, I married the love of my life and the mother of my children. For me, she was the fulfillment of a dream and many seemingly unanswerable prayers. I was really quite petty with God when I made a checklist of physical and intellectual attributes that I wanted in a spouse. Let me never say that God does not answer prayers. Chris was my dream come true. (Cue romantic music.)
Our life together began just as many do. I wore a rental tuxedo and was honored to have my brother and two best friends behind me at the altar of God in a Catholic church here in Colorado. My bride wore a beautiful white dress with her sister, cousin, and best friend at her side. Following the ceremony we were surrounded by all of our family and friends for an evening of standing through a receiving line, dancing, laughing, eating, and cake-cutting rituals. We were filled with joy and hope at what life would bring over the next lifetime.
At the end of the evening, and before retiring to our marriage bed for the first time, we read and prayed from the book of Tobit (8:5-10):
For we are the children of saints, and we must not be joined together like heathens that know not God. So they both arose, and prayed earnestly both together that health might be given them, And Tobias said: Lord God of our father, may the heavens and the earth, and the sea, and the fountains, and the rivers, and all thy creatures that are in them, bless thee. Thou madest Adam of the slime of the earth, and gavest him Eve for a helper. And now, Lord, thou knowest, that not for fleshly lust do I take my sister to wife, but only for the love of posterity, in which thy name may be blessed for ever and ever. Sara also said: Have mercy on us, O Lord, have mercy on us, and let us grow old both together in health.
Did you see the part about the “not for lust, but for the love of posterity”? Yeah, me too. Guess how God decided to answer that prayer?
We had ten children over the next seventeen years. Eight girls, two boys, and a lot of different personalities.
The intervening years have taught me a great deal about what it really means to follow God’s command, given to Adam and Eve in the garden, to “be fruitful and multiply.”
- Each child is a blessing.
- Each child is a cross.
- Each child is a source of frustration, impatience, tears, constant messes, and incessant screaming.
- Each child is a living life lesson in humility, selflessness, generosity, patience, and hope.
These days, when I see the 2-year-old — now our youngest — play all nine of her older siblings like a fine violin, I find myself wanting her to be a little more mature; to learn not to be such a huge, self-centered, manipulative brat. On the other hand, when I see my 18-year-old daughter drive away for a week to house-sit for her aunt, I shed a small tear at my short-term loss and realize that she is just three short years from the age where the story of me and my wife began. Our first huge, self-centered, manipulative brat has become the smart, funny, responsible adult that more often helps than hinders, gives than gathers, loves than laments.
When our oldest does move away, my long-term loss will become the foundation for the next generation of hope, both for myself and the world. My loss is the world’s gain. Scratch that. My gain is the world’s gain. Each child, in his or her own way, has saved me from myself. Each has taught me the meaning of generosity, the necessity of selflessness, the true nature of love, the reason why I must always strive to be a better father. A better husband. A better man.
My wife and I have been in a constant state of transition since that inspiring night just nineteen years ago. We have transitioned:
- in to solid food
- out of diapers
- from having to spell C.A.N.D.Y.
- to wishing that the kids couldn’t spell
- to dealing with food allergies
- to dealing with unpredictable fertility
- to caring for infirm loved ones
- … and countless others
Our next transition is perhaps the hardest. Our children are beginning to leave home. The last nineteen years have been spent filling our house with children, emptying our pocketbooks and refrigerators, and attacking every challenge the world poses to us as parents. Now, every two years for the next decade-and-a-half, we’ll have a home that becomes a little more empty. One fewer person. That much less laundry. Shorter lines for the bathroom. Fewer cars in the driveway.
That feeling that every parent of a large family has now and then — the one that strikes at the dinner table when things are a little quieter than normal, and you feel like someone is missing — will come. Only this time, it won’t just be a feeling.
There are times in the life of every parent when we feel so impatient for them to grow up. We want them to brush their own teeth, get themselves dressed for Mass, go to the bathroom or bathe without our help, exist in a way that isn’t quite so labor-intensive. It’s cliche, but it bears repeating: the time goes by fast. Cherish it before it’s gone. If you have a large, busy, exhausting family, remind yourself of this every day. That girl who forgets to shower and has hair like a feral animal? She’s going to be far too pretty and far too grown up before you know it. The boy who wants you to tuck him in every night no matter what? Pretty soon, you’ll be lucky if he’s willing to let you give him a hug.
As I watch my children leave my home and go out into the world, there is a sadness, an ache, that I will have to learn to embrace as another cross a child can bring. But as I watch them go out into the world, I realize what amazing people they have become, and the blessing is once again driven home.
The world needs good kids, even if you’d rather hold onto them a while longer. It’s hard to let them go, but they have a job to do.
As each child heads off into the world, I get an increase in hope.
James Sullivan is a software engineer in Colorado. He is an active member of his FSSP parish, an oblate of St. Benedict through Clear Creek Abbey in Okalahoma, and the father of 10 children. He loves his wife and enjoys whiskey, in that order.