The Good Kind of Hard

dsc_0148.jpgMothers are masochists, or so I think, sometimes.

Nathan went on a trip with my parents and his older cousins for a few days. That first night, Ellie was sound asleep in her crib by 7:15, which meant I had watched two episodes of Downton Abbey and polished off a brownie by the time Jon got home from his weekly basketball game. He flopped down on the couch next to me and observed the silence and relative neatness of the house.

“Man, it’s easy having just one kid, isn’t it?”

He was right. It WAS easy. I’d been able to focus solely on Ellie, all day long. We colored, played and read an enormous stack of books. We took a walk, saying hello to every pup, bird and squirrel in the neighborhood. I enjoyed two full hours to myself while she napped. I hadn’t raised my voice a single time.

Did it really used to be this simple? I couldn’t remember. My mind couldn’t reach back through the fog of the last two years to remember life before Ellie arrived on the scene. The shift from one child to two threw my entire world into a tailspin. It was a full year before I managed to shake the feeling that I was drowning. Even now, when most days have a routine and a rhythm to them, it’s still wearisome to try and balance everyone’s needs.

A few days’ break sounded like heaven, and at first, I luxuriated in the ease of it all. But it was also quiet. Too quiet. Nathan’s chatter and the laughter and shrieks shared between him and his sister were missing. The day felt a little too empty and – I can’t believe I’m saying this – too calm.

While it was nice to slow down a little bit, it didn’t feel quite right, either. At first, I couldn’t put my finger on it, but then I understood.

I missed the hard. 

***

It goes against the grain, really. We tend to think of hard as being synonymous with worse. It started back in high school, “Why are you taking AP U.S. History? Ms. Gipson is crazy hard!”

Yes, she was. I’ve actually never put forth more effort in any class, at any level of learning, than I did in hers. I spent hours poring over assigned readings, preparing for debates and working on essays. I studied relentlessly for every exam. Despite the unceasing challenge of it all, it’s also my favorite class that I’ve ever taken. I learned more than I ever have before or since – not just about the subject, but about myself. Sure, I can talk a blue streak about Sacco and Vanzetti, and Howard Zinn is still on my bookshelf, but working and reworking those essays is what convinced me I loved writing. I still remember the feeling of pride and vindication when I earned a perfect 5 on the AP exam that spring. At the age of 17, I learned to stop shying away from hard. The work was taxing, yes, but it stretched me and pushed me. The payoff, too, made it all worthwhile.

It’s a lesson I carried with me into my marriage. Love is not effortless. As Jen Hatmaker so wisely wrote, “All due respect to the Resurrection, but two-becoming-one might be the greatest miracle ever.”

Marriage is relentless. Putting him before me, every single day. Asking for forgiveness when selfishness gets the best of me. Offering forgiveness when selfishness gets the best of him. It would be easy, to nurture the little hurts into deep, festering sores. To let that biting retort fly from my lips instead of holding it back. To keep score and place blame, rather than look for kindness and express gratitude.

Yes, protecting this love is backbreaking work some days.

It’s worth every hard-fought inch, though. I have someone by my side, for the rest of my life, who never stops trying, never stops forgiving, never stops loving. I get to be that, for him. It is a precious, safe place, and I will never stop fighting to keep it so.

***

Jon and I like to joke that if parenting ever feels easy, we’re probably doing it wrong. Some parts are just plain merciless: when the whole family gets wiped out with a stomach bug, when your son comes home crying because he was teased on the playground, when the toddler won’t stop tantruming. These are the moments when you feel ill-prepared, bewildered and lost. The syllabus on parenting didn’t quite spell out all the prerequisites. You could use more patience, and a lot more wisdom. It’s not that you expected it to be a piece of cake, but the exacting demands piled onto your shoulders every day feel like more than you can possibly bear.

But then, there’s the good kind of hard. You’ve paced the floor for hours with a fussy baby who won’t be placated. You’ve fed, bounced and swayed. Your arms are burning and your back is aching, when, at long last, her eyes droop closed and her breathing becomes deep and even. The 3 a.m. moonlight slips into the room through the slats in the blinds, and you study the way her eyelashes brush her cheeks and how tightly her tiny fist grips your shirt. The exhaustion and frustration ebb as your heart swells. This moment, the peace that comes right when you think you might break, cancels out the rest.

We eschew the easy and embrace the hard, but not because we’re masochists. Yes, it’s tiring and some days (weeks? years?) feel like one long uphill battle. Easier doesn’t feel any lighter, though. It should, until you notice what’s missing from the equation.

Love tips the balance. 

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