Thursday, July 27, 2017

A Love Story for Laura, Mother of Eight

Two-year-old Callie smooching her mom– my big sister Laura.

I want to share a love story.

It starts in October with my sister and a positive pregnancy test under the most inconvenient of circumstances. Not that pregnancy or child-rearing is ever really convenient anyway. 

Laura, mother of seven, nine months separated from her husband of 19 years, stood outside the dilapidated house she would eventually lose to foreclosure and told my sister Sarah and me that she was pregnant, the father a man she'd met online and knew little about– he was a body builder, he was from the Ivory Coast, she thought he was kind. She shook her head in bewilderment, shock and despair. 

Because what else can you do in the immediate aftermath of a positive pregnancy test, under the circumstances? 

For Laura, life is relentless.

Always relentless. There's not a week that goes by when her large family is not stricken with strep or pink eye or some stomach bug or another. Her 14-year-old once went to the emergency room three times in six months. There's always a car breaking down. A kid missing the bus. A fox killing her chickens. A refrigerator that stops refrigerating. 

The reality of having a large family. The reality of being Laura. 

Laura has never wanted to be on the receiving end of anyone's pity. She's never wanted anyone to feel sorry for her. Her life is her choice.

There were six of us Haller siblings. Growing up, Laura was like my back-up mom. She had always envisioned her own big brood. All the chaos and laughter and absurdity that comes from so many siblings in one house. She has a mother's heart. Just like our mother.

And I've been grateful for her beautiful family. Her oldest, Hannah, who is now 22 and planning a wedding, was my practice baby. This fiery, curly-haired princess was my first lesson in what love is. And each of her five little brothers– these wild, hilarious, creative wrecking balls– have brought me endless laughter and joy. And little Callie-Sue (my half namesake– not that I'm bragging or anything) is pure sunshine. 

My sister's children.
She has beautiful babies. But not only beautiful– they're bright, creative and compassionate. They're good little people. They're also good big people– 6-foot-2, 19-year-old Sawyer is currently on a two-year mission in Guatemala, sharing his faith and offering a helping hand to anyone in need, Hannah is pursuing a nursing degree, 17-year-old Finn and 14-year-old Scout are perpetually in search of ways to make my girls giggle. 

The thing is, even when you consistently have awesome babies, each new baby seems to invite raised eyebrows, skepticism, commentary and judgment.

It was after No. 3 or No. 4 (Finn or Scout) that people felt it was time to weigh-in on my sister's reproductive choices. They'd disguise it in well-meaning wit or advice– "You do know where those things come from, right?" or "they have pills for that" or "You're getting your tubes tied, right?" The first few babies warrant celebration. The subsequent babies? Advice on birth control. As if she ceased to be a human person, and instead was livestock at some massive factory farm. Her output examined and marveled at by the general public. 

Laura has always laughed off commentary. Always accepted her role as the outlier. She's always absorbed all the judgment and instead of projecting resentment or annoyance, she's radiated grace. 

She understands life is relentless. Not just for her, but for everyone. She soaks in other people's pain and then projects peace. Whenever I've had a friend who's in pain, I've led them to Laura. She's like an oracle for hardship. We've always laid our worries at her feet because she knows these worries intimately. She listens and soothes and somehow softens the hard edges of our lives.

I heard this quote in an interview a few months ago and immediately thought of her: 

“You are the place where I stand on the day when my feet are sore.”  

She's been this place for me so, so many times over the year. 

When I first became a mother, I was constantly reaching out to Laura for advice and reassurance. I saved most of her emails to me. 

First-time moms always feel as if they're under a microscope. Here's something Laura shared with me after I wrote her bemoaning some paranoia or other about my abilities as a parent compared with others:

"So, let the world  judge and know that they are doing it out of their own fear and anxiety. It is sad really. 'Miserable being likes more miserable being...', but that's not really what we want, what we really want is to feel good about others AND ourselves, so it could be, 'Unhappy beings want to be happy beings, like that guy over there...'."

We always quote "Lady and the Tramp" when dealing with the ruthlessness of humans toward one another. 

That day in October when Laura found out she was pregnant, she was a miserable being. There seemed to be no right answer to what her next step should be. And it didn't help matters that she knew any decision she made would be dissected and studied by anyone who knew her– family, friends, acquaintances. All the usual suspects that line up to weigh in on other people's inconvenient circumstances. Laura had braced herself for this. She was aware about what her situation looked like from the outside. A train wreck.

And most of us were well meaning, of course. We love Laura. We just want life, which has always been so unyielding for her, to be easier. And, of course, motherhood is always open season for unsolicited advice. Like that she could terminate her pregnancy and nobody would judge. Or that there are plenty of childless couples with means who are aching for a baby. More than one of us offered to adopt the baby. We all said we'd support whatever choice she made. 

Not that any of that helped Laura. Because the father of the baby was uncommunicative at the time, Laura was the sole decision maker. The one who would have to make a choice and live with that choice. 

Because I know my sister like I know myself I know that her decision to keep the baby was inevitable. I knew it from the moment I knew she was pregnant. She told me once that she fell in love with each of her babies the moment she knew they existed. Probably before, even. For her, motherhood starts at a cellular level.

Laura is not a selfish person. She's deeply spiritual and claims the Dalai Lama and Mother Teresa as her idols. She's not ignorant or naive. She spent months and months researching options and turning them over and over in her brain, trying to come to a decision she could live with. Not a decision that was going to be the easiest. The most understandable. The least controversial. But the one that felt right for her.

Laura gave me her blessing to share this story. And I've started and stopped a dozen times. Fearful that I won't get it right. That I'm just chipping away at an ill-constructed dam that will break, unleashing all manners of judgment and self-righteousness at my sister– not from people who know her, but from people who don't. 

The dialogue in our country surrounding women's rights is just so fraught right now. It's probably always been. 

I wanted to share my sister's story, not to endorse the right to choose or the right to life or to support adoption or not support adoption. This isn't some political commentary on my sister's life choices. My thoughts on any of these issues are not important. 

I wanted to share my sister's story because it's a human story. It's complicated and messy– just as it is for any woman who finds herself holding at positive pregnancy test in the most inconvenient of circumstances. A scenario that plays itself out over and over and over again in our country– in the world– every day. 

I wanted to make a plea for love and compassion for women in this place. For assuming the best in every woman faced with life-quaking choices. For listening. Really listening. For constructing a forcefield around these women to protect them from the slings and arrows of a self-righteous mob and allow them the peace to think. The permission to dig into their hearts and find the answers that suit their lives. Their circumstances. To trust that those decisions are sound.

And then once the decision is made, to stand by them. To be the place they can stand when their feet are sore. 

Opening our hearts that way is empowering. Not just for women, but for all of us. 

That's the world I want to live in.


My sister Laura has long given up any since of privacy or pride.

Years ago she wrote this note to me:

"I have to share this with you. It is something that you, too, will one day enjoy. Scout’s class made books for their mother’s for Mother’s day. Each page appeared to have a prompt. This particular page was about your funniest memory of your mom. It reads as follows, Ahem... 'The funniest thing I remember about my mom is that she snores louder than a tractor trailors horn. It wakes me up during the night and it gets harder and harder and harder to sleep during the night. She sleeps perfectly but we have, like, no time to sleep during the night but to resolve it we just eat and put cotton balls in our ears.' 
Mothers, sisters aunts cooling off in a baby pool.

It is important to note that his teacher did, indeed, read this particular entry. Once they start school, your home will have no secrets. I hope you managed to sell your pride at the yard sale because it holds no value for you any more."
I think about this every time my kid runs up to me to wipe their snotty nose on my shirt or when I have to plead with them in public not to lick me again. Let it go. Let it go. Let it go. 
As her pregnancy became more obvious, she decided she wanted to head off any speculation or raised eyebrows with this epic post on Facebook: 

"Dear facebook friends. I feel obliged to offer a brief update as i dont see many of you often but would prefer to avoid shocked expressions when we do meet.  Many of you know that kevin and I have separated in the last year putting an end to an amazing journey that netted 7 amazing kids and the bonus child (for me) my step daughter. You are, perhaps, less aware of the fact that i am expecting another child in July. Kevin is off the hook for this one. Wondering if Im gaining weight or pregnant...the answer is both! Wondering who the dad is...well i doubt you know him...i barely do. Wondering what I was thinking? Well...thats a more involved story than facebook can handle. Do i know what causes babies? Yes. Am I aware of global warming, the over population of Earth, and all the available forms of contraception?...yes. How are we going to day at a time. How are my other kids handling it? ...with the utmost compassion for their mother and their unborn sibling. Another interesting piece to this puzzle is that this little one is biracial...we have all enjoyed envisioning the future of our family photos and adding a splash of color in is full of surprises. Xoxo"
The messages she received in response were all ones of love and support. Of understanding compassion. Things like:

"Good Lord I love you woman.. You are a super-fly HUMAN... Hugs and Kisses to you and your great big beautiful family..."

"This baby is blessed to be born into such a beautiful family and will be truly welcomed with open arms!"

"You are one of the most authentic, strong and brave women I have ever had the privilege to know"

Comment after comment after comment. Mostly from women. All loving.

When I sent a note out to family and friends recently, asking for help and prayers for my sister as she prepared to move her family, we were met with so much generosity. So many words of support. 

Perhaps that world I want to live in already exists. And on Facebook of all places. I shouldn't be surprised. So often when I've exposed my fleshy underbelly to the world, they've met me with love. Why shouldn't it be the same for Laura?


The love story ended and began again last Wednesday. 

After laboring for more than 40 hours, during which Laura wandered around Lowes, received a makeover from her 2 year old, squeezed into a baby pool with her two daughters and I, and hula-hooped in a Walmart, Rosalie Chiaye arrived in the world.

She was surrounded by two aunties, her big sister, Laura's best friend and, of course, her mother, all of who were weeping and marveling at her head full of hair, her heart-shaped mouth, her perfect little toes. 

She is magic. 

Rosalie Chiaye. 

her name sounds like poetry. It is the one thing her father has given her in her short life– though who knows, he might come around. 

In the meantime, sweet Rosalie Chiaye will never be short of affection or attention. She has two big sisters, five big brothers, a step sister, two grandparents, three aunts, five uncles, six cousins, a slew of devoted family friends and a mother who chose her. 

Rosalie in the middle of a brother/cousin swarm.
Life hasn't stopped being relentless for Laura. Certainly not with a newborn. She's relocated to a cozy farmhouse and is finding some more stability, but there are always more questions than answers. Problems that need to be solved.

Just yesterday on her way home from Rosalie's first doctor's appointment her van got a flat. She walked into her house to find the kitchen ceiling leaking. It's always something.

Laura hula hooping.
Ten hours before giving birth.
Laura continues to trudge through it. Weary and careworn, but not without a sense of humor. Not without the ability to find moments of silliness and joy. 

As she was in the height of her labor last Wednesday morning, we were trying to talk Laura through her contractions by giving her scenes to imagine– waves on the beach and her feet in the warm sand, or the sun filtering through trees in a forest. When we described mountain scenery, she told us that the other day she was running errands and she pulled up next to a girl listening to "The Sound of Music" at full blast. She motioned for the girl to roll down her window and joined in singing with her. 

Life might beat the crap out of her, but Laura makes room for love.

When she reads this, she'll roll her eyes at me. Claiming her exhausting life is just a culmination of all the bad choices she's made. But I disagree. 

Maybe the creator looked at my sister– her heart as big as Jupiter– and figured the world could use more of her. More of her compassion. More of her goodwill. Move of her sense of humor. More of her grace. And so we were given more. 

It's necessarily a fairy tale. But then real love stories are always more complicated than that.

Yaaaawwwn. Jovie says her new cousin is really cute.

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