At 40, I was perfectly happy with the DINKs By Design lifestyle my husband and I had created for ourselves. My reasons for not wanting children were many: There were the financial burdens, lack of sleep, loss of your sex life, the messy house, the potential disagreements between parents about how to raise and nurture a child, not to mention my desire to have my husband’s undivided attention. Were these reasons selfish? Sure. But they were mine. And like any good DINK (Dual Income, No Kids), I was dedicated to them.
Life’s funny. Just when you think you have it all figured out, BAM. Curveball to the heart, a.k.a. the hysterical phone call from my mother-in-law telling us my husband’s sister and her baby daddy were in jail. Their baby - our 1-year-old niece - was thrust into the foster care system indefinitely.
Without hesitation, my husband and I stepped in. After 40 years as a DINK, I had just nine days to prepare for diapers. The moment we brought my niece home to live with us, our lives changed - for good. And while I understood that this child’s needs trumped my own, that didn’t mean I didn’t initially resent that without warning, my life had completely changed. The personal and creative freedom I once coveted? Gone. Sleeping in on weekends? Gone. My sex life? Freakin’ checked into the witness protection program. As for the financial abundance of being child-free? I suddenly found myself financially responsible for diapers and daycare, a nanny and nursery toys.
Couple these personal freedom losses with my own feelings of inferiority about how well I was handling my instant immersion into the deep end of the parenting pool, and I woke up every morning and went to bed every evening for the first five months feeling more like an Imposter Mom than a Foster Mom.
And then something remarkable happened. I surrendered. After months of resistance, my niece and I bonded. By the time she went back to live with her mom ten months later, my husband and I were different people. Sure, we were happy to have our financial, personal, and career freedom back. But after loving a child, we felt the emptiness of an empty nest.
Today, we're lucky enough to co-parent my now-4-year-old niece on weekends. She’s a bright, funny, beautiful, loving, hilarious little girl. And loving her is one of my greatest gifts. In opening my heart to this child, I’ve healed many of the emotional wounds from my own childhood that inspired me to design my DINKs lifestyle in the first place. Below are four of my favorite childhood lessons, rewritten with love for my niece.
Lesson #1: Take The Stress Out Of Mess Growing up, I was the messy one in my family. My older sister played by the rules, had perfect penmanship from her first handwriting class, and probably never colored outside the lines. And while that approach to life has worked for her, it was clear from an early age that it wouldn’t work for me - a fact my parents struggled to make peace with. At 3, I colored all over my bedroom walls in crayon (and got in BIG trouble for it). At 7, I allegedly introduced hair lice to the family. At 14, I brought home a kitten from the pet store even though I was allergic. At 16, I died my hair black in the master bathtub, accidentally staining the bath towels and curtains. Each time I made a mess, my parents freaked. And while I understood their point of view - my actions created consequences they didn’t enjoy - didn’t they understand mine? I wasn’t messy by choice. It was simply my approach to life. I’m a tactile, learn by doing kind of gal. I’ll never play it safe, stand on the sidelines, dip my toe. That was the beauty of meeting and marrying my husband. While he’s a more logical, safety-oriented type, he celebrates my “All In” approach to life. And now that my niece is four-years-old, we’ve adopted a saying for anytime she tracks sand in the car, spills finger paint on the floor, and/or accidentally dies the bathtub pink during a food coloring science experiment. When she verbalizes that she’s made a mess, I respond with “And you know what that means…” to which she replies with a happy smile, “I’m having fun!”
Lesson #2: Find Value In Your Voice I've been a storyteller since I could scrawl on my bedroom walls in crayon. I write about things that excite me as well as things that confound me. When I couldn't make love work with Mr. Wrong, I wrote my best selling book It's A Breakup, Not A Breakdown. When I struggled to adapt to my instant immersion as a foster parent, I began my Confessions Of An Imposter Mom blog. Part of my inspiration for writing, I believe, is that my voice wasn’t always welcomed at home. While my father was a guidance counselor who often looked me in the eye and said, ‘Tell me how you feel,” my mother was raised in a strict religious household where appearances trumped feelings, so her quick reply was always, “I don’t want to know!”
With my niece, I want her to express anything and everything she’s feeling. And I want her to feel HEARD. So when I pick her up on Saturday mornings, give her a mushy kiss, and she tells me I have coffee breath, I thank her for letting me know. When she pouts that she doesn’t get her way from time to time, my husband and I ask her what she’s feeling and we work through those feelings together. Our goal isn’t to coddle her, but to encourage her to be comfortable expressing her feelings and opinions in fair and honest ways.
Lesson #3: Sometimes Lungs Need To Be Loud Indoor voices have their place. And sometimes, you’re not going to settle down until you’ve felt free to get riled up. On the drive to restaurants, adult-focused events and parties, I encourage my niece to ‘let it all out.’ And yes, that sometimes means we’re the ones next to you in traffic screaming at the top of our lungs with the windows down. Somewhere along the journey to encouraging my niece to find and free her own voice, I’ve found and freed a more resonant voice of my own.
Lesson #4: Love Your Body I can’t remember a time my mom wasn’t on a diet, trying to lose weight, and/or making disparaging comments about her own body. As a chubby kid, this kind of body talk created a lot of body angst for me. Couple that with the fact that my sister developed early and I developed late - something men and my mother frequently obsessed about - and I’ve spent the majority of my life dealing with some form of body drama.
And while the body drama comes and goes in my 40s, I never want my niece to experience my angst. So when we go to the beach? I’m the curvy girl with cellulite and thigh bounce running along the beach with reckless abandon while holding my niece’s hand and squealing with delight. At home, if I’m naked in front of her, I’m comfortably and confidently naked. She’s allowed to point to body parts, ask questions, and be curious… something I never expected to be OK with.
While I never planned on or wanted to love or raise a child, the gifts of loving and co-parenting my niece are many. My hope is that she’ll be a healthier, happier, more well-adjusted individual because of the lessons I share with her. At the end of the day, I’m better for having rewritten and relearned them myself.