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Growing Pains

This is Us: Then and Now

In 1990 Glenn and I both graduated from college and we moved to Orillia, Ontario. Glenn had his first job as a youth pastor and we spent almost four years there. We were both raised in Western Canada and had never been that far east, but in October of 1990 we settled into the little community about an hour north of Toronto. Canadians love to make fun of Americans and their belief that we all drive snowmobiles year-round, but it turns out that Canadians from east to west don’t know a whole lot about each other either. I don’t know how many times I was asked if I grew up on a farm - that seemed to be what people in Ontario believed about the western half of the country. “NO!”, I’d reply while internally rolling my eyes - believe it or not we have cities there too!

About six months after we moved there I realised that I had no friends. I had people at work that I talked to, but they were all way older than me, and I had the kids in the youth group, but I didn’t have any friends my own age. I was twenty-three at the time and just didn’t understand why no one was interested in hanging out or getting to know me and was starting to think that there must be something seriously wrong with me. I remember one day I was walking downtown and caught my reflection in a window and this voice said to me “It’s not you, it’s them”, which was somewhat reassuring, but also set me up for a Me vs. Them mentality. The only thing I can figure out is that they were afraid of being friends because I was married to the pastor and felt like they needed to be on their best behaviour around me. Either that or I would see what they were really like and that made people uncomfortable. We lived there for almost four years without me having one friend that I felt like I could talk to, and I was desperately lonely.

At one point someone gave us the advice to never let anyone see us sweat. Never show any weakness, because you’ll just open yourself up to attack, and that was probably the worst piece of advice we ever received. I look back at those years now and realise that I started to build some pretty big walls, for self-protection, and no one would have been able to get through those walls, no matter how hard they tried. But I also don’t remember anyone really trying.

When we first moved there we lived in the parsonage - a house that the church owned and rented to us. Unfortunately, it was right beside the church and for some reason some of the people in the church thought it was alright to come and peek in our windows, anytime of the day or night, so we learned to live with the blinds and curtains closed. Most normal people just come and ring the doorbell or knock, but not these people. I can’t imagine putting up with that now, I’d probably just call the police and enjoy letting them deal with the weirdos, but as a 23-year old I just put up with it. Eventually we moved to a fourth-floor apartment, so unless they were Spider Man, no one was looking in our windows.

A little more than a year after moving there our first son Maxx came along, which was a bit of a relief to me because I finally had someone to talk to and spend time with, not that he had any choice in the matter. But I was also 23 and a brand new Mom whose family was a few thousand kilometres away. I had no support system as I tried to figure out how to take care of this new little human. I heard a lot about what I was doing wrong, but never any offers of help or support, no encouragement that I was doing a good job, so I quickly learned to keep people at a distance and not let them in. I built walls to protect myself, but it was also a jail that I built for myself.

When Maxx was two months old he was admitted to the hospital for “failure to thrive”. At his first month check-up he had gained two pounds but by two months he was below his birth weight and was admitted to the hospital while they ran all kinds of tests for some pretty serious stuff. Diseases that, if he had tested positive, would mean he wouldn’t be with us today.

He was admitted on a Friday afternoon, and they didn’t really start any tests till Monday, so we had all weekend to sit there with our baby and be terrified. Glenn was supposed to take the youth group skiing the next day, and when he tried to cancel he was told in no uncertain terms that that was not going to fly. He had taken too much time off lately (uh… we just had a baby?), and needed to do his job. So he went skiing while I sat alone in the hospital, both of us feeling pretty angry and resentful.

We sat in the hospital for four or five days and a total of two people came to visit. No one else cared enough to show up, despite the countless hours we had poured into caring for their children, and I started to shut down. I was done - if you care that little about us, then why should I give two shits about you or your kids?

It turned out that Maxx was fine, that I just wasn’t producing enough milk. Another thing to make me feel like a failure and a terrible mother. Why didn’t I notice sooner that he was losing weight? That’s my one and only job, and I can’t even do that right. It didn’t help that my mother-in-law came to visit a month or two later and kept saying to Maxx while she fed him “Was your Mom starving you? Wasn’t she feeding you enough?” She insisted on feeding him bottle after bottle, despite me telling her that he wasn’t crying from hunger, but from being force-fed. Maxx and I got our revenge when she held him up over her head and he projectile vomitted all over her. Ha! Serves you right! We did become friends later in life, but at that point we were still trying to decide if we even liked each other, and mostly finding that we didn’t.

Bailey came along nineteen months after Maxx, and suddenly I had an excuse not to participate in all of the youth group and church activities - I have two babies that need their routine! It seems like it’s always a two-for-one deal when a church hires a pastor. There’s always expectations on the wife as well, and I was expected to show up and participate in everything, even though it wasn’t my job and I definitely was not getting paid.

One night I woke up to the sound of Glenn screaming and yelling in his sleep. In his dream he was chasing me down after I had slaughtered everyone in the church. It was an absolute massacre, and he followed the trail of blood that I had left behind me to aschool bus that I was hiding underneath. The moment that he leaned down in his dream to try and coax me out from underneath the bus was the exact same moment that I leaned over him and shook him awake. You can imagine the look of absolute terror on his face when he woke up - in his dream I had just jumped out from under the bus and was about to stab him too, and then he opened his eyes and there I was. It’s pretty funny to think about now, but back then it was a wake-up call, that maybe things weren’t sailing along as smoothly as he thought. He was feeling pretty burnt-out at the time, feeling the pressures of having a young family that needed him but also a whole bunch of young people that needed him as well. He would come home at night, lay on the couch staring at the wall, having nothing left to give, and I would lay in bed after he fell asleep, planning my escape. I wanted desperately to leave, but had no money, and the thought of driving across Canada alone with two toddlers in the back seat kept me there.

We finally left just before Bailey’s first birthday. My Mom flew out to Toronto to pick Bailey up and fly home again while Glenn, Maxx and I loaded ourselves into a U-haul truck and headed west, towing our car behind us. Maxx was two-and-a-half at the time and still wasn’t speaking. He would just point and grunt when he wanted something, and despite taking him to see a speech therapist he just didn’t talk. The day we left we were barely ten minutes out of town when he started talking in complete sentences, and we knew we had made the right decision. It was like a black cloud had been lifted and we were all able to breathe again. By the time we hit Winnipeg three or four days later we were seriously wondering why we ever wanted him to talk in the first place, because he still hadn’t shut up.

Now, almost thirty years later, I think back on that time and realize there were some really nice, lovely people there as well. Some did try to befriend us, and I am really thankful for that. We also loved our other kids - the ones in our youth group. We have lots of fond memories of them and some of the crazy things we did together. We still hear from some of them from time to time, and it feels good to know that we may have helped them a little bit as they launched into adulthood.

It was a mistake not to let people see that we struggled too. Just because Glenn was a pastor didn’t mean we weren’t still human, with the same need for friends and connection as anyone else. Maybe we would have been run out of town if we allowed them to see who we really were, but maybe being open and honest and true to yourself is more important,

We left there in August of 1994 with absolutely no idea what we were going to do next, but knowing that we needed to leave for our own sake.

It’s easy to look back at those years and those experiences and be angry. I look at our youngest daughter Noa, who is just 24 now. I see her with her friends, see how important they are to her, and then feel so much compassion for the 24 year-old me who was so lost and alone. I was trying to be an adult when I was still just a girl in so many ways. Nobody should be made to feel that way, but I think we all do from time to time.

I also believe that the reason Glenn and I are the team that we are is because of those years where all we had was each other. We love and respect each other and cheer each other on precisely because for a time, all we had was each other. And just look at us now. We’ve had a crazy life, full of ups and downs and experiences that no one else has had, and sometimes we annoy the hell out of each other, but again, when you stand back and look at the whole picture, it’s pretty beautiful.

So here’s the lesson I’m learning: those times that were hard, the things that make me feel angry and resentful, even the decisions that I look back and regret now - they are also the things that have made me into the person that I am today, and the things that helped Glenn and I to hold on tightly to each other and not let go. When I see my life in that light, how can I not be proud?

So I’m working on it.

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