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Payback Is A Blessing

By Jackie Kelleher

How I Inadvertently Created the Village That Saved Me

I have been called unlucky, and I guess, by some calculations, I could be considered so. I am a person who big things happen to. Big, hard things. Of course, everyone has stuff—life happens to all of us. I’m talking about enormous catastrophes that drop out of the sky.

My first child was born extremely ill, while my husband, Pat, was at war. More recently, my husband had a massive stroke. You know—those kinds of big things.

Also, my business—the child of my intellect and passion— was a failure. I work in the childbirth field as an educator, doula, and breastfeeding counselor. For years I helped people, one family at a time. And I knew—I knew—what I needed to do. What families needed. I created BirthMark, a center for growing families. There were support groups and classes, lactation counseling, and more. The core families would be around for at least a year.

I remember mothers who were at my office every single day. When I arrived in the morning, there they sat on the steps, sometimes in tears. At the end of the day, I gently escorted these mothers out the door. I helped couples find counseling. I heard stories about depression, and other, harder stories. I watched friendships spark. I saw women turn into mothers, and men turn into fathers. And then become parents of two. Or three.

My work was rewarding, but life was hard. The economy tanked soon after BirthMark opened, and while the community thrived, my bank account did not. I couldn’t afford to hire help. My own family suffered as I worked nights and weekends. I simply had too many responsibilities. The community grew even stronger, and soon there were multiple groups of families gathering for events, sharing childcare, supporting one another. My debt grew to tens of thousands of dollars. I felt like a failure in every respect— as a mother, partner, and business owner. It was a crushing weight. While I treasured the families, I became resentful. Sure, BirthMark worked for the community…but it thrived on the lifeblood of my family—of me. I couldn’t endure it any longer. After five years, I surrendered and closed my doors.

…and it was a relief. An enormous relief. In two years, I was able to pay back all my debt and to draw an income, while working a fraction of the hours I’d put in at BirthMark. I could spend time with my family. I could heal.

I remained involved in various BirthMark circles; I was invited to birthday parties and play dates, and experienced a perhaps undeserved pride in these families. The crone, nodding with contentment at the fire. Yes, I did have some success. I created the opportunity for community, they availed themselves of it, and eight years later I am witness to powerful, rock-solid friendships. I watch these easy relationships and remember their awkward beginnings. Groups of round-faced women, fresh in their motherhood, unsure of themselves in their new roles. A moment ago. A forever ago.

I watched them and realized, “They have their community.

I did it.”

…and then. And then. Our lives changed when Pat collapsed at our son’s soccer game, close to two years ago now. It changed, and never went back. Months of fear, months of hospitals, months of firsts that you anticipate with a child, but not a partner. Surviving. Walking. Talking. It’s cliché, I know, to say that it’s all a blur—but it is. Some memories are pure and clear, though: BirthMark families bringing food—for months. Buying groceries. Raking my leaves. Nurturing my son. We adjusted, and had begun to learn our new life.

…and then. And then? Yet another chapter. This time it was my turn, with a debilitating case of Lyme disease that pretty much leveled me. Me, the person steering the ship. The person my family genuinely depends on, incapacitated. Unlucky, I hear regularly. If I didn’t have bad luck, I wouldn’t have any luck at all, they tell me.

…and yet. People have, again, stepped in to help. They’ve cooked. Done my laundry. Watched my child. Driven me hours for treatment. Held me while I cried. Not just one person, and not just a couple. Dozens and dozens of people have kept my family alive for the past two years.

The other night I attended a gathering of one circle of BirthMark mamas. There’s deep history in that group, and an easiness—true familiarity. I waited for her—the crone, nodding with pride. Then I realized, looking at their now angular, more mature faces, that today I don’t see them as parents—I see my tribe. My saviors. All that time I was working for no pay? All that time I was losing money and feeling resentful? I was building my future. The community I worked so hard to create for others snuck up and saved me.

I pointed all this out to a childhood friend. “See? I am lucky.” She informed me that it wasn’t luck—I forged my support through hard work. Luck is inherently fickle, I believe.