So glad she was born

(In honor of Carla’s birthday on Nov. 13, here’s a reflection on our introduction and courtship.)

My deepest and most profound season of happiness came in January of 1996.

One Sunday night after church, I was introduced to a young woman who worked with the children in the nursery. The Sunday night crowd was always small, and after worship I emerged from the chapel to be greeted by a crescent of friends that included the pastor’s wife, the children’s minister and the director of preschool ministries.

At the end of this semi-circle was a woman I didn’t recognize. I suspected it was a set up immediately. They introduced the young woman as Carla Barron, a Mercer student who worked downstairs in the nursery. She seemed nice and was attractive, but I put the encounter out of my mind almost immediately.

Either out of stubbornness or fear, I didn’t feel I was ready to date at that point, having just emerged from a relationship and trying to recalibrate my identity as an individual.

Lance Wallace and Carla Barron stand in a kitchen with an array of cut fruit, crackers, dips and a dozen yellow roses in a vase.
The glow of young love on full display. Can’t hide that much happiness.

I was consumed with work and planning the Southeast regional conference for the Society of Professional Journalists. Scheduled for April in Macon that year, I had meetings after work most days as the planning committee lined up speakers and nailed down details such as the location for the opening night reception and the conference hotel. I took my volunteer responsibilities as the regional director seriously, and I used the extra work as an excuse not to think about dating and especially not the intriguing young woman at church.

My church friends were persistent. Every time I saw them, they found a way to bring up Carla. It wasn’t long before they suggested we all go to Cracker Barrel after church on a Sunday night. That’s how I found myself across the table from her with all of our church friends doing their best to get us together.

In the course of the conversation, we landed on the subject of books and what everyone was reading. I made disparaging remarks about Danielle Steele, even though I had never read anything she had written, and Carla offered that she liked Danielle Steele and had read many of her books. It wasn’t the last time I would put my foot in my mouth with Carla or that Carla would speak her mind forthrightly.

The next Wednesday night after prayer meeting, I felt drawn downstairs to the nursery, though I had no business being there. I found Carla watching the children out on the playground, and we exchanged pleasantries for a few minutes. She didn’t seem to hold my disdain for Danielle Steele against me. The conversation was pleasant and easy, and I told her I would call her sometime. This went on for several months before I finally came to my senses.

The journalism conference went off without a hitch in late April, and I could no longer hide behind planning the conference as an excuse. That’s when Carla’s honesty got my attention. The next Wednesday during my weekly visit with her on the playground, I apologized for not calling. She responded with the expected and typical “It’s OK,” but then she paused and surprised me.

“No, it’s not OK,” she said, without a hint of anger. “If you want to call me, call me. If you don’t want to, don’t. Just quit saying you’re going to call me if you’re not.”

That’s when it hit me how selfish and inconsiderate I had been. I realized I had been jerking her around for months. She was interested in me, and I was creating expectations of getting together and not following through. By that point, I knew she was nice and intelligent, and as our pastor’s wife described her to me on multiple occasions, “quality.” Carla didn’t deserve to be treated that way.

So the next day I called her and asked her to dinner the next Friday night. She agreed, thankfully not returning my bad behavior by playing hard to get.

I picked her up after her shift at Interior Bargains. We went to J.L.’s barbecue restaurant, which I purposefully chose because it wasn’t fancy or extravagant. I didn’t want our surroundings to get in the way of getting to know each other, and I was still tentative about re-entering the dating scene. I felt I could be more honest and more myself if we were having a plate of pulled pork barbecue and slaw rather than filet mignon and arugula salad.

It worked like truth serum. The conversation flowed naturally and honestly all through dinner. Not wanting to end our conversation but careful not to send the wrong message, I invited her back to my apartment to sit on the screened-in porch and continue our conversation. We sat in the porch swing and talked through the night, confessing our personality disorders, character flaws and past relationship missteps. We shared our stories and bonded. Our connection was strong, our feelings were real, and our future together became concrete. I was convinced she was the one I wanted to see more often and get to know better.

For the next eight months we went out nearly every week. I would pick her up at her apartment on Mercer’s campus, which felt weird. I had been out of college for four years at that point, and dating a college girl seemed to be robbing the cradle. I convinced myself it was OK because Carla had finished her classes in December but was still living in an on-campus apartment until graduation in May.

I met her parents and went to her graduation where NBC Today Show anchor Katie Couric spoke. Carla attended the singles Sunday School class I taught at church, and we started attending group outings as a couple. The group spent a day on Lake Sinclair skiing and riding a tube. I had to leave early to take a friend from college to dinner for her birthday. It was awkward, but I had committed to the evening before Carla and I started dating. While I enjoyed seeing my friend and wanted to show here a nice time for her birthday, I spent the entire evening thinking about Carla, worried that she would think I was two-timing her.

Over time it became clear she was the one I was interested in, and when I spent three weeks in a hotel by the Atlanta airport while covering the 1996 Summer Olympics, she wrote me nearly every day. We exchanged letters like I was off at war. Absence, although only 90 miles, definitely made my heart grow fonder for Carla.

Later that summer I took her to Lake Wales to meet my parents, and we spent a day at Disney’s Magic Kingdom. My brothers warmed to her, and my parents liked her immediately. The affirmations of our relationship kept adding up, and it didn’t take long before I realized I could marry her… I should marry her.

She made me genuinely happy in a deep and profound way I had never experienced in previous relationships. My fear of marrying the wrong person felt silly and misplaced. She had all the traits I was looking for, and I knew I could commit to a lifetime with her.

I’ve written in great detail about our engagement a few months back. The four months of planning our wedding were stressful, but we were both in a stage of life that made delaying seem foolish. We married on May 3, one week shy of the one-year anniversary of our first date.

Those 358 days were the happiest of my life.

First born

I am the firstborn son of a firstborn son, but it wasn’t until my first son was born 21 years ago that I began to understand how little I knew about being a parent.

Carla and I waited until she finished her master of social work degree before having children. It took us a little while to get pregnant. I never liked the phrase “we’re trying to get pregnant” when describing our status as a young couple because everyone knows what causes pregnancy. It seemed a little too revelatory and put visuals in people’s minds I’d rather them not have.

Carla Barron Wallace holds her newborn son, Barron, in the hospital room.
Life changed forever in this moment, 21 years ago.

That summer day I learned we were pregnant is burned into my memory. I returned from a morning run and was stretching on the back deck of our small, brick house on Highpoint Drive in Macon, Georgia. Carla came to the back window of what would become our baby’s room and held up a pregnancy test. It took it a minute to dawn on me what she was saying. She came out the back door and despite my sweat and odor, she hugged me, and through tears said, “It’s positive!”

Telling family and friends was the fun part. In the pre-social media days of the year 2000, there wasn’t as much pressure to be instantaneous. We didn’t have to worry that word would leak out through Facebook or Twitter, and loved ones would find out, offended they hadn’t heard it from us directly. There were considerations, however. We were due to spend a week with my family at a cabin on Lake Eufaula in Alabama. We could not imagine telling my family before Carla broke the news to her parents, who themselves experienced great difficulty in conceiving. An only child, Carla knew how much the news would mean to them and strongly desired to tell them in person. Despite the geographic inconvenience, on the day we were due at Lake Eufaula, we got up early and drove east to Sandersville to surprise Mama and Daddy.

They were down by the lake where Daddy was building a brick barbecue pit when we arrived. Making sure he could hear us, Carla loudly announced our news. Mama squealed with delight, and Daddy issued a laughing “Sho ‘nuf?!?” Tears of joy flowed.

Telling my family proved to be a little more fraught. Buoyed by bringing Mama and Daddy into our little secret, we drove to Eufaula deciding that dinner would be the best time to break the news. When we arrived at the cabin, we learned that my dad had not made the trip because of his health. He had not yet been diagnosed with diabetes, so his absence was confusing and disappointing. Undaunted, we shared the news with my two brothers, my sister-in-law and my mom over combination dinners at the Mexican restaurant in downtown Eufaula. The response was more subdued than when we told Mama and Daddy, but such is the way of things with my family. There was still joy, and they offered sincere congratulations.

Those nine months of preparation were by turns interminable and fleeting. I started a master of business administration program at Mercer University, taking a prerequisite economics class during the day with undergraduate students and a corporate accounting class with the MBA students two nights a week. As diligent as I was in my studies of earnings, asset ratios and debt loads, I was even more intensely studious about childbirth and infancy. I read “What to Expect When You’re Expecting,” “Now That You’re a Dad,” and a big medical book, “Conception, Pregnancy and Childbirth.” Knowledge gleaned from books on a subject as experiential and instinctive as having a child is insufficient. It is a classic example of “knowing just enough to be dangerous.”

I was anxious about the health of the baby and Carla’s condition. I worried for her when I thought about the labor and delivery. The minor inconveniences I had to endure were nothing compared to Carla’s adapting to hormones and her ever-changing body. My strongest memory is of our sleeping arrangements. Our first bed was a full-size, perfect for snuggling when it was just the two of us. But when she started growing and needed a body pillow to find a comfortable sleeping position, there was less and less real estate for me. Carla always was a “tuck-and-roll” sleeper, grabbing more and more blanket with each turn throughout the night. That combined with her keeping the air conditioning lower to accommodate her elevated body temperature helped prepare me for the sleepless nights that awaited us once our bundle of joy arrived.

Carla is not into delayed gratification. She is a planner, so knowing the sex of the baby was vital for making decisions on paint colors, window treatments and bedding in the baby’s room. I was fine to know, and I didn’t see any point in going into the big day even less prepared by keeping the sex a secret. We found out at the 20-week ultrasound appointment we were having a boy.

That’s when the name game started in earnest. We knew early on we wanted Carla’s maiden name “Barron” to be the first name. We were committed to having family names only. We also liked pairing “Barron” with my middle name “Elliott,” which was also Dad’s middle name and his mother’s maiden name.

Going into the holidays, it was nice to know that swelling in Carla’s belly was our son, Barron. I even on occasion did that awkward thing new parents do of reading to him in utero. It added to the expectation and joy. Traditionally, we spent Christmas day with Carla’s parents and then traveled to Florida see my family the days immediately following. With the due date coming so close to Christmas, we didn’t feel we should travel 8-10 hours away, and with Carla’s growing discomfort and frequent restroom visits, a car trip was out of the question. My Dad and youngest brother came up with presents from my side of the family after Christmas while Mom stayed behind in Lake Wales to look after her mother. It was a quick trip, but at least it allowed us to keep connected with my family as we anticipated the arrival of the first grandchild for both sides of the family.

One of my favorite parts of the preparation time was the childbirth class. Beyond eye-opening, he weekly sessions for couples helped expand my knowledge in ways the books couldn’t have. To this day I am grateful for the father-to-be who asked all the questions I wanted answers to but was too embarrassed to ask. I never got his name, but I knew he drove a Snap-On Tools truck, so he became “the Snap-On Tools guy” to us.

We have always been creatures of habit, so it was no surprise that on the night of Monday, February 5, 2000, a day past the due date, we were in bed watching one of our favorite TV shows, “7th Heaven.” The idealized family drama about a minister’s brood of seven children in many ways affected my view of having children. It was silly, I now know, but I really did think parenting was all about having deep, meaningful conversations with your children the way Rev. Camden and Annie did with their children on “7th Heaven.” When that night’s episode ended, exhausted from a day of work, I turned off the lamp and told Carla, “Please don’t go into labor tonight. I’m too tired for us to have the baby.” Less than a half hour later, we were up with the onset of labor.

Like all first-time parents, we probably went to the hospital too soon. Trying not to be stereotypically over-anxious, we waited at home as long as we could, timing contractions and getting our stuff together for a hospital stay. We went on to Coliseum Hospital when the contractions were consistently eight minutes apart believing Barron’s arrival would come before daybreak. It was a busy night for labor and delivery. We were well taken care of, but after medications were administered, Carla’s labor slowed way down. She labored through the night and into the next day. I felt more than a little guilt at slipping away and grabbing lunch at Nu Way with my buddy, Mitch, before returning for the main event.

Juggling our video camera, and doing my best to preserve Carla’s modesty and dignity, I experienced sensory overload. The room was dimly lit except for a spotlight on the “area of interest.” Barron glistened in the light when the doctor delivered him, and in seconds the nurse had him at a table in the corner, taking his vitals and cleaning him up. I felt a rush of emotions – relief that Carla’s suffering was over, joy that Barron was healthy, anxious about what was coming next, and eager to share the news with the world.

The next couple of days in the hospital started the sleep deprivation with hourly checks by the attentive nursing staff. I slept in the pull-out sleeper chair as we kept Barron in the room as much as possible to change his first diapers, cuddle and bond with him, and work on the tricky but necessary latching on required for breast feeding. Visitors lifted our spirits, and there were many, many pictures.

The experience, though, is probably best summed up in our car ride home. Always fastidious about vehicle safety, Carla ensured we had properly installed the car seat in her Honda Accord. We tucked Barron in and headed toward our house. We didn’t get far before he started crying, as infants do. At a loss for what was causing it, we pulled over to make sure he wasn’t being pinched by the straps or was suffering in some less-than-obvious way. Ultimately, we buckled him back in and made it the rest of the way without incident.

That’s how I felt about having our first child. I was nervous. I wanted an explanation for every whimper and reaction. I worried about doing the right thing in caring for his physical needs. I loved holding him. I got a rush every time I read to him. I was happy to have a healthy son and watch his every reaction. I was caught up in the day-to-day, subtle changes; so much so that it was hard to imagine what his journey to adulthood would be like.

Looking back 21 years later, I can’t believe how little I understood about life and being a parent back then, but I’m profoundly grateful for the experience and for the intense bond I now have with Carla and all three of our boys. I may not know much more about parenting a young adult and two teenagers, but I am comforted by the knowledge that we’ll get through it together.