As a kid I remember sitting across the dinner table from my mom as she held my little sister in her lap. She said mournfully that Suzanne (who I recall, perhaps unfairly, as triumphantly smirking) was her baby, and that once she turned five she wouldn’t be a baby anymore. Luckily for me, even though my younger son will be five this spring, his face is still babyish and round. I know that someday I won’t be able to kiss his soft cheek and get an instant hit of oxytocin. When do I have to stop? When he’s 35?
The pictures above, from the Affection and Portraits galleries of my Domestic Life collection, and essay below are my mementos for when those days are gone for good.
A pregnant friend in her first trimester emailed that she slept all the way through last night – no potty breaks or snacks or hormonal awakenings. I am against mom hazing, and I didn’t have kids until my 30s, but my first instinct was to shoot back a know-it-all, “Hope you enjoyed it. Won’t ever happen again.”
I didn’t. And it will happen again, in a couple years, when her idea of a “full night” is very different. I congratulated her on a good night’s sleep. I joked about how I looked forward to getting more rest during daylight savings time … until I realized the kids couldn’t set their internal clocks an hour later.
My sarcastic response was immediate. The sweet truth is one that I hold close and don’t think of as fuel for conversation. It kills me that my five-month-old gets up so early every day. (I asked a physician’s assistant if we could do anything about his 5 a.m. wakeups, and she looked puzzled, saying, “Why, you want to get a little extra sleep?”) But his cheeks are so soft, and his warm baby body so squeezable, that it is worth it – and then some – every time. Each morning I am surprised again by what a special feeling it is, how happy it makes me, how lucky I am.
Somehow the good parts of being a mother stay silent in my heart.
This is what I should tell my pregnant friend. When Eli is tired, he burrows into me, with a nuzzling head and a squeaky voice. Most days I’m so exhausted I could cry. My eyes have newfound crows’ feet and permanent dark circles.
In the back of my mind is the bittersweet knowledge that it is all fleeting: my nursing, his willingness to cuddle, his roundness. I anticipate missing his baby-ness even as I hold him. I try to pay attention and not let it slip by. Did I smile enough? Did I hug enough? These emotions are so raw and personal that I don’t spit them out in quips.
I don’t say that most days I feel compelled to spank my older son, but somehow, through the grace of God, manage not to. Just as some truths are too saccharinely sweet to share, some are too dark.
A mutual friend told my husband that sometimes it was all she could do not to beat her two preschool boys on their beds at night. I burst into laughter when he told me. It was the dark humor of understanding. Parenting reveals new depths of love, and rage.
My postpartum brain has heightened sensitivity to both these big, intense emotions and the most basic mundane tasks. As I sit and nurse, I’m maddeningly aware of the items out of place, and out of reach, in the room around me. I am overwhelmed by the desire to neaten even as I hold my prayed-for miracle. I notice the messes obsessively until I’m done nursing. Then I immediately move on to other tasks until the next feeding, when I sit down and notice the same things still out of place.
I can never get showered and dried off and dressed before the baby cries. Each uninterrupted domestic chore or personal hygiene milestone feels like an indulgence and a triumph.
At times I honestly think that on my deathbed I really will wish I had spent more time at work or folding laundry.
I know that earthly distractions crowd transcendental moments. As Eli curls into me sweetly before his nap, I am hungry, I have to go to the bathroom, and I’m surrounded by dirty dishes and newspapers.
My older son fought sleep. When I rocked him as a new baby, after the twitching, squirming, hair pulling, writhing, flipping, fury and grousing would finally subside, and it was just the two of us in the quiet summer twilight, I felt a momentary thin spot between heaven and earth.
I think my love for my children has a painful twinge because it is bigger than I can express or convey to them without overwhelming them. My four-year-old’s toes and bruised shins are so precious it makes my heart hurt. They are so small, yet they are evidence of his busy growing boy-ness. The moment is disappearing, and the person I love is already becoming someone else.
I share mundane news and tips because they are not awkwardly personal. I would rather commiserate than gush.
My friend recently had her baby. What I told her: use one earplug so that you can block out enough sound to sleep, but still hear the baby.
She’ll find out the important stuff for herself.