baby love, big girls, and moving on as a mom

My daughter, Clara, turns three today.

She’s no longer a baby. No longer a toddler. No longer even in two-year-old territory. Before my very eyes, she’s turning into a Big Girl.

And while I’ve gone through that with four other kids, it’s different this time around. I’m not pregnant, and I don’t have another baby coming up behind. And – I hesitate to use the words “I’m sure”, but let’s just say, I strongly believe – that’s how it’s going to stay.

It got me thinking about a post I wrote last March, soon after the birth of my niece Luna. Since it seemed especially poignant, I thought I’d republish it today, on Clara’s big-girl birthday. Enjoy:

I love babies, except for the part where they grow up.

Last weekend, my brother John and sister-in-law Jenna had their third baby. Little Luna, at just 6 pounds, 8 ounces, fit in the crook of my arm when I first held her. Her tiny hands clenched and unclenched the air, finally wrapping around my finger. I cupped her soft, fuzzy head with my hand. Her little mouth worked the air for a moment, and then she turned her face to the side and began to nuzzle around. I laughed at my split-second, almost unconscious mother’s impulse to lift my shirt, and then handed her back to Jenna.

“So, when are you going to have another?” my brother joked, as is the custom with our family. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked that question, usually while I’m holding somebody else’s new baby. My oldest sister has four children, my oldest brother has four, and now my other brother has three. We are a fertile family, and we’re usually impatient for the next addition to arrive. And in general, I’ve got a reputation for being rather impulsive about babies. That is, when I get my hands on one, I really can’t wait to have another myself.

But while listening to Jenna murmuring to her baby as she fed her–as I have myself so many times–gave me a bit of a pang, it wasn’t quite as strong as I was expecting. As sweet as Luna is, as glad as I am to have her in the family, and as much as I loved holding her, it wasn’t that hard to give her back to Jenna. It wasn’t that hard to leave the hospital, drive home, and have dinner with my big kids. Later, when I looked at Clara, my now two-year-old daughter, and acknowledged that she is really no longer a baby or at least very close to the cusp of kid-dom, I felt a fleeting sense of wistfulness, but the stronger, more lasting feeling was a surge of love and excitement over the little person she is becoming.

This experience was surprising. It was encouraging. And it was also disquieting.

my son Owen, moments after his birth

See, I love newborns and small babies. I love pretty much everything in the sweet, hazy, milky simplicity of those early days and weeks (postpartum aches and pains excepted.) I love the weight of a sleeping newborn nuzzled in my arm. I love changing tiny diapers and putting socks on wee little feet. I don’t even mind waking up in the middle of the night or walking the floor with a wailing baby. I love as they grow into pudgy infants, learning to prop themselves up on their arms, roll over, sit up. My biggest beef with infants is they don’t stay that way long enough.

Don’t get me wrong, I love them as they get older, too. My 11- and 13-year-old boys are hilarious, intelligent, interesting people. But mothering young children is a comfortable, familiar place for me to be. Jacob was born when I was barely twenty, so I’ve been a mom for almost my entire adult life, and I have the most experience with babies, toddlers, preschoolers. Having little people around all the time, being a constant caregiver and nurturer–that has been my reality for going on fourteen years.

William, at about 2 years old

So even though I have been telling myself and the world that I’m done having children, and even though I intellectually believe it, I’m not 100% comfortable with the idea. It’s hard to imagine myself at a stage of my life where another newborn is out of the question. Almost impossible to imagine moving on to a place when I am not front and center in my kids’ eyes. I spent the first few years of motherhood tortured by how slowly it all seemed to be going, how long it would be before I’d have some semblance of freedom and free time again. Now I’ve been in the thick of motherhood so long that I barely remember what it was like to have hours of freedom and free time. Thinking about it actually makes me a little dizzy.

I know better than to jinx myself by making any definitive declarations here, so let me just say this: any child that made his or her way into our lives would be welcomed, loved, and celebrated, but there are no plans for more. But while I’ve known for a while that it makes logical sense to be done, I think I’m also at the point where I’m emotionally ready to move on. And frankly? That’s scary.

It’s one thing to say I’m done having babies, but it’s another thing entirely to contemplate what that really means.

Big kids are pretty great, too.

I was encouraged when I read this essay by Anna Quindlen on Lisa Belkin’s NYT Motherlode blog, called “The Best Part of Parenting.” In the essay Quindlen shares her love of early motherhood (even in spite of the “arsenic hour” before bedtime) and weighs in on the experience of mothering adults:

“I regret being pinkslipped from my 24/7 Mom job, although there were times over the years when I thought the inexorability of it would kill me. But it’s hard to imagine anything better than right now: the family dinner with the five of us, all talking about politics, books, work, friends, and one another. It’s hard to imagine anything better than three smart and insightful people who live in the same city we do, who make me remember that there was a point to the whole exercise, and the point was this.”

Sigh. She’s right. I know she’s right. And yet, I also know there will be a lot of painful moments going from here to there, and my mother’s heart would love to protect myself from them by just staying right here for a while. Or, like, another twenty years or so.

But I can’t stay a mom of little ones forever, and babies don’t stay babies long even when you have five (or six or ten) of them.  And part of taking care of myself is being wise enough to realize that, and brave enough to embrace each new stage of my life, whatever it may brings and whoever I may become in it.

And if I’m not totally ready to leap into whatever comes next, at least I’m willing to start really thinking about it.

And that’s progress, right?

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