When Max was three days I old I took him on our first real walk together, around the park at the end of our block. He weighed 6 pounds and 8 ounces that day. No wrap or stroller, I cradled him in the crook of my neck. One teenage boy noticed us on his way to soccer practice.
Look at the baby! His friend was uninterested and unimpressed. Look! I’ve never seen such a little baby before!
He’s three days old, I beamed with pride.
It was an evening in mid-May in Miami, which meant the park was packed at sundown, a relief from the heat. I remember seeing kids play at the playground, parents pushing babies in bucket seats on swingsets. I had a thought I knew was wrong, Those other parents think their babies are little, but they aren’t really. They’re already big. My baby is the babiest baby of all.
Of course, I realized that the playground parents had gone through the newborn stage and were light years ahead of me in terms of parenting, but there was something inside me that wanted so strongly to hold onto the preciousness of that moment: the first few days of a new life.
Babyhood is beautiful! A lot is written about poopy diapers and sleepless nights, but mothers know that those are truly inconsequential details when compared with the earth-shattering joy a new baby brings to a family. Every day offers something new: a smile to be amazed by, a first giggle, the funny discovery of hands.
At the same time, each milestone that marks a beginning also marks an end. Babies grow remarkably fast. Once a baby can crawl, he’ll never be content to bat at a mobile on his back. Once he can walk, forget life on hands and knees. Once solid food is grasped, nursing falls by the wayside (usually, I know and respect different choices).
As eager as we are to get to the next stage of development, it’s hard to let go of the baby we so love. This is especially true for second children. My mom jokes, With the first child, you eagerly cheer their first steps. With the second child, you knock them down. There is a sense that you don’t want to rush through the best time of life. Babyhood is fleeting.
Now I am a mom at the playground. One child rides on his tummy on a big kid swing, the other child is learning to pump his legs to go high. Who knows what newborns are being carted around the park? I’m caught up in my own life and rarely notice.
Friends who have children younger than mine often remark that my kids are so big. I smile, knowing that they don’t get it. They won’t get it until their kids reach the same age. Three year-olds, four year-olds, even five year-olds, are still very little people. When I need reminding of this, I just look at a single body part: an elbow, a shoulder, an ear. They are still tiny.
But it’s OK that they’re growing. I am firmly out of the baby and toddler stage of parenting. My kids are preschoolers with kindergarten on the autumnal horizon. My time with babies is over. I don’t even feel a twinge of sadness about that, because the truth that the mothers on the playground know is this:
It gets better.
Babies are wonderful, but they are also generic.
A baby could be switched in a hospital nursery and no one would be the wiser, but there is no way you could ever pick up the wrong kid from school. Those milestones which delight us are really just rites of passage every person on earth experiences. As children grow, they become more and more themselves. Every day, every year, they come into their own more fully.
Even though the love I felt for my children at birth consumed and overwhelmed me, it’s really nothing compared to my love for them now as distinct individuals.
My love for my four year-old is not the love I feel for my firstborn son. It’s specifically for Max who is thoughtful, observant, artistic, athletic, sensitive, inquisitive, pathologically helpful with an engineer’s mind set to building.
My three year-old gets love not for being my baby, but for being Jack, a reliable clown who lives on his emotions, has a wild sense of humor, a deep love of dogs, and a creative imagination that spins elaborate, spellbinding stories.
And we are just getting started.
The end of babyhood marks the beginning of selfhood.
It is humbling and exciting to see a little one create and reveal his unique identity. It’s much more thrilling than watching him roll over for the first time!
Those inconsquential details I mentioned at the beginning, sleep and poop, well, it’s nice to be done with that, too. It’s a welcome relief to have the ability to break a routine without having a meltdown, to move through a crowd without a stroller, to stop acting like a Sherpa for every outing. An exhilarating freedom comes with a child’s independence.
I also get to reclaim some of my identity that got lost in round-the-clock parenting. I can get out of the house without guilt and pursue my other passions. I can also share parts of myself with my children, like yoga and cooking. Although I happily relinquished much my life to focus on being a mother, becoming Rebecca again is quite refreshing. It’s a different version of Rebecca and it’s fun to redefine who I am as a mother and a woman.
Once babies stop being babies, the real adventure begins!
All the playground moms know that.