My husband and I hosted a cookout in honor of his upcoming birthday. Ribs on the grill, cold beer, and a few close friends -- that kind of thing. My husband is a true extrovert. He loves a crowd; he has a big, charismatic personality; and he holds court with ease. By comparison, I skirt the edges of a party, making drinks for the latecomers, herding the kids, chatting up a fellow closeted introvert.
When two friends, a young couple with their 5-week-old baby girl in tow, arrived at the peak of festivities, I swooped in. These two have warm smiles and a gracious, easy manner, somehow managing to be both polished and approachable. I hadn't seen them since before their daughter was born. They are old friends of Shelby's, but I feel a bit of a fan girl thrill to call them my friends now too. Although, at heart, I know they must make friends wherever they go. And they've gone everywhere. Inveterate travelers. Adventurers even. And it's good to have an adventurous spirit when it comes to kids, because parenthood is the kind of trip that defies preparation.
They looked lovely as usual, and their little girl was sweetly decked out in a white and pink cotton dress. I remember my first social outing after Pork Chop was born -- the colorful cardigan I bought to hide my soft belly, the makeup I applied for the first time in weeks, the tiny sweater I wrestled my newborn into. And I remember the exhaustion.
"How are you guys doing?" I asked.
"Good. Good!" said mom. "Good, just, well, tired."
"She's in this day-night reversal phase," explained dad, "ya know?"
I did know. When he was a couple of months old, Pork Chop began whiling away the hours from 2 a.m. to 6 a.m. by crying inconsolably. He could not be rocked or nursed to sleep. He righted himself after about 4 weeks, finally settling into a pattern of 2 hour snoozes throughout the night. But for those 4 weeks, Shelby and I wondered what would compel someone to ever have a second child. We felt guilty for saying it, for even thinking it, but as we paced the darkened rooms of our home with a crying baby in our aching arms, we started to doubt that we were cut out for even one.
"Do you mind if I hold her?" I said, leaning down, already scooping their little girl from her car seat.
"Sure," they chimed. And I didn't stop to ask whether they meant, "Sure, hold her," or "Sure, we mind."
Her small, tender body fit into the crook of my arm. I swayed gently. I patted her rump, and her eyes rolled in drowsy infant oblivion. It was so easy. She let out a cry, and I swayed, I patted, and the equation was solved. She closed her eyes. She quieted. So easy.
Where was that version of me when my son was 5 weeks old? The confident, competent version?
|I hope you know what you're doing, lady.|
Her mom and dad watched us with that very particular blend of new-parent pride and fear: Was their daughter comfortable? Was she afraid to be held by a stranger? Was she going to cry again? What if she cried at the party? What if she needed something? Would they know if she needed something? Would they be able to give her that something?
The little girl was perfect. Warm and soft and serene. I felt the party-day tension ease off of my shoulders.
"She's so heavy!" said mom. "I know she's so heavy. Just let me know if you get tired of holding her."
And without giving it a moment's thought, I glanced at my tank of a toddler, throwing blocks at the floor in the dining room, and blurted, "Heavy? She's nothin'! Try carrying a toddler and three bags of groceries."
Mom and dad lowered their eyes a bit and laughed.
"Yeah, I guess she must feel pretty light by comparison," said dad.
I am so sorry, friends.
Because, by comparison, your 5-week-old is heavier than my toddler. She is, in fact, heavier than anything else you will ever hold. She is 9 lbs of all of your love and all of your doubt and everything you ever hoped for yourself and the people you used to be and the people you are becoming.
When Pork Chop was about 2 weeks old, when my initial burst of adrenaline had given way to a terrifying exhaustion, I swaddled my son and slipped him into the bassinet beside our bed. I prayed, literally prayed, that he would sleep and that my anxiety would quiet itself just long enough to let me sleep too. And, wonder of wonders, he did sleep. I was stunned. So stunned that, instead of collapsing in a grateful heap on my mattress, I hovered over my son, making sure his belly rose and fell. I held a finger below his nose, feeling for breath. Did his lips look a bit blue? His lips looked a bit blue. I stroked his pink cheek, and he didn't move. I plucked him from the bassinet and he didn't move. His belly rose and fell, his eyes were closed, his lips looked a bit blue. I rocked him, and he didn't wake. I rocked vigorously. Slowly, his mouth opened in a yawn, his eyes fluttered, and he let out a cry.
We rushed our son to the emergency room, certain there was something wrong with his heart. Certain that his lips were a bit blue and that he had taken too long to wake.
It's easy for me to make jokes, easier anyway than for me to own up to my struggles. And it feels better somehow to laugh at the silliness of my own new-mom anxiety, the insanity of the overzealous and the under-rested. But in that moment, it did not feel like a joke. It did not feel like anything. It was me, in a milk-stained shirt and a ratty brown parka, sobbing as the nurses prodded my child, trying to run an IV. It was my child, wailing in fear and pain. It was the merciless hospital lights, the beeping machines, and our son in a tiny, pink heap on the cold, white hospital bed. Hunched in a plastic chair, wadding up a clean diaper in my hands, I thought, "My child is dying." And it didn't feel like anything, least of all like a joke.
Reflux -- that's what the doctor told us. Perhaps a bad bout of reflux had turned his lips a bit blue, she said. It sounded far-fetched to us, but I clung to the murky diagnosis just the same, because I was too ashamed to admit that maybe, just maybe, I had panicked when my child had, at long last, fallen into a deep sleep.
Today, as I type, Pork Chop is shouting from the living room, "Book, book!" commanding his dad to read Mr. Brown Can Moo for the fourth or fifth time this afternoon. The kid eats anything in his path, including half of everything I'm trying to eat. Our little bruiser scales the stairs and the kitchen table and occasionally our dog. He is healthy, happy, and huge. He wears us out, but even in the throes of his worst toddler tantrum, he can't upend us. Not like he could when he still fit in the crook of my arm.
So when I held your tiny daughter, friends, it only seemed easy, because I have the luxury of knowing that, as new parents, we become a little more confident, a little more competent with each passing month. And that, even as our kids get bigger, somehow the load lightens.
I remember the heft of my son when they placed him on my chest for the very first time. It terrified me. And to think he is already so grown, that one day he'll be a boy, a teenager, a man. Someone who will have his own lessons to learn, who will strike out on his own. But it's hard for me to dwell on that. Because the weight of letting him go? I can't even imagine.