On the top shelf of my children’s closet, there is an old Pampers box taped sloppily shut. Inside that box is a plastic zipper bag that once housed a comforter or something. And inside that are dozens of tiny, baby blue fabric scraps of guilt.
When my son was a baby, I saved his most sentimental outfits with the idea to make a quilt. Have I ever made a quilt before? Absolutely not. Do have the slightest clue how to make a quilt? No. But even before Pinterest existed to fuel my never-finished projects, I kept each and every little ducky onesie and striped footed pajama set. I have the little blue kitten gown he wore when he was sick once, and the tiny velvet green pajamas with the letters “NICU” still sharpied on the tag.
I told myself that I would save the quilt for a nesting project if and when I had my second child. Well, my daughter is 2 and a half. And my son turns 6 today. The only time those baby clothes have left that plastic bag was a few weeks before my daughter’s home birth. I recruited my mother, and together sprawled on my living room floor, we searched the keepsakes for recyclable baby clothes. We found a few yellow pieces and some cute white lace booties that were feminine enough, but mostly I just opened up a box of memories that I was unprepared to deal with.
Those first 11 nights alone without my baby boy, after hours of rushed, medicated labor and fearful, breathless moments after birth – just to leave him hooked to those machines and drive through the snow back to our bed, no feet kicking in my belly and no warm little snuggles in the outfits neatly lined on his shelves. Memories of lunch with my now husband, feeling like an imposter eating alone with our 2 day old son sleeping in a nurse’s arms. Driving an hour both ways several times a day just to have a chance to nurse him. Guilt of not being able to nurse him more, guilt of not knowing all that I know now about childbirth and life.
Memories of our first flight to Florida, his fuzzy little head nuzzled on my chest in the baby carrier, on our way to a culture shock and new life. Memories both of the wonderful kind, and painful reminders of our family’s rocky start. But the smell, that sweet baby smell was gone. Where had it gone? His little socks and mittens had not been washed since they were last on his once teensy toes and fingers, only packed in that bag to taunt my thoughts in my most stressful, overwhelmed moments (along with those thousands of unsorted digital photos) for years to come. How unfair it was for that smell to escape, as though a cruel reminder that they grow too fast and the precious time cannot be captured as we wish.
So folded carefully, with a melancholy quiet filling the air, those little clothes went back in the box. “Oh well, I wouldn’t want to cut them up anyway,” I justified. “Maybe next time I’m pregnant I’ll have more energy to be creative.” I joked. And I swallowed the guilt, taping the box back up, feeding that little voice that likes to convince us we are not good mothers because we cannot meet expectations we set for ourselves.
This year, he wants a skateboard. “But I’ll wear my helmet in case I fall, Mama.” He wanted a skateboard last year too, when I didn’t think he was old enough (and still don’t). And the year before that, when I compromised and Santa brought a bicycle instead. And even when I bought him a new helmet because he outgrew the first one, I had a full bleary-eyed meltdown in the shopping aisle as a little voice reminded me that no, he probably wouldn’t like the cute little colorful dinosaur helmet anymore, and I should buy him the cool black skull one. I wanted to argue back with that voice playfully, but when I realized the truth, I was a hopeless mess.
Why do you have to grow up sweet angel? Can’t you just stay chubby-cheeked and blubbery forever? Can’t we just spend a few more hours in the rocking chair singing Somewhere Over the Rainbow, playing with your little stuffed giraffe, and counting the stars on your ceiling above the crib? Can’t I just have one more day with you strapped to my chest, sleeping peacefully as we buy groceries? Just one more ride back from the park sweaty and exhausted, sipping your little juicebox, knee propped in the carseat while you play with your shoelaces and try not to drift off to sleep? Even just another two-year-old cuddle reading Brown Bear, Brown Bear, before you knew how to read all the words?
Everyone warns you, to the point of annoyance, how fast time flies when you have children. It’s almost one of those polite conversation fillers when people aren’t sure what else to say to new parents. There is never enough genuine sentiment expressed because it’s just impossible to understand until you experience it yourself. It feels like yesterday I was checking off “Baby Lists” and picking out zoo themed gear, and here he is more than halfway to a decade old, talking obsessively about traveling to the moon “when he’s twenty” and spending already too much free time with friends instead of under mama’s feet. I’ve become “Mommy” this year when addressing me to his classmates, although that wide-eyed grin when I pick him up from school always lets a “Mama!” slip by most days.
Not a year has gone by that I have been able to get through the ‘Happy Birthday’ verse with dry eyes. (Although I think we can ALL agree my cakes have improved since that Snakes, Snails, & Puppy Dog Tails sprinkle overload disaster. I mean, really.) Every single time we blow out the candles, you can find me dodging the cameras and trying my hardest to keep it together. I know it’s a celebration, and I understand how overjoyed he is to have cake and presents, but it’s not fair! I want to scream and cry and stomp my feet. Why do you have to grow older? Why is everyone so happy about this? Can’t you all see that someone replaced my bouncing bundle of giggles with this smart, independent child without even asking my permission? Stop clapping and cheering and let me selfishly sob my eyes out already.
“But you say I’ll always be your baby boy, Mama. Even when I’m 13?” he asks me cuddled in my bed when he can’t sleep. “No sweetheart, even when you’re 113. You’ll always be my baby boy.” And he sighs and squeezes me tighter.
Somewhere in the daily grind of breakfast, drive, clean, work, lunch, nap, homework, bath, bed, rinse, repeat – this feeling is often lost, but the most important to remember. In a few years, the frustration to help find and buckle shoes will be gone. The late-night set of footsteps in the hall and voice asking to help find stuffed animals who fell under the bed – will not exist. Even the relentless questions and ever present piles of clothes and toys will be missed. There won’t be sticky fingerprints on my laptop, and I won’t find random bags of goldfish under my bed pillows.
And maybe then, I’ll find time to make that quilt. Hell, maybe I’ll have time to learn how to even sew at all. Or maybe I’ll just travel the world and visit my beautiful grandchildren, if I am so lucky to have them. But in the meantime, that guilt, and all the other forms of it – can stay exactly where it is on the top shelf of a closet. Because time spent is all that matters. And I feel like I’ve already missed so much of it, waiting for some distant moment in the future when we are supposed to begin to live. I have a feeling when he is turning fifteen, I will miss him being a kindergartener just as much. So I’ll try my best to embrace that although my big-brown eyed tot is all grown up, he’s still got a ways to go. I can’t ask for the growing to stop, I know – all I can pray for is that the years come slow and sweet like honey.
Here’s to being six, and being here to witness what it’s like while it lasts.