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Baby Steps

November 26, 2010

There isn’t a word, at least in English, for that anguish you feel as your babies grow and turn into not-babies. There should be a word for it. I know I’m not the only one who stews around in it. I think I would help to have a word for it.

Oliver's First Birthday, June 2009

I’ve heard so many mother’s describing their babies’ transition to childhood as “heartbreaking.”

It does feel achey-breaky but it isn’t straight up heartbreak per se, because of course your heart is also bursting with pride and relief as your children become more able and independent. It’s not like a sudden trauma to the heart — nothing like a punch or a stab or a blast. It’s not so terrible as all that. It’s not a falling or a sinking or a shattering kind of heartbreak.  It’s more of a heart-burstingness. It is a slow, throbbing type of pain and has something to do with welling up, spilling-over and with leakiness.

Waiting for Oliver - June 2008

It’s a mourning of sorts, but there’s no tragedy to point to, except for the obvious fact that every day since our birth brings us closer to our graves. 

Nothing has ever made me feel so deeply how precious and fragile life is then holding a newborn.

And nothing has ever brought into sharper relief how short life is than watching an infant grow into and out of a 0-3 month-sized sleeper. Chez Flurfel, I reach into a drawer almost every day and pull some cute thing out that somebody has grown out of. 

The very day Josephine turned one my email subscription to “Your Baby This Week” dot com started sending me “Your Toddler This Week” emails. Ouch! My heart!

And sure enough, it’s like she checked her calendar and said, “Oh, today’s the day I turn into a toddler. She hoisted herself up on her shaky little pudgy baby legs, she put her arms out for balance, and began laughing at her clever little standy trick. Now she spends her days looking for opportunities to climb the treacherous stairs, teetering around the edges of furniture, and having little temper tantrums that sound more and more like a skilled performance by a wee diva and less and less like the helpless mewling of an infant.

Hazel pulling herself up out of babyhood into toddlerdom - Fall 2006

It’s all enough to make me want to shout, “Just stop it, Josephine! You’re supposed to be our baby! It’s obvious you’ve set your mind on taking your first steps just as soon as you can gain enough motor control in your little legs and I’ve got to say, I really don’t think it’s a good idea! I think you should stay just like you are with the scooting around on the floor, and the giggling, and the pigtails, and the tiny pairs of blue jeans, and such and such. We love you, Baby Josephine! Just like you are! So this unmitigated drive of yours to grow and change every single day is a bit much. It just might break our hearts. Especially mine. Because my heart is a mommy heart now, and it’s all mooshy.”

Oliver's Last Scoot - he'd learned how to walk but for an occasion this exciting, fell back on the old scoot

I know I’m not the only one who suffers this affliction. I know I’m not the only one who has to actively avoid steeping in it. The thing I don’t get is why isn’t there a word for this mommy-ache?

Sentiment can mean a self-indulgent wallowing in sadness or nostalgia. But anyone can be sentimental. What I’m getting at is an emotion I simply didn’t experience before I became a mother.

Seriously, how can this baby be 1 already?

It’s kind of like nostalgia, but then again, it’s not, because it’s not a yearning for the past, per se. To be honest, babies have always struck me as a bit tedious. Nursing them from squalling infancy into toddlerhood is really, really hard. It’s not that I want to turn back the clock to say, a year ago when I was a much more raw and exhausted person without a hope in hell of a night out or even an uninterrupted shower. I don’t. But I would like things to slow down a bit. I mean, come on!

Daphne De Marneffe* says mothers suffer from a “nostalgia for the present.” This is apt, I think. So many moments of seering adorableness occur when you have children. And you can’t help but be aware of how ephemeral these moments are. This baby or kid that you love so entirely completely utterly fiercely is going to be a little bit different tomorrow and in a month quite different and in a year entirely transformed. How can you not mourn the fleetingness of these moments even as they are occurring? 

De Marneffe gives mothers credit for a lot of “emotional work” like this. It’s true. It’s hard work to love children. They are in a constant state of transition. You love them just as they are and they keep changing. It steamrolls you.

My sense is that the ache is a permanent thing. I don’t think it’s going anywhere. If you’re thinking another baby might fix it, I’d like to caution you that I think it actually gets worse with subsequent children.

I like what Anne Lamott says:

“New parents grieve as their babies get bigger, because they cannot imagine the child will ever be so heartbreakingly cute and needy again. Same is a swirl of every age he’s ever been, and all the new ones, like cotton candy, like the Milky Way. I can see the stoned wonder of the toddler, the watchfulness of the young child sopping stuff up, the busy purpose and workmanship of the nine-year-old.”

I can think of no personal tragedy worse than not watching my children grow up. So I’m not complaining, not really. I just wish there was a word for that mommy-choly, for that achey-space babies create as they careen into childhood.

And I know, nobody feels sorry for us. Nor should they. after all, we did do this to our own mother’s, didn’t we?

Hello Oliver, nice to meet you. Go ahead and break my heart... June 2008


works cited

Lamott, Anne. “Diamond Heart.”  Plan B: Further thoughts on faith. New York: Riverhead Books, 2005. 155-156.  (Have you read Anne Lamott? She is wonderful. Please read anything by her. If you are a writer, read “Bird by Bird.” If you are a mom, read “Operating Instructions.” Otherwise, just read anything by Anne Lamott.)

De Marneffe, Daphne. Maternal Desire: On children, love and the inner life.
(This is an amazing book if you’re the type to enjoy an academic discourse on motherhood.)

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Laura permalink
    November 26, 2010 5:31 pm

    Oh, Marlene,
    you made me cry 😦

    After having two active, never-letting-me-rest-for-a-second boys, I knew I was done having babies. But as the bags and boxes of clothes that had gone through both of them piled up, I realized I could not get rid of them. Long after I should have kept them, they stayed in my storage room. I eventually got over it, but it was really tough.

    This, Marlene, was an amazing blog.

    • November 26, 2010 5:38 pm

      Thanks, Laura. I have to admit, I did think of you when I hit the “publish” button and thought, “Oh no, this is really gonna do her in….”
      It’s nice to know other people feel the same though, isn’t it?

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