“Ellie, can you believe you’ll be three in just five more days?” I ask my daughter as I help slide her Anna nightgown over her freshly-bathed head. Normally, she loves to talk all things birthday. Her party (Moana-themed swim party), her gift wishlist (heavy on Paw Patrol and Wild Kratts toys), her dessert choice (cupcakes with rainbow sprinkles). Every detail has been carefully attended to, in the way that only a two-almost-three-year-old can. She has weighed in with opinions on everything from icing color to which bathing suit she will wear to her party, and her face becomes animated and her hands gesture wildly as she explains her vision. But tonight, her response is different. She curls herself into my lap and looks up at me. Her bottom lip pops out and her big, gray eyes look sad and lost.
“But, I want to stay tiny,” she says. “I don’t want to get big.”
I wrap my arms around her. “Why do you want to stay tiny, Ellie? Don’t you like being a big girl?”
“Not dis night,” she says. “If I stay tiny, you can still hold me just like dis.”
I look down at my daughter and the way her legs hang off my lap. Her shins bear the hallmark bruises and scrapes of a toddler who has very little use for caution. I notice her thigh rolls are gone, replaced by lean legs; her baby fat melted away by her determination to run far and climb even higher. She is my limit pusher, my boundary tester, the one who always has to be reminded to look twice before crossing the street and prefers to make her decisions just past my arms’ reach.
I have flashes of her as a newborn, all chubby cheeks and dark hair. Impossibly light in my arms and content to be snuggled as closely against my neck as she could. So small, so fragile. Always in my arms or in my line of sight. Always safe.
Yes, I think. Stay tiny.
My son, Nathan, has had Lambie since before he was born. It was an impulse buy on the first shopping trip my mom and I took once we knew he was a boy. We compared soft bedding sets, thumbed through tiny outfits, and bought more than was reasonable. While waiting to check out, I noticed the rack of loveys. I walked over and stroked them, each one softer than the one before, until settling on an ivory lamb.
Lambie, or “Nee” as my son came to call him, was his constant companion. I have a series of photos taken with Nathan lying in his crib next to Lambie. In the first, Lambie dwarfs Nathan’s five-pound-frame. As you flip through them though, you watch his frog legs straighten and his cheeks round as first he catches up to—and then outgrows—Lambie.
When he was four months old, Nathan started refusing to sleep unless my hand was on his chest. I had gone back to work and was desperate for sleep, so late one night I reached for Lambie and draped him across Nathan. I held my breath, but it worked. Nathan slept on, his tiny hands resting on Lambie, where seconds before they had held onto me. From that night on, he always fell asleep with Lambie clutched tightly to his chest.
For the first two months of kindergarten, Ellie and I walked Nathan to his classroom door every single day. We’d see classmates dropped off in the car line, walking in alone. Nathan would smile and wave, but stayed close by my side as we navigated the busy hallways.
“Do you want me to drop you off today?” I would ask each morning.
“No, I want you to walk me in. I’m not ready to do it by myself yet,” he would always reply.
For weeks we kept the same pattern, but as the weather began to cool and the seasons shifted, I told Nathan it was time to practice walking in on his own. First, we just walked him to his hallway, and watched him find his classroom door on his own. Then, we simply walked him to the foyer.
As he took those initial, hesitant steps on his own, he constantly looked over his shoulder to find my eyes, questioning if he was doing it right. I would smile and nod. Yep, you’re doing great, baby. Keep walking.
Then one day, he didn’t look back. He walked all the way to his classroom, and he didn’t need my help once. The next day was chilly and rainy, and I told him it was time to try just dropping him off in the car line. He nodded. He was ready. As I pulled up to the door, I reminded him to go straight to his class.
“I love you, buddy. Remember to be kind.”
“I will Mom. I love you, too!” A quick kiss and he was off, walking through the yawning doorway, carrying a backpack half his size. He looked so small.
This had been my idea. I had pushed and encouraged this independence. So why the lump in my throat?
That night, after I brushed his teeth and read him books, I settled Nathan into bed. Or tried to, anyway—a mountain of stuffed animals occupied the space where his body should go.
“Bud, you’ve got like 12 stuffed animals in here,” I said. “You can keep four.”
In a deliberation that rivaled Sophie’s Choice, he sorted them carefully until he was down to two: Jumpo the red panda and Lambie. He considered them for a moment and then put Lambie in the discard pile. I was shocked.
“Are you sure?”
He nodded. “Yep. I’m ready for bed, Mom.”
“Do you want to sleep with five, just for tonight?” I could hear the desperation in my voice. Wait, shouldn’t that be his line?
“Nah, I’m good Mom. I have the ones I need.”
He doesn’t need me to walk him into school anymore. He doesn’t need Lambie. Who is this gangly stranger of a son?
It always catches me off guard, my sentimentality. I didn’t cry on the first day of school or when I donated all of our baby items. Maybe I’m just better able to sidestep sadness I anticipate, but I hold steady like a rock for the Milestones with Historically Big Emotions. Instead, it’s this incremental inching toward not needing me anymore that is my undoing.
I’m the first to say that parenting is about raising adults not children. Every lesson, every piece of instruction is geared toward teaching them how to be self-sufficient. Few things rival the pride I feel when I watch them do something on their own that they used to need help with: tying shoes, climbing the ladder of the slide, clearing their dishes from the kitchen table. The end goal, of course, is that I put myself out of a job because they become fully-functioning, independent adults. Moving the chains as we progress toward this goaline should be cause for celebration, not sadness.
Why, then, do some parts ache so much?
“Mom, have you seen Lambie anywhere?” I was cleaning up the kitchen after lunch, and the question stopped me in surprise. It had been weeks since I’d seen Lambie. Months since Nathan had made any mention of him.
“I assume he’s in your toybox, bud,” I said, Nathan’s stuffed animal catch-all. “Let’s go see if we can find him.”
We unearthed him nestled near the bottom, beneath a huge Mickey Mouse that was an impulse buy at Target by his nana, and tucked next to the hand-me-down hedgehog from his dad. Nathan grabbed him joyfully and ran back to the bonus room. When I peeked out later, I saw Nathan snuggled under a blanket watching a movie, Lambie tucked under his chin and cradling his cheek, and I felt that familiar pain in my chest.
Maybe my children will always need me, just not in the visceral, can’t-survive-without-you way that leaves me ragged and exhausted at the end of every day right now. It seems counterintuitive, to want to stay in this phase that’s been so hard and asked so much of me. I simultaneously long for them to achieve more independence and feel a wave a sadness once they reach it.
Is this just what motherhood feels like? A constant war between holding on and letting go. Waiting for them to grab my hand for a dose of safety, comfort, and guidance, rather than reaching for theirs first. Watching them outgrow my lap and the curve of my hip. Putting loveys in keepsake boxes when they’re finally outgrown. This is my burden and my blessing—to let them grow into the people they are becoming, while holding onto the memory of what it was like when they were tiny and I was their world.
Ellie is still in my lap, and I press a kiss to the top of her wet hair.
“Ah, my sweet girl. I love to hold you like this, but you’ve got to keep on growing and growing and growing. Do you want to know a secret though?”
Her eyes light up. Secrets are her love language.
“My heart grows with you. And you’ll always stay tiny enough to fit inside it.”
“Right here?” she asks, pressing a hand to my chest.
“Right there,” I affirm. “Always and forever.”
Words and photo of Lambie by Jennifer Batchelor.