When my daughter was a baby, I nicknamed her Everest Ellie for her formidable personality. She never napped more than 40 minutes and ate at least every two hours. From the very beginning, she displayed a preference for her mother in all circumstances so strong it can only be described as stifling, including a six-week-long phase where she would only eat if I gave her a bottle (a nursing strike was part of the deal, naturally) in her room, in the dark, with a lovey draped carefully over her face. She had a dairy and soy intolerance that left me with a very small list of approved food items, and I dropped 70 pounds over six months in a losing battle to consume enough calories for us both.
My mother babysat once when Ellie was about six months old. Nathan was at preschool, and I went out to run a few errands—enjoying the bliss that is four consecutive stops without having to lug an infant carrier or buckle and unbuckle a toddler. I came home to my mother, a baby whisperer of legendary proportions, shaking her head and bouncing a wailing Ellie in her arms.
“I couldn’t get her to eat or sleep,” she said over the shrieks. “And I tried everything. You’ve got one tough baby on your hands here.”
Tell me something I didn’t know.
Mechanically, I took Ellie from my mom and made my way to her room. I sat in the rocker and propped my feet on the ottoman. I draped her lovey across her face, slipped the bottle into her mouth, and at once she began to gulp down my milk. When she finished, I exchanged the bottle for her pacifier and began to methodically pat her bottom. After a few minutes, I lifted the corner of the lovey. She was asleep.
Why couldn’t she do this for someone, anyone else?
I checked the time on my phone; I had 47 minutes before I needed to leave to pick up Nathan. No reason to start the song and dance of trying to get Ellie to nap in her crib. I shifted her gently; my left arm was beginning to fall asleep. Her eyes stayed closed but her hand reached out and grabbed a fistful of my shirt.
“Relax, baby girl,” I whispered. “I’m not trying to put you down.” Her fingers stayed stubbornly locked around me, and I sighed. How many hours had we spent together in this chair? How many plans and tasks and to-dos had she waylaid with her demands? It felt like she wanted all of me, all the time, a smothering bundle of neediness.
I nicknamed her Everest Ellie because being with her made it hard to breathe.
While I remember the overall sense of hardness that was Ellie’s first year of life, whether due to exhaustion or self-preservation, I can’t remember many specifics. But a few weeks ago, I started cleaning out my email inbox (I am not, and never will be, an #inboxzero kind of gal), and came across a cache of emails from 2014 and 2015 between my husband and me. At the time, Jon was working at a place that frowned on personal cell phone usage in the office, so I would email him rather than texting during the day to keep him updated on our shenanigans. As I scanned through the emails, I felt the horror come rushing back with each desperate missive.
Ellie is sick.
Ellie didn’t nap.
Neither did Nathan.
How much screen time is too much screen time?
I can’t get Ellie to stop crying long enough to make dinner; can you pick something up?
Looks like I caught Nathan’s stomach bug; how soon can you be home?
Things feel distant between us.
Could you skip basketball and come home straight from work instead?
Are we going to talk about how long it has been since the last time we had sex?
When will you be home?
When will you be home?
When will you be home?
My saving grace during that time was the greenway path behind our local library. It was between our home and Nathan’s preschool, so I’d drop him off and then Ellie and I would go for a walk beneath the shady trees. On non-preschool days, as soon as Jon would get home in the evening, I’d be out the door—usually with Ellie in tow, in case she needed to eat—to walk a mile or two or three. It wasn’t about burning calories or even the fresh air. It couldn’t have been about the alone time because I was rarely alone. I think I just needed to have some part of every day where I could measure my progress, where I could look over my shoulder and see tangible proof of moving from there to here, to remember that it wouldn’t always be this way. Despite feeling constrained and overwhelmed, we were forever moving forward.
Ellie will start kindergarten in August. She is still my more spirited child, the tester of boundaries and the less likely to follow directions of any sort, although she is—thankfully—also much more independent than she was in her first weeks and months. She will be five in a few days, and I am weeks away from closing the chapter on life with littles and firmly entering the school-age years.
And I am sad. What the hell is wrong with me?
It’s more than masochism and it’s not a faulty memory. I have not forgotten how hard and overwhelming and isolating it felt during the days, weeks, and months in the trenches. I remember the toll on my body and my marriage and my sanity. Rather, I think I am sad because it wasn’t always what I wanted it to be. More accurately, I wasn’t always the mother I wanted to be, and I don’t get a chance to do that part over again.
I don’t want to freeze time because this phase was my best. I want to hit pause so I can perfect it; so I don’t have to wince at the memories of crying in the car, in the bathroom, in the darkness of my daughter’s room in the middle of the night. My dogged insistence that, if just given enough chances, I can finally get it right hangs over my head.
But there is no pausing and there is no freezing time. And there’s certainly no perfecting motherhood. It’s one of the most humbling parts of the whole gig, that when we finally feel like we’ve achieved a degree of comfort or a rhythm in a particular stage, something shifts and we start from square one again. Being a mother has meant maintaining a closer proximity to my mistakes than I like; there is no mastery to be achieved here.
Regardless of what I get right or wrong, time insists on moving forward.
We had an exceptionally rainy winter and spring. Inches upon inches fell for months, and when it wasn’t raining it felt like we were wrapped in persistent grayness. Everyone’s moods suffered a bit. Gradually the gloominess loosened its hold though; two weeks ago it was a beautiful day with a crisp blue sky and the sun shining strong. After preschool, Ellie and I headed to the greenway like old times, except instead of tucking a blanket around her in the stroller, I adjusted the chin strap on her helmet before she took off on her scooter ahead of me. I called out after her to not get too far ahead of me as I followed, enjoying the way the sun warmed the top of my head.
Walking toward us was a mother pushing a stroller. As we got closer, I noticed the dark circles under her eyes, the tank top that didn’t quite fit, and before I even glanced under the sunshade, I knew what I would see: a tiny, fresh new baby.
Our eyes met, and I could see what I used to see in the mirror. The worry and the exhaustion. The marks of a hard season. I felt a nudge to say something, but I hesitated. What could I say to a stranger that might be encouraging?
I didn’t tell her how quickly it all goes. I didn’t tell her to enjoy every minute, because I have months and months of minutes that I wouldn’t go back and relive for anything. I said nothing about how great she looked or how cute her baby was. I didn’t tell her that before she could blink she’d be huffing and puffing to keep up with her soon-to-be kindergartner on a scooter.
Instead, I smiled. “Isn’t it nice to be out in the sun after the dark grayness we’ve had?”
“Oh yes,” she said. “I never thought I’d be so glad to see the sun again.”
I nodded. “I know exactly what you mean,” I said, then resumed walking.
I glanced over my shoulder as we moved on, watching the new mother walk the same steps Ellie and I had just covered. I turned and raised my hand to shield my eyes from the sun as I looked for Ellie. I spotted her on the path ahead, just past the curve, and hurried my step to keep up with my daughter.
Photo by Lottie Caiella