In the soft blue light of the fish mobile that miraculously puts Nathan—my second baby—to sleep each night, I reach for a burp rag from the middle drawer of his dresser, balancing him on my hip. In one smooth motion, I rise from my knees and sit back into the rocking chair, my body knowing its place in relation to the pieces of the nursery so well by now. I nestle the burp rag under Nathan’s chin and stroke his cheek as he grips the bottle from me and lazily pops it in and out of his mouth. He’s barely drinking, just playing. He smiles at me as more milk drips down the side of the bottle.
The cloth is quickly soaked because these bottle nipples are worn out and milk leaks from the seal around the bottle top. I should replace them, except he’ll be one year old in exactly a week. He’ll be too old for a bottle soon—he already refuses to drink more than eight ounces a day this way. Still, I offer morning and evening bottles to him because I am not ready to let go of his babyhood. Not yet.
As I rock him, I sing the lullaby I made up for his big brother and marvel at the sheer size of the baby in my lap. He loses interest before I’ve finished singing, so I stand and rock him on my feet. He arches his back and twists away from me, reaching for the crib.
He’s ready for bigger and better things, but I want to pause here, in this stage where I seemingly know what I’m doing.
We have approximately 1 million burp rags, and the realization that I’ll soon be re-packing the baby linens tub—the container that holds all the receiving blankets, the swaddles, the Merlin’s Magic SleepSuit, the changing pad covers, the burp rags—breaks my heart a bit. I remember the speed of this stage with Jay, my first: crawling one minute, sprinting and eating table food the next. With Jay, I anticipated each new stage with excitement. Each milestone was thrilling, and held the promise that things might become a bit easier. Now, I know that once Nathan can steadily walk across the room, he’ll choose running and climbing and jumping over snuggling with me every time. I know what challenges lie on the other side of those milestones.
I know just enough to know that I have no idea what’s coming for us when we have two kids.
The burp rag I grabbed tonight is one of the half-million we’d registered for when I was pregnant with our first. The bright green palm tree leaves and orange tigers have faded to pale green and peach, but I remember exactly where and when I spotted this particular design. Jeremy and I stood in the bib aisle of Buy Buy Baby, a tad shell shocked after the agony of the bottle and pump aisle, where the volume of choice and equipment available to feed an infant simply overwhelmed me. I hadn’t known there were options for baby bottles and if I didn’t even know there were differences in baby bottles, how would I know enough to choose the right ones for the baby? And if I couldn’t even choose the right baby bottle, how was I going to do anything right?
As I silently spiraled out of control, Jeremy gestured to the breast pump display right beside us. “Do you want to register for one of these? Just in case?”
An innocent question, sure, but breastfeeding was fraught territory for me, and the meltdown I’d barely contained burst out of me right then and there. I sobbed all of my fears about motherhood into my hands as my husband pulled me into his chest.
“Do I have to breastfeed? If I don’t, I’ll definitely be the worst—the worst mother ever. But if I breastfeed just because everyone tells me to and I hate myself for it, I’ll also be the worst mother ever and then maybe it won’t even work and then I’ll be a failure and the worst mother ever and I just don’t know what to do. I have to know what to do and I don’t know what to do and what am I going to do?” My tears soaked his shirt as he stroked my back and murmured in my ear. Our baby, still tucked safely inside me, rolled over, oblivious to the incompetence of his parents.
Jeremy said all the right things (“You’re going to be an amazing mom,” “We’ll figure this out together,” “We don’t need to decide what kind of bottles to buy today”), but it made no difference. Anxiety had taken over my thoughts and I couldn’t pull myself together. Until, that is, I saw the burp rag covered in elephants and giraffes and tigers and I knew in my bones that we needed it. I didn’t know how I was going to feed my baby, but I was fairly certain I’d need to clean up some messes. It was a relief to simply choose some pretty scraps of fabric that would immediately be useful when we had a new baby on our hands. Once I waddled to the selection of cotton rectangles, I instantly cheered up—after all, none of those could be the wrong choice. I selected one pack of everything I liked.
I bought an additional half million burp rags after Jay was born when I realized how quickly we went through them and how long it took us to get a load of laundry done. I used a new one each time I pumped and each time he ate, when I tucked the soft cotton under his chin just like I’d watched my own mother do with my younger siblings. When my water broke with Nathan, this burp rag was one of the things I hastily shoved in the top of my almost-packed hospital bag, a small talisman to remind myself of one thing I knew how to do at a time when everything was about to change.
“Baby on the loose! Baby on the loose!” Jay shouts as he chases his brother across the front lawn on a surprisingly crisp January day. Nathan squeals as he realizes he has an audience and his toddling picks up speed. A neighbor drives down our street and the sound of the engine breaks the afternoon quiet and surprises Nathan so much he pauses. I see the twinkle start in Jay’s eye—he sees his advantage and tackles Nathan into the lawn before I can react.
“Not around his neck, Jay!” I shout for the hundredth time this hour.
I watch in disbelief as they tumble over one another across the frozen winter lawn. How is Nate strong enough for this already? Three-year-old legs tangle with almost-one-year-old arms, their laughs indistinguishable. I wonder if I should pull them apart, and wish my husband and I had thought to establish ground rules for wrestling matches. Nathan cries when his brother runs away, ready for better, more exciting things.
“Let’s play chalk!” Jay says, and Nathan snaps out of his whining. He hurries over, on baby tiptoes, and trips over nothing, repeatedly. He quickly, quietly picks himself back up each time, determined to join his brother. I watch as Jay patiently holds out a purple piece of chalk until Nathan makes it back to the porch to grab it. The late afternoon sun begins to dip behind the houses across the street and I think about how quickly our baby has become a little kid.
I am utterly unprepared to teach two little kids how to play nicely. If I think about all the things I still don’t know for too long, the panic that gripped me in the bottle aisle returns: How do I teach them to share? What do we do when they truly hurt one another? When it’s not just knee scrapes and collapsed Magna-Tile castles, but broken bones and broken hearts bringing tears to their eyes, what do I do?
My babies are becoming children, less “mine” and more their own, and new challenges meet us at every turn. Though I miss the days they wanted nothing other than my arms, I love watching their play progress. It seems we’re all ready for bigger and better things. I’m cautiously optimistic, even though I don’t know what I’m doing. We’re in the thick of it, and not even my trusty burp rags can save us now.