Five years ago today I was snuggling my new baby girl on my futon nest in the living room. It is hard for me to even describe what joy and healing she brought to me. When I look back at pictures of myself from the days following her birth, I see such radiance. While I have exulted in the births of all my children and they all rank as the most transformative, meaning, joyous, and loving occasions of my life, Alaina’s birth was possibly the most truly, bone-deep sensation of relief and happiness that I have ever experienced.
I feel like I have missed out on a lot of the last year with her after having Tanner. We were a tight-knit little unit until he was born, she would fall asleep with her head on my arm every night, we played and read together every day, we cooked together and did laundry together every day, and I often did little fun and special things with her. I felt like we actually had a “balanced” family in the sense of “mom and Alaina” + “dad and the boys.” Tanner’s birth changed a lot and she had the hardest time adjusting to the “displacement” of a new sibling of anyone. My boys have each other. They give each other attention. They are each other’s best friend. They play and talk and learn together. They have each other’s backs. While it is an adjustment to make room for an additional brother, their tight bond and unity is intact and unchanged, basically impervious to the addition of more siblings. Alaina, fifteen months after Tanner’s birth, still gets upset about whether or not she can go to sleep with her head on my arm (if he’s nursing, she can’t, she has to snuggle by my back and gets sad and dejected. If he isn’t nursing, she can and is happy). She spends a lot of time waiting for me to play with her and often seems very attention “starved,” in a way that makes me feel sad, guilty, and irritated all rolled up in one. In the family structure now, there are the brothers, mama and Tanner, and then Alaina, kind of floating around by herself wishing for someone to play with her or read to her or pour milk for her, etc. (Apparently, Mark is also displaced in my family structure sense right now!)
There never seems to be enough time for me to give her everything she needs and wants and even though she is still pretty little herself she often has to wait for Tanner to be helped, or has to put things away because he is destroying them, and so forth. We are finding Tanner to be a super high-need and pretty destructive toddler and in the “need hierarchy,” he ends up “winning” even when she legitimately needs things too. I find myself feeling a real sense of almost grief at the disappearance of the last year of my other kids’ lives. I have long been frustrated by “you’ll miss this when they’re older”-style commentary, but it has become even more poignantly evident to me lately as Lann rapidly catches up with me in height, that the specters of “missing this,” often seems to be raised only with regard to babies and young children. I rock at the baby-momming. I don’t miss anything. They sleep on me, ride along with me, feed from my body, and are a part of me. I cherish them daily—drawing up long breaths of their hair, admiring their little hands and chubby bodies, cradling them to me, but as I do this very thing, make sure I am not missing out on any tenderness of baby-momming, I am actually, in a very real sense, missing out on what it was like to have a four year old girl in the house. The only four year old girl who is ever going to live in my house as my little daughter is now five instead. I am also missing out on what it is like to have twelve and nine year old sons. They are older and while I’m not dwelling fruitlessly in my memories of their baby selves, I am actually missing their current selves. It is passing me by right now, because I have a one year old who simply needs me more, requires more from me, and is quite literally more in my face. I feel like the people who say to “enjoy it now, it passes so quickly,” when they see me with Tanner, are completely missing out on the fact that I have three other kids who are also passing quickly by. Is it only babies and toddlers that we fear missing out on? Not cherishing enough? Forgetting what it is like to have? I feel like comments like that actually devalue older children—like, aren’t they good enough and interesting enough now that I don’t need to pine back for their babyhood?
Luckily, in the last two months, Alaina and Tanner have started playing together. They push doll strollers around, play with pretend food, play a chasing + laughing game, play in boxes together, build with blocks, and she also likes to bundle him up and pushes him around on an office chair. I hope they are soon going to be on the same “team” and be buddies who can count on each other, rather than obstacles in each other’s path.
While I have managed to scrape up a little bit of time to play with her almost every day since he’s been born, it has often been distracted, hurried, or halfhearted. However, we have started a new thing just this month in that we have specific playtime together every night after dinner. We are having tons of fun and she seems relieved to have some time to count on getting with me, rather than just waiting and hoping I’ll get to her. She seems charged up afterward and is thrilled to get to that part of the day. The irony of having a home-based life in which we spend almost all day in the company of all family members is that focused time together is rare—it is diffuse, scattered around, fragmented, because everything is always happening at once, in the same space. There are no boundaries between our lives, work, relationships, etc. This saturation factor means it both feels like we all spend “too much” time together, while also not quite having enough time for one another.
Interestingly, this morning she slept until 11:00, just has she has been “programmed” to do since birth. She was born at around 11:00 in the morning, actually, rarely went to sleep before midnight through her entire infancy (often being awake and happy until 1:00 a.m.), and usually sleeps until 10 or 11 in the morning, after falling asleep between 11:30-12:00. Due to this night owl bedtime, Alaina and I have also found some time for us at night after everyone else has gone to bed. After I’ve read to all the kids at bedtime and Tanner has fallen asleep nursing, Alaina and I stay up sitting in my bed, Tanner sleeping next to me, and we color in coloring books or make bookmarks or cards, and chat and talk. She likes to choose an oracle card with me and write a Womanrunes symbol on her arm. I mostly just listen to what she has to say and agree and exclaim at the right places and she colors and colors, content in my finally undivided presence.
So, anyway, this five-year-old girl. She’s tall. We checked her height on the door frame compared to brothers and she is the same size or taller than they were at her age. She wears 6-7 size clothes, but is extremely choosy about them. Pants are an issue because they can be loose at all, so she is fond of pairing size 6 shirts with size 4T pants that are faded and high-water. She has definite ideas about what clothing meets her criteria for comfort and stylishness and we almost always just let her choose and decide her own ensembles for the day, unless we are going to town, and even then, I usually say, “sure, too small striped leggings will be great with that dress!” because, truly, it really doesn’t matter as long as she feels good in what she is wearing. After visiting an exhibit about China at the Magic House last year, she fell in love with pandas. She likes wearing black and white clothes and calls herself Panda Girl. My mom adopted a World Wildlife Fund panda for her for Christmas and she carries the stuffed panda the adoption came with around with her everywhere. My aunt got her a great panda hat that she loves to wear (along with a [non-panda] poncho my mom crocheted for her and a handwoven silk scarf that she helped my mom weave. When I feel guilty about not doing all the special things with her I’d like to do every day, I remember that she also has lots of opportunities, including helping to make and glaze real pottery cups and bowls and weave on full-sized looms using silk yarn with her talented grandma, that many little girls her age never have!).
We planned an epic panda birthday party for her yesterday. I labored over homemade marshmallow fondant icing the day before, even using specially ordered non-artificial black food coloring that cost me $12. I ranted extensively as I kneaded and kneaded the fondant the about how I could instead be one of “those people” eating frozen Taquitos and watching TV and what possesses me to always overperform and overdo. I yelled at the kids, had to have Lann come drag Tanner away of me as he hung from my legs crying while I couldn’t pick him up because my hands were covered in black powdered sugar cement). Why do this to myself and to the household atmosphere?! I’ve said before that I’d rather be the mom that does cool and fun stuff with her kids and sometimes yells while doing it than a mom who doesn’t yell, but who doesn’t do cool stuff because she’s afraid she might yell, or maybe because she doesn’t have ideas to share with her kids. (Of course, an awesomer option, would be to be the mom who does cool stuff and also doesn’t yell, but I’m not holding my breath on that one!)
After I constructed the first tiny panda and saw how cute it was and how excited she was about her cake, I felt such a sense of thrill and triumph. I thought that if I hadn’t decided to do it and make it easier on myself, sure, I wouldn’t have yelled, but I also wouldn’t have felt the empowering sense of having done exactly what I imagined doing and I would have taught my daughter to give up on hard things and new things and trying it anyway. And, isn’t that just like her birth, in the end? I could have done it differently and maybe more easily, but nothing compares to sinking down on my knees in my futon nest holding that rainbow baby girl in my own bloody hands. Those pandas too, while less earth-shaking and life-changing, were birthed from my own love and effort into my black-icing hands, and my willingness to do it myself, for the ones I love.
Happy birthday, dear one!