I’ve been raising babies for 12 years now.
I started out at 22 with a newborn baby boy. I had read all the books and acquired all the equipment. That tricked me into believing I was ready. Now I know, we are never really ready for that first free fall into parenthood and the giving over and letting go that is required. I could have waited and had my first baby now, at 34, and I think I would still not really be ready for what actually happens when you bring your first baby into the world. There is just no way to prepare for the way your whole life just flips upside down and your equilibrium shifts.
I was determined to do everything the right way. He would sleep in his crib. When he woke at night, I would quietly attend to his needs in his dark nursery, nurse him upright in a cherry wood gliding rocker with matching ottoman purchased by my Aunt Pat from all the way down in South Florida. I would then place him back in his crib where he would drift into dreamy sleep, only to be awakened by soft morning light streaming through his window.
The smart man in the book I read told me that this baby would be joining our lives already in progress and must not be allowed to highjack our routines and run the show. His logic comforted 22-year-old me, pregnant with a surprise baby at a less than convenient time. If I followed this man’s protocol, I would be able to maintain the status quo and be the captain of my little ship. He told me that if we all followed our instincts the world would be chaos. I must master my baby’s instincts and mine, too. I must make choices about baby raising with my brain, not my feelings or instincts.
In reality, Eli would bring a bad case of jaundice home from the hospital and need to sleep in the living room, on his changing table, underneath the special lights sent from a medical supply store. I dressed him warmly that first night, knowing the best place for him was under the light. I put a little newborn hat on his head and dozed on the couch.
I was exhausted. I drifted in and out of sleep, panicking if I thought I slept more than a few minutes without checking on him.
Then I awakened to the sound of the back of his head rubbing back and forth on his makeshift bed, right, left, right, left. I jumped up to see that his little hat, intended to protect him from the cold November night had slipped and slid and covered his face and he was turning his head, instinctively rooting for fresh air.
That was my first experience with what could have happened. First, but certainly not last. The panic and horror I felt comes back to my gut when I remember that first night home, the night I could have smothered him with a soft knit hat.
I stayed true to my commitment to keep my boy in his crib, knowing this was the safest place for him. I was never able to follow the nighttime protocol described in the book I read while Eli was still just a rolling bump in my belly. I couldn’t let him cry, I just couldn’t. I never made enough milk to satisfy him, always adjusting ounces of supplemental formula bottles. I had to find the right balance of nursing and bottle feeding to keep him growing but also keep my body producing the meager amount of milk it could. And everything was constantly changing, the way growing babies always do. When he fussed, I knew I could have gotten my calculation wrong and he could actually be hungry and so I just learned to trust him to tell me what he needed. Which meant I had to respond to his cries, every time.
And he slept like you would imagine, a couple of hours at a time. And so we rocked and sang and nursed and made bottles all through the night, well into toddlerhood.
Sometimes I was content to hold him when he needed me, but often I would curse when I heard him wake. Often, I would cry with him. I was working full time and caring for him alone a lot because of Kyle’s schedule and I was exhausted. And a little entitled. And still a bit of a child myself, I can see that looking back. Eli taught me about love covering sin and how to start over. He taught me how to actually look at my children, in their eyes, and make Holy Ghost decisions about what they need. He began my lessons in learning to overlook the opinions and judgements of other people, real and imagined, and love my actual children with what I actually have.
It takes time to grow into a mother, to leave behind old ways and soften into new ones. It takes time to be made new.
My next baby was a total dream. She weighed a little more than nine pounds when she was born, and I can still feel her roundness in my hands. She was born eager to please and remains that way at ten years old. She slept easily, wherever I tucked her. She was, and is to this very day, the kind of child I have to remember to look in the eyes very carefully, because her reflex is always to put me first. She has to be reminded that her feelings and desires matter, too. I needed a baby like that. We all need a baby like that. I’d take a baby like that right now, actually. Hannah Kate taught me about being surprised by joy. She taught me that I could use my inside voice, because if I didn’t she would wail like her tiny baby heart was broken. She taught me to be careful with people. Many had tried, but she succeeded.
And then another mama trusted me enough to let me care for her seven year old while she made big sacrifices to build a future for their family. Suddenly we were a family of five, and we never knew how long we would stay that way. All in all, we were together for almost seven years. She is incredibly strong, smart, brave and kind and we were so lucky to have her with us. I'm honestly still processing that chapter of my life and I can’t share much about it’s impact. It was hard and beautiful. It was good and bad, right and wrong. I’ll never be the same.
Then came Abe. His birth was induced a week early for no good reason at all. I had planned a home birth but panicked and ran hard in the other direction in the eleventh hour. It was hard and scary and left me shattered in every way. I don’t remember much about the months after he came and I think I’ll grieve his babyhood for the rest of my life. There are only a handful of pictures of me from that time and my eyes are empty and dark. I've written about that time before. I’m sure I will again. I’m different now, after my time in the dark valley where real danger lurked and threatened to take life. He is big and strong now and six-and-a-half, and if you met him you would have no idea how he failed to thrive in the care of a distant and hollow mother throughout the tenderest of months. He taught me to finally think of myself as a human being like everyone else, with needs that matter. He taught me that I count and if I act like I don’t, I’ll sink and drown my whole ship full of people. He taught me that I can break. He taught me that I can heal. He is the one who showed me how Light makes its way into darkness through the thin places, worn clean through by suffering.
As I started typing this morning by streetlight in my living room, waiting on inspiration and the first sign of the sun, I heard him. I heard my fourth baby carefully drop to the floor by my bed where he sleeps every night in the crook of my arm. I heard his feet come into to hallway. He stops to close my door because at 22 months old, he already knows that he likes things to be as they should. Doors closed. Laundry in baskets. Toys in toybox. Books on shelf. Unwanted food cleared off of high chair tray and onto floor. We are working on that one.
I don’t want him to be afraid in the dark, even for a second. I call out to him softly.
“Shepherd, come see Mommy. Here I am, brother. Mommy’s in here.”
I can hear his little feet hurrying to find me, his eyes adjusting to the lamplight as he rubs them with his tiny, dimpled fists. I reach for him and he reaches for me and we curve into each other, quiet and alone together for just one sacred minute. His eyes are closed and he grins with his whole face.
“Shepherd, Mommy loves you. I missed you when you were sleepin’.”
Early on in my mothering years, I pushed myself to the brink of exhaustion every day. Being at home or mostly at home with a houseful of little children is good, hard work but it can be very dangerous for some of us. I held my breath for naptime and cried a lot. I yelled a lot. I lashed out a lot in a lot of ways, always with my finger on the trigger inside the pressure cooker of my mind. I’m sure there were lots of good moments, but my memories are clouded by the haze of my own unmet expectations from those early years. I blamed myself when things went sideways. I blamed myself for everything. I see now that my constant disenchantment with my own performance as a mother was nothing more than the effect of my idol worship. I had set myself up to be the little god on the altar of our home, heaping responsibilities and burdens on myself that no one asked me to carry.
After Abe, after learning my needs matter and my happiness counts, I learned to set better boundaries for myself. I learned to take better care of myself. Think about that phrase, take care. Take care, mamas. Because care won’t always be given. You’ll have to take it. Especially if you’re a woman, especially if you spend most of your time caring for other people. Take care. The stakes are high. You actually matter and pretending like you don’t hurts everyone you love.
Shepherd is teaching me that it ain’t over until it’s over. I never dreamed in a million years I would be almost 35 and still hoping for more babies. He has changed me and changed my mind. I have no idea if I will ever get to do this again. I don’t know if I can. I don’t know if I should. I don’t know if I will. But I know for sure that Shepherd’s baby days made me want to go back and do it all over again, now that I’ve learned how to be loving and kind, especially to myself. I don’t necessarily put myself first, but these days I do make it on to the list and we are all better off for it.
If anyone is asking me what I want, I’d like to have a houseful of young kids again, balancing the scale that holds my bigger kids on the other side. But in six years, we will have one child entering college with another one right behind. Our cars are each a dozen years old and our house is bursting at its seams. A lot will have to change for me to move my feet in the direction of a table for seven or eight. But this I know, there is room here in my heart, and my arms can’t bear the thought of being empty so soon.
So, who knows? Who knows what God will do? All I know is that I really do want the hands spread wide life, trusting the Giver. He loves me and I believe Him when I read that He withholds no good thing from me. I am taking note of what He has already given. Even the bitter cup seems sweet when I remember its taste in the new day’s light of Him working all these things for my good. It’s already been more than enough, more than I could have asked for or dreamed up. The answer to my prayer for more could be no, it will make perfect sense if it is.
I’m not ashamed to ask for what I want anymore. I’m ok with God’s good no.
Because what if He says yes?