The words gobsmacked me, kicked me in the chest.
“I never realized that my kids growing up would feel like losing someone,” wrote an anonymous mom in the Scary Mommy Confessional. “It’s like my babies disappeared and my school aged children are strangers. Sometimes I cry because I miss my babies and know I’ll never see them again. I was better with babies.”
I stared at my computer. My hands began to shake. My eyes began to water, and the tears spilled over. I felt a sudden, deep hollow ache — an ache that had always been there, but an ache that had been unnamed and unacknowledged before. Maybe because I didn’t want to. Maybe because I didn’t have the courage to.
I was better with babies. And now, I look at my sons — ages 8, 6, and 4 — and wonder where my babies went.
Don’t get me wrong: I adore my kids. They are smart and funny and fun. My oldest loves to go places with me, delights me with his own opinions. He thought The Force Awakens was awesome, but didn’t think it would end the way I did. He agrees that we should buy Valentine’s Day-related hand towels that extol the virtues of glitter. My 6-year-old son gently cares for all living things. He has two beta fish, a worm farm, and a revolving door of creepy-crawly life he brings in from outside. He waters all the plants every day. The 4-year-old draws bizarre pictures and sleeps with at least six lovies every night.
They are growing up. They have thoughts and opinions they love to share.
There was a day, not so long ago, when I would have committed unspeakable crimes to know those thoughts and opinions, to get a glimpse of the people they were becoming behind the baby talk. But now that they’re there, I find that my hands are empty. I do not know what to do with these running, leaping, Lego-flinging, frog-catching children. I knew babies. Oh, I knew them, inside-out I knew them: their cuddly heft, the slow snuggle against the curve of my breast. I knew when they were tired and hungry, I knew how to tend to their needs and comfort them. I knew their cries meant something needful, that they were not trying to manipulate.
Now, when they cry, I think: you’re a spoiled who has too many toys, and you’re crying because you want more. Or: you’re just throwing a tantrum because you think that if you do, we won’t bother to go to Lowes. Then I’m confused. Maybe they do need something. Maybe I do need to extend compassion. But I don’t know what they need anymore. I can’t fix it all with a cuddle and some milkies.
It hurts, this befuddlement. This loss. I used to be the center of their universe. Now, I am not. Even the youngest prefers to sleep with Daddy most of the time, and it hurts: I am not the Earth to his satellite. And we all know children grow up, want them to grow up. Want them to learn, want to have those conversations about Star Wars, find out our kid hates pizza, discuss big things like politics, race relations, and immigration. We want to watch the capsule panorama of their unfolding, their beginning, learn they like The Ramones better than Spoon. We would not give that up.
But I loved babies.
I loved to hold them up on my chest, to feel their soft breath on my neck, their breathing in and out and in and out. I love breastfeeding, our magic solution to all things: to food, to sleep, to comfort and to cuddling. I loved the baby milestones, that running toddle of a first walk, the first round-mouthed, garbled words. I was always kissing them, hugging them, cuddling them, storing up love for the days when I knew that kind of love would become scarce. Babies were a puzzle I could master, small warm people I could figure out. No more. My sons are no longer those babies. They will never again be those simple little creatures I can carry around. They are no longer so simple to love, and they never will be again.
I mourn that simplicity. I mourn the babies they were. Their lightness in my arms, their sticky hands around my neck, the way that I could always make it better. Their concerns, so small. Now their worries are bigger and only magnifying as they age. The other day my 4-year-old asked me, terrified, if I was going to die soon and I yearned for the days of Sesame Street.
There is a memento I have: a stuffed Brobee, left over from my middle son’s Yo Gabba Gabba obsession. He ignores the stuffed toy now, tosses him off to the side. But I pick him up, dust him off, and hold his small green form to my chest. As if a small green toy could cover a mother’s grief at watching her sons grow. As if a discarded stuffie could patch the pain in my heart.
I love my sons. I adore them. I would never change them. But I can feel that way while also missing their baby selves. I can feel that way and still stand in the middle of their room, nursing rocker long gone, surrounded now by the detritus of their boyhood, clinging to Brobee. And crying. And crying.