By Alice Jones Webb
My first child has a thick baby book. I started keeping it as soon as I discovered I was pregnant. My odd food cravings, the first stirrings of movement, and the onset of labor are all recorded in neat printed letters on pastel pages. I was so enamored by my first child, even before I had met him, that I wanted to record every detail of his existence. I didn’t want to chance forgetting anything.
After his birth, I continued to write down every one of his “firsts.” I was meticulous in recording each event. Dates, day of the week, even the time of day are all printed cleanly and evenly in the pages of his baby book. I was so afraid of the details of him slipping away as he grew. Perhaps I was afraid that he was too good to be true, that if I didn’t get every single part of him down, he would slip through my fingers.
The first time he said, “Mama” is one of my favorites. I cried fat tears. I remember exactly what he was wearing when he took his first tottering steps. The first time he laughed, the first time he used a spoon to feed himself (and the patiently waiting family dog), used the potty, rode a bicycle, drove a car, they are all chiseled in deep grooves across my memory.
He was my first child and so many of his firsts were firsts for me, too. As he was experiencing newness in his world, I was experiencing it in mine.
I shouldn’t have worried about forgetting. I haven’t needed the pastel pages of that baby book at all. It sits on a shelf collecting a layer of fine dust. Even though my first child has slipped away from me, leaving home and pursuing his own adult dreams, my memories are still incredibly clear and vivid. Each of his “firsts” are burned into my memory, because each of his defining moments also defined me as a mother. They are part of me. They are who I am.
My youngest child has had a very different experience. There is no baby book, no pastel pages, no dates or times, no meticulous list of “firsts.” Caught up in the busyness and chaos of raising her and her siblings, I was more concerned with keeping the house standing and the children alive than printing her accomplishments in neat even script. Most days I didn’t even have a moment to brush my hair, let alone write anything down. Unlike her brother’s “firsts” which I recall with stunning accuracy, hers have slipped away from me, lost in the pit of oblivion that was folding laundry, tending house, and feeding babies.
I cannot remember them. Not a single one. Not her first smile, nor her first words, nor her first steps. No matter how many times or how hard I try to conjure up the images of her “firsts” from the caverns of my memory, I come up empty every single time.
It’s not her fault. It is mine. I had already been through the tiny little miracles of a child’s “firsts” three times over. She is the youngest of four, her “firsts” didn’t dazzle me the way her older brother’s had. Instead, they seemed more normal, more expected. I didn’t pause to savor them. At the time, it seemed like so big an effort to step over the unfolded laundry, to walk across the room, sidestepping the toys as I went, to record her accomplishments. My hands were too full of her and her siblings to even consider holding a pen, let alone print anything cleanly and evenly. I will admit that I am rather ashamed of my negligence.
So the memories of her “firsts” have been lost in the swirl of time that streams behind me. I’ll never be able to grasp them again. I can’t remember them and there is no dusty baby book to remind me, either. But there are other details of her that I remember with painful clarity. I remember her “lasts.”
For the same reasons I remember her brother’s “firsts” so intensely, I have her “lasts” cut with the same deep grooves through my memory. His firsts and her lasts, the whole of my experience of motherhood is sandwiched between them. They are the bookends. He was my first and so many of his firsts were my firsts. She is my last child. Her lasts will be my lasts, strung out like a long farewell.
I remember the last time she nursed at my breast. The last time she slept in my bed. The last time she sat on my lap. The last time she called for me in the middle of the night.
Even now, every time she runs to me, hairbrush in hand after a failed attempt at a self-implemented ponytail, I wonder “Will this be the last time I brush her hair?” And it crushes my heart to think that it might. So I take my time, my fingers lingering on the soft strands of her hair. It might be the last time. I want to remember it. Every last bit.
Alice Jones Webb lives with her husband and four children in small town North Carolina. Her work can be found on her blog, Different Than Average (differentthanaverage.com) where she writes about parenting outside of mainstream culture, as well as sites such as Scary Mommy, The Mind Unleashed, and Elephant Journal among others.