By Allison Slater Tate
This past week, my oldest child lost the last of his baby teeth. It fell out, a fat little molar, without any pomp and circumstance at all. Just like that, a chapter—maybe even a whole book—in his life and mine was over. As he casually handed it to me, so far past the age when he still believed in the tooth fairy, I had to swallow back a little cry. It felt like a little moment disguising a big one, a turn in the road I didn’t know was coming up quite so fast. Not yet, I thought. I’m not ready yet.
A few days later, my youngest child turned two years old. She is still years—I hope—from losing even a first tooth. There are almost ten years yawning between her and her oldest brother, and for so many reasons, I am grateful for them. It’s true that, with her, we “started over.” There are four years between her and her next oldest sibling. She is the only one not in full-time school. We had been out of diapers for years when we had her, and I still remember being a little scared when I was pregnant that I might not “remember” how to breastfeed her after such a long break. I now have to remind myself which foods can be choking hazards or that she might not be able to walk certain stairs on her stocky toddler legs alone.
But there are blessings to starting over and having a baby in the family again. In many ways, I have cut my own parenting “baby teeth” already, and I feel so much more prepared and ready to receive the experience of parenthood now with her and, possibly, because of her. The things that stressed me out when my older children were babies are inconsequential now; I don’t sweat a random tantrum or a blown-out diaper or a missed nap. I am able to feel grateful for the block of time I have to set aside every day for her nap and awed at how easy it is to feed her—she has not yet developed super strong opinions against certain foods like her brothers—and put her to bed, as opposed to my older children, who like to play mental chess with us every night in the form of bedtime stall-and-delay tactics.
So when we celebrated my baby girl’s second birthday this weekend, my emotions were a complicated cocktail of gratitude, happiness, overwhelming love, and, in a small amount, sorrow. This surprised me, because when my oldest were younger, I felt like I was always running (or more accurately, hobbling) in a race, trying to get to some finish line that kept moving. I just needed to get my baby to sleep through the night, to eat solids, to potty train, to swim, to go to preschool—if I could just get to that next milestone, then… then I would be able to let my shoulders slump, and I would get a full night’s sleep without waking with worry, and it would all get, dare I say it? Easier. I looked forward to the two-year mark before.
But now, I know that secret about parenthood that someone might have once told me, but I never heard: It doesn’t get easier. Physically, yes, it eases. Babies and toddlers are much more physically taxing than children are, in my experience. But parenting only gets harder. As my children’s legs grow longer and their thoughts grow bigger, my worries have only stretched. As my children walk further out into the world under their own power, the world scares me more, but I can show it less. I have to bite down on my tongue, smile, and urge them to explore, with only my hope and faith in them and in the world to soothe me.
When I signed up for a fourth baby, when I signed up to “start over” again, I did so knowing it would never get easier. I did it knowing full well that craning to see ten fingers and ten toes is only just the beginning of struggling to feel that our children are prepared for the world, and that preparation actually has nothing to do with fingers or toes at all. I did it knowing that baby teeth come and baby teeth fall out, and what is left is a human being that is both our child and not. I did it knowing that every child I have is a part of my heart I get no control over, laid bare to a world that can be indifferent and cruel. And I did it anyway.
So I leaned over the birthday cake and helped my little girl, no longer a baby, blow out two little candles on her massive birthday cake. I watched her play tea party with two older girls. I later swept her hair, newly cut for the first time, from her neck and helped her take off her party dress. I wept a little, because there are no babies in our house anymore, just children and parents growing and coping and learning and failing and conquering, every day. I wept for plush baby thighs, for wispy baby hair and cheeks like pillows, for toddler bellies and diaper covers, for pacifiers and sippy cups. I wept for baby teeth still to come and baby teeth all gone. It never gets easier. The finish line keeps moving. Now, I know: the pain and heartache of parenting is part and parcel with the wonder and joy of it. The beauty of parenting, the part that makes it feel like life itself, is also the result of the struggle. And the struggle is a privilege, even when it doesn’t feel like it.
Allison Slater Tate is a writer and mother of four children. She also writes regularly at www.allisonslatertate.com and Huffington Post Parents as well as Facebook (www.facebook.com/astwriter) and Twitter (www.twitter.com/allisonstate)
Read an excerpt from Allison’s “This is Five” essay, from This is Childhood, a book and journal on the first ten years of motherhood.