By Dina L. Relles
It is dark and still. The single lamp casts a warm glow on the orange walls. His tiny hand wrapped in mine; his chest rhythmically rises and falls with each breath, nearly lulling me back to sleep. I’m curled up in the rocking chair, my tattered gray t-shirt raised slightly, his warm body cradled around my soft, bare belly. He nurses.
I could hear a lone car drive by on 8th street. Otherwise, it feels as if we are the only ones in the world.
For most of his first year, my son would wake at 4 a.m. and cry out. Weary with the weight of months of sleep deprivation, I nevertheless traipsed into his softly lit room each time with meaningful purpose. To feed, to comfort.
Nothing changed when I went back to work. I would still nurse him before dawn and place him back into his crib for more sleep. Then I would start my day, fitting in a couple billable hours before the world awoke.
How I loved those 4 a.m. feedings. I never wanted to let them go. I savored the time alone with my son and the peaceful possibility of those early mornings. Years later, it’s still when I like to wake, when I write—my sacred, silent start of day.
But when my son was nine months old, I went away on business—a two-day stint to Dayton, Ohio for expert depositions. My mother came in from New York to stay with the baby. I’ll never forget receiving her call to my hotel room to proudly report that my son had slept through the night.
What I heard was that he no longer needed me.
Indeed, even when I returned home, he had weaned himself of that 4 a.m. feeding. Most mothers would be thrilled.
Why couldn’t I let it go?
Because this I knew. This was comfortable. These needs were simple, basic. I could do this. Even in my (light) sleep, my ears knew his cries; my body fed his without effort. I instinctively knew the rhythmic sway of midnight, the cries for company of 4 a.m., the subtle stirring of 6 a.m.
Some long for the sturdy that is One, the mischievous that is Two, or the inquisitive that is Three. For me, the newborn phase couldn’t go slowly enough. That time when you measure in days or weeks, not months or years. When my baby’s whole body fit snugly on my chest, when he was fresh and fragile. When a long walk outside was entertainment enough. When everything was new.
And so those early months of motherhood were filled with comfort and ease, like a favorite sweatshirt. I could have lived in them forever.
Now I’m in uncharted territory. Now we are five, and three, and 18 months—all at once. Now is dirt everywhere, monkey bars, and puddle jumping. Germs and lice. Now is impatience and bullies, bad influences at school, and requests for movies with too much violence.
Now is setting limits and testing them. Now is negotiating. Now is No! Stop! And Don’t Touch! Now is asking five times and still getting ignored. Now is a big boy bed that is too easily escaped. Now is defiant.
Now is discovery and fierce independence. Now is biking too far, too fast away from me. Now is hoping, with bated breath, that he remembers to stop at the corner. Now is skinned knees and gravelly palms.
Now there is a person I can’t wrap in a swaddle blanket and protect from the world.
Now I mother from a distance. My eyes working overtime to catch a fleeting glimpse as he darts fearlessly around the playground. Kisses must be invited. Embraces brief. Legs dangling.
Now is complicated. Now is uncertain. Curiosity about god and death. Now is more questions than answers.
The distance will only grow greater, I know. I recently met a middle-aged woman who told of her grown sons scattered around the globe—the closest lives clear across the country. I tried, hard, to imagine a time when my children wouldn’t be safe in their beds, under my roof. But I couldn’t. I can’t. Especially when it rains.
We want another.
Won’t we always? When will I feel ready to bid a final farewell to the early morning of my motherhood, with all its brilliant possibility, utter dependence, beautiful vulnerability?
But now. Now is “I love you” drawings and racing down the hall to greet me at preschool pickup. Sometimes letting me hold his hand. Now is discovering how his mind works. Learning who he is and seeing glimpses of who he will become.
Now is never still. Now is quickly turning into then. Now we are growing. Now we will figure out. Together.
Dina L. Relles is a lawyer, writer, aspiring doula, and mother of three sons. Her writing has appeared in The Atlantic, The Huffington Post, Kveller, Mamalode, and Scary Mommy, and she writes regularly at www.dinarelles.com. You can find her on Twitter @DinaLRelles.