The First And The Last

The First And The Last

Young Mother and Daughter Enjoying a Personal Moment

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 ( 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.

The Never Agains

The Never Agains

By Denise Ullem

denise ullemSix years ago, when my husband and I finally decided that we would have two children—not three, not four, but two—it proved to be one of the hardest choices. Our conversations over many months ranged from the pragmatic reality of college tuition to the emotional, procreational pull of life. My husband finally said to me,

“You know, babe, one of the children does have the to be the last.”


*   *   *

My alarm chimes into the early morning. I stretch into the darkness, wince at the time and hoist myself out of my cozy cocoon. One of my bedroom windows looks east; I gaze out onto the pink hues of the rising sun as it outlines each barren tree. I slowly walk to the hall and receive a bear hug from Abby, who’s ten. Her blond head tucks just at my shoulder. I pull her back and soak her up; as I beam at her, she blossoms and her smile takes over her face. “Good morning, sweet one,” I whisper.

“Morning! I’ve already read for 20 minutes and I’m going to eat breakfast.”

She bounds down the stairs.

I then enter the stark contrast of Henry’s room. He’s seven. His rumpled bed holds him as he stares out his window at the same, barren trees. Molasses runs through his veins; he is slow and sweet. His pajama-clad arms reach up, exposing the pale, almost bluish white of his wrists. I bend down and his flanneled, heavy body snuggles into mine. I soak him up. As I head downstairs, I trail a litany of reminders, Socks, Underwear AND Teeth, H.

Henry and I drive Abby to school. The sun has progressed in its journey and fills the morning with silvery light. Abby hops purposefully from the car, carrying her instrument and her backpack heavy with homework. She pauses and turns back toward me. A quiet smile passes over her face and she thanks me for the ride. She strides away. Away to her independent day.

Henry and I head home and ride in our usual companionable silence. We have about 20 minutes before his bus comes. He is, of course, hungry again. He shovels in a second bowl of oatmeal before we walk to the bus stop. The silvery light has shifted, now holding more promise of a sunny day. The yellow bus pulls up; even I feel small as it lumbers in front of us. Henry hugs me and then climbs up the steep, black stairs. He sits and immediately looks out the window. We wave and I throw kisses at him. He throws his own back. Squinting, I think I can see the faint crevice of his dimple and the broad span of his smile. The bus grumbles and drives away. I wave and he waves well past the time when we can see each other.

I swallow a lump. The same lump that arrives each and every time that bus departs, rumbling down our street, carrying Henry into his own, independent day.

I head into mine, too. Alone. No hands to hold or buckles to do, no bickering to deal with, no mad-dash bathroom runs. I make a quick trip to Costco. Every warehouse corner I turn reveals a young mother and her adorable baby, some old enough to ride shotgun in the cart’s passenger seat. One mother has two in the cart and one in a stroller. The round baby in the stroller reaches up to his mother, wanting more of her, more food, more. I envied her. His outstretched arms shortened his sleeves and revealed the chubby, pale skin of his wrists. I watched their profiles, his round cheek to her chiseled one, his youth to her experience.

Most days, I offer conciliatory and sympathetic smiles to those mothers-of-younger children. I usually adore my solo trip to the store with only my own desires to address. But this day, a subtle sadness creeps in and carries whispers and hints of the other children I know I won’t have, and the days I used to have with my own Abby and Henry, now off at school. Tears surprise me as they pour from my eyes. Head down, I push my cart, filled only with assorted sundries (nary a diaper to be seen!) to my empty minivan.

The memories flood. Henry’s supreme roundness and silky, chubby wrists. Night feedings with Abby as the moon cast a pale glow through her nursery windows. The sound of Henry nursing and the pink flush of his round cheeks. Abby’s cherub ringlets and her determined, two-year-old fervor. And their thighs. And their sweet baby breath. Oh, the sweet victory of a first smile. The warm weight of each of their bodies, hearts beating in tandem with mine.

I am never going to be pregnant again. Never again will I sit perched on the edge of the toilet seat, waiting (hoping!) to see the two pink lines on the stick. Never again will I scrunch up my face, wondering if that faint second line can truly be considered a line. I’ll never again take a second pregnancy test, see the two pink lines, get excited and then wonder what the two lines actually mean, then scramble for the instruction pamphlet to vet the fact that two pink lines do, in fact, equal pregnancy. I’ll never again keep the quiet, transformative secret of this little life growing within. I won’t ever again get to utter the words, “I’m pregnant.” Never again will I watch the heel of my baby push out of my abdomen, a brush with ancient mystery and tradition. The signals of my baby’s arrival will never again rack my body. Never again will I experience the fullness, the fecundity, the rush, the emotion, the connection to bigger world, coursing with life.

But I was there. I did it—those moments were a part of my life—I held those chubby wrists and fulfilled their owners’ demands. I pushed that Costco cart laden with warehouse-sized diapers and babies of various ages. I changed Henry’s diaper blowouts on the seats of my car while listening to Abby’s urgent pleas of having to go the bathroom RIGHT NOW.

Now, all the wrists in my house are slender and lean. The demands have shifted but, I remind myself, I still sit firmly in the thick of motherhood.

I doubt the decision to stop at two will ever feel exactly right, but, my husband was right—one of the children did indeed have to be the last. Maybe my yearning for another child is just the tick-tick-tocking of my biological clock. But maybe, just maybe, it’s also my intense gratitude for the miracle of this world, this life and these two children whom I get to call mine.

Denise Ullem lives in the Midwest with her husband and two children. On her blog,, she writes about the beautiful and harsh universalities of being a woman and mother. She is also a contributor to the Huffington Post.

Read Denise Ullem’s essay in This is Childhood, a book and journal on the first ten years of motherhood.

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