he is one

When you are the third child, especially the third of three boys, nothing comes new. Clothes, books, toys – all are gently loved or well-worn-out by the time they reach your hands.

When you are still tiny, you accept this, of course. You don’t know the world to be any other way.

Your firsts are not earth-moving milestones. Your every move is not captured on video or preserved in photo albums. From day one your needs and wants cannot command complete attention.

This truth is hard and humbling and healthy. For you and your parents.

You are not simply a special snowflake. You are one among many. 

1stbirthday

One year ago we met for the first time. My memories of birth are fast and foggy, snapshots of scenes. The first flash of him, wet and purple, his radiant heat in my shaking arms. His wavy dark hair and deep eyes squinting to see. My astonishment at his existence, the breathing weight of him on my chest, still startling after I carried him for nine long months below my heart.

Twelve months later, he crawls, claps, chuckles at every silly dance his brothers perform to earn a smile. The tantalizing prospect of walking awakens as he reaches to pull himself up and learns to steady uncertain legs. Words slowly take shape within the babbles of his voice.

He is one for the first time. He has never been here.

. . .

Last week I crossed my legs on church basement carpet and watched his brother celebrate his summer birthday three months early.

He placed the Montessori mat carefully on the small table, set the candle for the sun in the center, and opened his hands to hold the small globe as his teacher told the story of seasons. How we are always moving around the sun, how we would never know time was passing if we didn’t stop to notice the changes around us.

As his classmates counted, he took almost-four trips around the table, circling the sun with the world in his hands. His teacher read the short story of his birth that I had written, a rainbow of markers telling his first day of life. Everyone sang the song he chose and listened to the book he brought as a gift. His face was squinched in a strange smile, equal parts proud and embarrassed to be at the center of attention.

Then he walked quietly around the circle again, tapping each child on their bowed head to send them off for the rush of shoes and jackets and lunch boxes.

A simple celebration, ended as soon as it began. Perfect for preschool. Maybe enough for all of us: to celebrate another whirl around this spinning sun, to remember our place in the world, to let light shine on us for an instant.

One among many. He could not have been happier.

1stbirthday3

Christianity teaches these twinned doctrines of identity. Imago Dei: we are created in the image of God, each of us unique and unrepeatable, worthy and beloved in our own right. The Body of Christ: we are part of a larger whole, all of us interdependent and intrinsically connected, bound up in each other for the common good.

These two beliefs – that we are one and we are many – braid together to become two essential practices for my parenting. I want to teach these children that they are loved beyond measure for the individuals that they are, created and called by God to do their own particular good in the world. And I want to teach them that they are part of something much bigger than themselves, that their own joys and struggles are put in humble perspective within a world of seven billion others.

Let your light shine, but remember Who you reflect.

Build your life into worthy service, but remember you cannot do alone.

Trust that you are one and we are many.

1stbirthday2

Last night we celebrated the baby’s first birthday. In such ordinary ways that I felt almost disappointed. Shouldn’t I have done more to make a fuss? Spread a feast or lavished him with bright bows? Would he know how wondrous his life has been in ours if we didn’t preserve perfect memories for posterity?

No. I see in the crumbs of this morning that all the love he needed was there.

Homemade carrot cake, the work of his brothers’ helping hands. Lilacs dripping out of the blue glass vase, picked proud by those same siblings. Hand-scribbled cards, a new CD, one book to replace the favorite he tore in half.

He loved the party hats, lunged for the candle as we sang, smashed handfuls of cake in his mouth. I stretched back to that exhausted, euphoric new mother I was one year ago that night, holding him and learning him and wanting nothing more than for him to be safe, loved, here with us.

And now he is: right here. This is exactly what we wanted.

It was what a birthday should be. A celebration of the blessing of a life, still fresh and unfolding before our eyes. And a reminder that all of ours are intertwined, that we are – thankfully – not the sun center of the universe.

I have to practice this truth each new morning, as I ready myself for another day. To remember that I am beloved but also beholden to others. To believe that I am called by the One who calls the many. To hold fast in the knowledge that my life is one small part of a much bigger story.

This truth is hard and humbling and healthy. For all of us, maybe.

He is one. We are, too.

almost one: the mystery of a baby year

He sits beside me on the carpet, staring at a bright blue book about fish, patting its pages and gnawing its cardboard spine. Late afternoon sun slants through the nursery window, catching wispy curls of his hair, strawberry blond or golden brown as the light shifts.

Every time he catches my eyes watching him, his face erupts into silent grin. I am lying on my side and he leans over to bat his pudgy arms against the curve of my stomach, soft and forgiving after three babies.

Twelve months ago he was still curled inside me, kicking and squirming. Now he has small ham hocks for thighs, plump cheeks he stuffs with fistfuls of peas, whirling arms that reach out with clumsy waves at any smiling face he sees.

He is on the cusp of turning one.

image

A baby year is a blur. In the beginning, night is day and day is night. Hours are days and days are hours. Life is flipped inside out like hundreds of tiny socks piled on the bed, laundry reproducing at stunning rates: burp cloths, spit-up soaked onesies, thousands of diapers tumbled to dry. Only the basics consume us: eating, sleeping, the occasional bath. The world spins by outside while we burrow into our cocoon: mother, baby, closest kin who love them. All the rest falls away and it does not matter.

The shifts happen softly and are undone as quickly as they come. The baby starts to sleep longer, then the pattern unravels. The personality emerges, then teething disrupts everything. The new normal is settled, then falls apart. Undaunted, the baby grows.

We parents sense – and rightly so – that the child we hold today is already transforming into a new creature by tomorrow. So we fumble to capture what is fleeting in photo or word, even knowing any secondary creation we attempt will fall short.

Because what we are trying to capture is us, too – in mid-transformation. We somehow sense that we are becoming, again, as this strange small person is becoming, anew. We want to remember exactly how we feel – which is exactly how this baby feels, smells, looks, and sounds, right now, today, in our arms – because it is momentary and momentous, all at once.

This is the essence of the baby year, the longest shortest time. It whizzes by us as each day drags. It lulls us into thinking we have regained rhythm and found our footing, and then it lunges forward into worlds unknown. It shifts like a kaleidoscope. We think we control the turning because we hold it in our hands, but the flash of color comes unbidden from the moving parts inside, the beauty we can never recreate.

I have been a mother for nearly six years. This is such a small sliver of my life. But conceiving and carrying and caring for these children has made me and unmade me and remade me in so many unexpected ways that numbers fail to capture.

On the floor beside me sits my third son, two weeks from turning one. Numbers fail to capture him, too. In the short span of twelve months he has gone from the dark womb to the bright day, from the muffled kicks to the determined crawl, from the first cry to the almost-word. Already I see glimmers of his grown self in his deep eyes, his ready joy, his centered quiet. He will not stop changing, even as he becomes himself.

A baby year transforms. It brings infant and parents around the sun just one time, yet we are transfigured for having seen all sides of this blinding bright, able and aware in ways we could not imagine a year before.

Maybe this is the truth my hopeful/jaded self wants to carry with me, into a world so tired from suffering and violence and evil and our own baffling self-destruction. That one year can change us. That we remain unpredictable. That today is important even as it passes.

My son will not remember a single day from his first year. I will remember it only in shadows and glimpses, a strange dream of deep naps on summer afternoons, tired hours on autumn mornings, moon shadows glowing through winter’s nights, spring green buds clasped in tiny fingers.

Still I pause in the blur, slowing to remember and recenter, steadying myself to witness a moment in the mystery of lives unfolding. One long sun-turned season of becoming again.

His and mine.

sharing march 8: my/our/their birthday

The Case of What Happened To My Birthday?

It hit me for the first time, on the eve of my 33rd trip around the sun, that it’s a pretty darn perfect metaphor for what I’ve learned in adulthood.

March 8th used to be All About Me. What’s a birthday other than your unique footprint upon the calendar? Everyone sends you cards, calls you on your special day, wishes you a wonderful celebration. You get to bask in the glow of 24 hours with you at the center: cake, cards, presents. Even the daily horoscope selects a personalized (yet simultaneously vague and laughable?) prediction for your next year.

I loved my birthday every year, gripped it tight with a happy grin. Mine.

Then, as fate would have it, I fell in love with another Pisces.

Another March 8th Pisces, to be precise.

And somewhere between my initial eye roll of disbelief, the driver’s license he produced as proof over dinner, and the eleven years since? The day ceased to be mine forever.

March 8th became our birthday, still a strange stumble of pronoun off my tongue. Like another anniversary or Valentine’s Day (except we always find a restaurant that offers free meals or desserts, much to the waiter’s double chagrin). A shared celebration.

No longer mine but ours.

Of course that’s what marriage is about, cue the clichés. But I truly never thought I would have to bake my own birthday cake every other year. I never thought I’d field birthday calls for us both. Or open birthday cards addressed to two.

Google can’t tell me the odds of sharing an exact birthday and birth year with your spouse, but I’d bet it’s slim. So the one day that was rightly my own on the calendar? (Aside from some fleeting thought that statistically, of course, I surely shared the natal date with millions of others.)

Now it belongs to us.

birthday

Then another funny twist happened.

Ever since our first baby was born, and the story and details and life-changing milestone of his birth day were forever seared on my brain, I started seeing birthdays differently.

Suddenly they were about the mothers, too.

The ones who stand smiling in the background while the child bends over the cake to blow out candles. The ones who were always missing from the photos because they were behind the camera every year. The ones whom nature made the necessary half of the equation that produced a birthday.

The ones who birthed.

Strange as it sounds, ever since I became a parent I always think of people’s mothers when I wish them a “Happy Birthday.” I think of the women who couldn’t forget this date, either, even if they are no longer in their child’s life. Because they labored and sweated and suffered on that day to bring a baby into the world.

And the body and soul don’t soon forget that sacrifice of love.

birthday 2

So today I’ll roll over and wish my husband a Happy Birthday. He’ll smile and do the same.

Later on we’ll talk to our mothers, I’m sure. They’ve taken to calling each other, too, exchanging congratulations for a job well done years ago. And we’ll share birthday cake with our sons (who still don’t understand how their parents aren’t twins).

All in all it’s a darn-near perfect picture for what I’m learning about this life. That’s it’s not about me or even us. It’s about them.

The ones whose love brought us here. And the ones brought here by our love.

It’s their day, too.

the last day of one

It’s time to switch him to 1%.

The doctor’s words echo in my ear as I stand in the cold rush of the open fridge door, shaking the half-empty carton of whole milk. It is the last one we will buy.

. . .

We’re down to six diapers in each load, twice a week. Barely worth washing, but we remind ourselves we can’t complain about a child who trains himself before two.

Stacks of diapers now sit unused on the top shelf of his closet, crammed next to tubs of tiny onesies and plastic bottles.

Every time I pull open the door to stash another neglected toy or outgrown outfit, I try not to wonder when – if – we’ll pull them out again.

What matters is this one is growing.

. . .

May I sit on your lap, please? He toddles over with a grin and I cannot resist a full sentence. So I scoop him up and he smiles while I write.

Seconds later he shoves off in search of something more exciting.

He’s always leaving.

. . .

My husband hauls the changing table down from upstairs. It sits awkward and out of place in the front hallway.

“Should we give it away?” he asks as the kids run around us, shrieking at some game they’ve invented. “We still have the other one.”

“Not now,” I shake my head. “I know it makes no sense, but will you just stick it in the basement? I can’t get rid of it yet.”

He nods.

Now it stares at me every time I slip by the furnace room, empty and alone.

. . .

Nostalgia fills thick August air as the leaves start to yellow and the school buses zip back through the neighborhood, practicing their routes.

I wonder why I am not sad at all about the prospect of preschool starting again, why all the Facebook photos of first days don’t tug at my heartstrings like they usually do. Is it because our oldest is used to school now, that he’s excited to go back, that summer camp’s thrill proved the tears at drop off are now behind us?

No, I realize quietly one afternoon. I am not sad about his back-to-school because I am already sad about his brother’s farewell to babyhood.

My heart is too full.

Of course I know part of this is the loss, the sadness that there is not another baby on the way, to take his place on the changing table, in the high chair, in the clothes that continue to shrink on his lengthening limbs.

But my tug at his turning two started much earlier, when I realized how his own babyhood was whizzing past me. I feel the flow of time’s current quicker with this second child, and I don’t know what comes next.

Maybe my sadness at his turning two – still such a wee small number! why such worry? – comes at my having to release him into this inbetweenness.

Where there is no quick hug and wave at school drop-off, but we still have to learn to say goodbye each day. Where there is no neat curriculum for how the next year will unfold, but he still needs to learn leaps and bounds before my eyes. Where we will both have to muddle through uncertainty and growth and letting go.

Maybe the only spiritual practice is learning to let go. Of our false sense of control, of our preconceived notions of how the world should work, of the fear that change will change us.

All around me is proof. He is no longer a baby.

But God, this is hard to let go.

. . .

Today is the last day of one, the slender straight line of one.

Tomorrow will bring two’s curve and sharp base, the race towards presents and cake and becoming something – someone – bigger.

Today I hold him close and let him go. Hold him close and let him go.

All I can do is keep practicing.

“That moment at the dorm is implied at the kindergarten door, at the gates of summer camp, at every ritual of parting and independence. But it comes as surprising as a thief, taking what you value most…The experience is natural and common. And still planets are thrown off their axes.”

Michael Gerson, Washington Post: “Saying goodbye to my child, the youngster

uncommon birth day thanks

A first birthday is full of nostalgia, as it should be.

Where is the sleepy curl of a newborn, all milky breath and radiant warmth? Who is this toothy, mop-haired, grinning, babbling, climbing, crawling ball of a boy who took his place?

And was there really a time we lived without him?

My thoughts this birthday week have tended towards the usual thanks to God. Deep gratitude for the gift of life, the chance to parent times two. Blessed thanksgiving that his first year was healthy and fear-free. Extra joy for his happy nature and chipper smile, the icing on his charming cake.

But my thoughts of thanks became more particular as we neared this day. Faces of friends and strangers surfaced: all those who, knowingly or not, accompanied me on the journey of birthing this babe, one year ago this early morning.

Because none of it would have happened without God, of course.

But neither would it have happened without them.

The doctor who suggested new diet and vitamins before we leapt back into drugs. Let’s try this first. I’ve got a good feeling.

The grocery cashier who grinned as she rang up the pregnancy test on that snowy Saturday. Hoping for good news? I’ll cross my fingers.

The family whose loud whoops at our announcement met this baby with as much joy as his brother. Are you guys serious? Best Christmas gift ever, again!

The friends who kept calling, stubborn and faithful, for the dark stretch of months when I was too sick to get off the couch. L, it’s me again. Thinking of you, sending love, call when you can.

The husband who brought me bouquets on the worst days and made me smoothies on the best days and never once complained when I spent months complaining. It’s ok. I know it’s going to get better soon.

The yoga teacher who refused to relent with all those agonizing goddess poses, the squats that strengthened my resolve to birth naturally. You can do it, mama! You are strong. Your baby needs you.

The smiling priest who stopped before giving me communion one Sunday and made the sign of the cross in front of my belly before offering me the host. As if to say, Welcome to the family. We’re already glad you’re here.

The neighbor who greeted me with shrieks of delight every time she saw me waddling through the neighborhood that endless hot summer. Oh, honey. You are so beautiful.

All of you who joined me here as I waited and waited, who laughed along with this cheeky post, and this one. Thinking of you! Be patient – baby’s almost here.

The family and friends who started praying me through labor as soon as we made the calls. We’re with you. All our love.

The mother-in-law who showed up grinning at one in the morning to watch the sleeping sibling. Wow – you’re in hard labor! Am I ever glad I’m not in your place right now!

The nurse who paused on the phone with my husband when she heard me holler through a contraction from the passenger seat. Are you sure there’s no hospital closer? Sir, if the baby starts to come, PULL OVER.

The staff who met us at the emergency room door as my husband squealed the car to a stop, who wheeled me up to the birthing center, flying past the bewildered receptionist with admittance forms in hand. You’re going to make it. Everything’s going to be fine.

The kind-eyed, grey-haired doctor who glanced up at me over her glasses in the final moments, with a smile calm and steady. You’re almost done. Baby’s almost here.

The doula who showed up ten minutes after the baby was born, fast and furious and bigger than any of us expected. I’m so disappointed I missed it! But you did it – you had just the birth you wanted!

And the baby himself, the wee lad who’s now made one trip around the sun.

Thanks to you, sweet One – in the words of a favorite baby book – for trying so hard, for traveling so far, for being so wonderful,

just as you are.