4 kids in 3 years: reflections on motherhood, art and life.
Do you remember the first time you held a newborn?
I was sitting in my sister’s house. She pulled out a boob that no longer even faintly resembled mine (we had shared a bathroom growing up, I know we had the same boobs), took my niece and started feeding her with her newly minted monster ta-tas. Somewhere during this visit she also described to me what actually happened when using a breast pump. I looked at her aghast. No wonder her tiny girlish nipples were gone.
Two years later my childhood besty had her first child. She handed him to me and I nestled him directly under my chin, stunned. He smelled so sweet and felt so warm and was so very, very lightweight. I was incredulous, frozen in place. All I kept thinking was that I would involuntarily twitch and he would just slam into the ceiling destroying a quarter-century friendship with one horrid SPLAT.
Those newborns seem an eternity ago.
Tonight I got up to blow my nose. Being the environmentalist I am (read No Impact Man, you’ll feel guilty for-ev-er…) I went to get some sort of washable nose-blowing implement. I headed right for the laundry room and the towels on the shelf. Terry cloth washcloth? Too scratchy! Bath towel? Too big! Teeny tiny lamb-soft baby washcloth? Just right.
As I took the washcloth back to my bedroom I was suddenly struck with amazement that I still had it. My smallest baby is 3 ½ years old now and even that scratchy terry-cloth washcloth couldn’t scrape the temporary tattoos, smelly markers and black bean soup off her big pink face. She walks around looking like Mike Tyson most days, all scribbled forehead, bruised cheeks and so on.
But this tiny washcloth was from those first days. Do you remember those days? The baby tub you fill up and place on the counter in the bathroom? The spouse over your shoulder, “It’s too hot! It’s too cold! I think he just peed on you! Why is he crying? Is that thing still on her belly-button?!” That time was such a time of wonder.
They were so small. I remember my husband walking around the house balancing our oldest, only a few weeks old, sitting on his palm. Thankfully the baby had a neck like a linebacker at birth. He would just wobble in place, slumped on himself, sturdy as can be.
The twins, in their total lack of girth were scarier to handle. In the NICU I’d touch them with shaking, freshly Purelled hands. I remember when Reid was about five days old trying to change her diaper for the first time. She peed (of course) all over everything. I started crying as the nurse sighed dramatically and came over to change out the whole intricate preemie isolette situation.
Then there was baby #4, Cabot. When she was born the other three were still in diapers. I’d line them up on the floor in the living room and whip right down the line- diaper, diaper, diaper, diaper, BAM! When she needed bathing I would literally dip her in the cesspool that was their bathwater, pat her bits, dry her off, dress her and then see who else had survived bath-time. It was like she was never really a newborn at all.
Holding that washcloth tonight I had the most visceral Mama feeling. I thought, “Oh, someday when they have babies, I’ll be able to show them how to bathe them! How to change a newborn! Someday…” But who am I kidding?! I’m not getting grandkids anytime soon. And even if I did, would I even know what to do with them? It’s already been so very long since I held a newborn of my own.
When my first child Jasper was ten days old we took him in for his two week check-up (four days early). Somewhere between listening for his heartbeat and checking for his blood pressure the nurse ran out of the room and then the doctor came forcefully in. “Has he always had this bruised birthmark on his forehead? Is he always this lethargic?”
Always?! “I don’t know. I just met him!” I replied.
His heart rate was over 300, unsustainable. He was rushed to the emergency room, then to Children’s Hospital in Philadelphia with SVT (supraventricular tachycardia.) One of the last things I remember saying to my pediatrician as the EMTs swept him out of the office strapped to a gurney was, “This would be SIDs, right? This is SIDs, but before they die?” And she looked at me, “Yes. Possibly, yes.”
Doctors eventually got his heart rate down, and he stayed in the hospital for three more days, on medication and nightly heart rate checks for five years. But I’ll never forget the second day in the hospital when he just wouldn’t sleep (because of the beeping machines, the distraught, disheveled mother, the constant checks by nurses) and a nurse said, “Oh, I think he needs a binky.”
“No, he doesn’t,” I replied. For the first time since following the EMTs out of that pediatrician’s office with my first newborn baby, I was firm. “He doesn’t use a binky. Thats’ not the baby he is.” And I was right. He was a thumb-sucker strung out because his preferred thumb was connected to every sort of tube and monitor wire. Instead, I cradled him and sang.
I guess none of us are mothers or fathers when they first hand those new children to us. We’re just big people holding total strangers who are too small to survive without us. And so we just do. We get to know them, feed them, change them, bathe them. We teach them how to be humans and eventually, they teach us how to be parents.