I was tired when I gave the baby his bath the other night, and for a while I just watched him play in the hips-high water. When the water had started to cool and I couldn’t sit any longer, I washed him with the baby shampoo that smells like optimism and his curls straightened out and stretched longer down his back than they ever had. He’s growing so fast.
I let the lines blur for a second and it was a decade before and I was washing his brother, my oldest, in the kitchen sink of our first house. I would bathe him after the pots and pans from dinner had been rinsed and dried. Even though I was tired and my feet hurt from standing on the cold hardwood, I looked forward to it.
There was that moment, after he was wrapped in a towel, and smelled just like that same shampoo. When his own wet curls would stick to the soft place at the back of his neck, and his absurdly long eyelashes would clump together and brush against his cheeks as his eyes drifted towards closing.
For a few minutes every night of that first year of parenthood, I held my baby and I thought: maybe I can do this.
I would put him to bed and he would scream and the tension would sweep back into my shoulders like a hot wave and I knew: I. Couldn’t. Possibly. Do. This.
My husband and I would lock eyes – half allies in this war, half enemies – each of us hoping the other would get up. Eventually, someone would, and the other one would a little while after that, and it went on like that for nights into weeks into years.
All of a sudden a decade had gone by in the blink of an eye and it was this new little one in the bathtub and I had done it, or at least was doing it, with four babies, all alive, and well (so far) and sometimes even relatively clean.
My lovely sister-in-law texted me last week: “Random thought: we have been mothers for ten years.“
Ten years a Mom
It’s still so hard so much of the time. I’m not sure it is ever as hard as it was then, that first year when remnants of my old life hung freshly around the edges of my new one the way the curls hung down his neck.
I was in my 20s and no longer a child, but very far away from feeling like an adult. If you had told me one day I would be a decade older and bathing my fourth baby I would have laughed right in your face.
Later my firstborn, now ten years old, sat close to me on the couch. I bent my head to him, as I have been doing for a decade, inhaled deeply, and HE SMELLED. Not of optimism and baby shampoo, but of stank, of sweat and armpit and boy. “You stink!” I said to him, a little too loud.
His response was a wide grin. Proud of his body for growing and changing and learning to make man-stink. But to me, it felt like too much, all this change. He grew so much this year – an inch per month – that I wondered if I watched him sleep close enough, could I see it happening?
Or was it imperceptible, creeping up on you, the way the gravity of those words had: “We have been mothers for ten years.”
Ten years and four babies and two houses and one marriage and so many small gains and a new job and the writing and always, like a constant backdrop – everything changing. I wondered aloud to a friend, “What if I looked at it like my boy did?”
What if I delighted in the mystery of my body as it gets older too? I pictured myself in front of the bathroom mirror, delighting in finding a new chin hair or laugh line.
It’s not that bad, though. Where I am. My mid-30s feel like the Goldilocks of ages – not too hot, not too cold – tepid like the bath water that swirls around the baby’s hips.
My older kids are old enough to constantly awe me with their maturity, and my younger kids keep me real and grounded with their need. There’s always someone to lay next to me in bed, and no one is old enough yet to truly hate me.
I’m comfortable(ish) with who I am and it’s easier to get out of bed in the morning. I can party like a teenager if I really want to, but I’m smart enough most of the time to know that if I do, I will feel like an elderly person for a week afterward.
I’m old enough now, even, to feel motherly towards that old me, ten years ago, asleep on her feet on the hardwood. I want to hug her, make her some tea, pour her a bath. Mostly, I want to tell her that all those unassuming well-wishers who tell her that it goes by in the blink of an eye are actually right, and while in that moment it may feel like one particular high-pitched infant scream has already lasted an eternity and time is standing still and this will never end, trust me, it will.
In fact, ten years a mom and you start to get panicky with the rushing by of it all, trying and trying to carpe your diem and watching still as the time slips arrogantly through your clenched fingers.
Then, yesterday, the baby had a fever. I went to the drugstore to buy what might be our last bottle of infant Tylenol, and walking to the register I passed the deodorant aisle and remembered: my oldest is stinky now. I stood there, frozen like a mama-deer in headlights, for ten minutes.
I opened caps, I inhaled too many manly man-smells, musky and heady and laden with innuendo. There was Old Spice and Axe but there was nothing for my sweet boy, only 10. My choices, apparently, were sexy-man pits or sweaty-boy stink.
Eventually, I left, with my infant Tylenol clutched in both hands like it was communion, but without the deodorant.
Just for last night, I chose the sweaty-boy stink.
He’ll be a man soon enough, I thought. Tonight, I’m carpe-ing my diem.