There are many different theories about what the hardest part of motherhood is. Sleepless nights, temper tantrums that won’t quit and more sleepless nights sometimes make you wonder if they’ll ever outgrow the ‘hard’. The thing is, no one really tells you that the really hardest part of motherhood is watching your children grow older.
I’m sitting in a coffee shop, focused on my work, when a woman walks in carrying a baby who can be no more than five months old. This is my long day of work for the week, when my eighteen-month-old son spends the entire day with his aunt, and we’re apart for twelve hours. I feel a pang of longing, not only to be with my son—which is something I feel frequently when I’m away from him for so long—but also to be, once again, with the baby he used to be. To hold him in my arms the way I used to, without the toddler squirminess that now cuts short our snuggling sessions much sooner than I’d like.
Don’t get me wrong, I adore this toddler stage too. The nonstop energy and exploration, his ability to communicate more and more every day. The way he sometimes says “mom” right before he falls asleep, in the softest, sweetest voice imaginable. His obvious delight when he learns something new. And, yes, his ability to occupy himself for brief moments, so that I can sneak away for a bit of solitude.
There was a time when I didn’t understand the nostalgia with which mothers spoke about their children’s infancy. It seemed wrong to wish for the baby that the child used to be. But I get it now. Being nostalgic for my son’s infancy doesn’t mean that I love the person he is now any less. Instead, the more he becomes himself, the more my love seems to grow. But the first year is fleeting, and it was over before I had much chance to appreciate it.
The cliches aren’t lost on me. Those things that your mother, your aunt, another well-meaning relative, or even perfect strangers say when they see you with your little one (often struggling to calm them from a temper tantrum in the middle of Target which is precisely the exact opposite time you are hoping to hear unsolicited advice). Enjoy it now, they say. It passes by in the blink of an eye, they whisper. And until your baby isn’t a baby anymore, you don’t quite understand how they can wish for the chaos again. How they can long for the sleepless nights and the ear-piercing cries. How they can wish for the time when they felt overwhelmed and like they were drowning in to-do lists in between caring for their babies. Why they would ever want to go back to a time when their time belonged to someone else constantly.
But then you’re babies grow up and you realize they aren’t wishing for the chaos. They aren’t wishing for the cries and the sleepless nights. They aren’t wishing for the temper tantrums and the stares at the grocery store while you peel your toddler off the floor or try to shush a screaming baby. No, they aren’t wishing for the chaos. They are wishing for the love.
They see you holding your sweet baby and they look past the crying and the tears because they know there is more to motherhood than that. They know that the tears stop when mom (who used to be them) gives the right amount of snuggles and kisses. They know that after the temper tantrum has ceased that the little toddler who was just melting in the middle of the produce aisle will climb into your lap at home and give you the sweetest, melt your heart smile. They know that one day you will realize you have picked up your baby for the very last time, and that very last time probably happened without you even realizing it. They see that motherhood, especially the early stages, isn’t about the overwhelming sense of exhaustion every day and every night but rather its about the sweet coos, the gummy smiles, and the unrelenting love that your children give you during those “in-between” moments.
I think of having another child, of once again being the mother with a baby snuggled against her chest in a coffee shop. But then I remember, I have a toddler. So I’d be a mother with a baby snuggled against her chest and a toddler clinging to her leg, vying for her limited time and attention. Never again will it be just me and my baby. Though there will be different kinds of sweetness as our family grows, the (relative) simplicity of those baby days with my first and only will be forever in the past.
The urge to tell the mother in the coffee shop how lucky she is, to advise that she appreciate every moment, is almost irresistible. I feel like those older mothers that have fed me the cliches. But then I remember how hard those early months were, how entirely drained I often felt, how I sometimes wondered whether I would make it another day. How much I disliked when some perfect stranger told me to not blink because it would pass by before I knew it when all I wanted to do was close my eyes. I felt like they just didn’t remember what it was like to be a young mother with a new baby. They must have forgotten I would bemuse to myself. They don’t know how I feel or what it’s like to be a mother these days. We’ve since moved onto new struggles; the previous struggles now barely cling to the edges of my memory. But there was a time that, despite the sweetness of newborn snuggles, I felt like I was in the trenches. Maybe she feels that way now. I decide to keep my mouth shut.
Being a mother means accepting the reality of impermanence. When I was childless, I structured my life to create the illusion of permanence, and the feeling of safety that it provides. Not so anymore. I don’t structure my own life these days. Now I just do my best to let go of what I know was always an illusion anyway.
My son looks more like a boy every day. He moves on to tomorrow before I can process what happened yesterday. I take endless photographs in an attempt to capture who he is in each moment, knowing that he’ll be a different person before the shutter can close once again. It’s futile, I know, but having something permanent helps me to accept that life is anything but.
And as he grows, I’ll know that while it’s the hardest part, watching him change and move out of what was, it’s also the best, as I have the privilege of watching him move into what is.
Image: Guida Fernandez