Where Adoration Begins: The Magic of Babies
By Valarie Nordstrom
Issue 107, July/August 2001
Not long ago, my husband and I went out to dinner with friends. One couple had a new grandson, and after dinner they passed around a photograph. When I looked at that little boy’s face, my breath jumped, and I felt something grab in my chest. “Oh, I can almost smell him,” I said, and pointed to the baby’s scrumptious cheeks.
The man seated next to me asked to take a look at the picture. “David,” I prodded, “can’t you almost taste those cheeks? He is very yummy.” A smile came over David’s face, and he agreed: yes, he could. As he passed the picture along to his wife, his eyes caught the eyes of his ten-year-old daughter across the table, and he grinned. I am pretty sure he was remembering the weight of her diapered bottom in his palm and a round warm cheek against his lips.
I admit that I’m goofy about babies and have been for a long time. They’re delicious–that’s how they hook me in, and then they grow up, and by then of course I am crazy about them. There was so much I didn’t know. All these years later I’m still learning. I’m catching on. The babies were only the beginning.
My mother is a woman who is both intense and gentle, kind and funny, determined and sweet. We drive each other crazy once in a while, but I admire and love her so much. Her stories about me as a baby are full of the awe you hear in the voice of a young mother in love with her baby.
One of the earliest stories of my infancy is a tale of woe. We were living in a rented apartment with rented furniture; the ceilings were nine feet high, and the bed’s oak headboard was massive. The story my mother tells is that she was crying one day because I was crying and she had no idea what to do for either of us, and so this is what my father found upon returning from work: two girls, in their underwear, crying in the big bed. “You were so beautiful, so incredible, and I felt so sad when I couldn’t fix things,” my mother recalls.
That was a generation ago, but nothing has really changed since then. Mothers still cry when their babies are inconsolable and they don’t know what to do. In fact, we cry when our grown children cry! However, it’s my mother’s descriptions of me as an infant that tell me where my adoration of babies begins. I hear about the texture of my barely-there hair, and how rosy and luscious my cheeks were, how intelligent my eyes were, how sweet my smile.
When I was a new mother, I watched my mother pull my son into her arms and talk to him most intently when he was hardly more than a morsel. His upper lip rose to a point as he peered at her, and then in a second his whole face burst into a smile–his first smile. I couldn’t believe my eyes! She turned and pulled me against her neck and said, “Oh my God, he’s wonderful.” Who can resist a baby?
In the years since that first baby, I’ve had seven more. The first was the one that baffled and worried me, then delighted me the most with his sense of humor. I had no idea babies love a joke! As he has grown, we have argued and scrapped like siblings. He and I and his dad and his brother have grown up together. I don’t know why those two spirits were brave enough to come to a couple of goofs like we were, but I’m glad they did.
The first one had a glorious crown of satiny, springy gold curls. His brother followed on his heels a year later, and that second one–oh my goodness. He was little and lovely and thoughtful with skinny arms and creamy skin, but best of all, he was coated with fur. I didn’t know there was a name for it: lanugo. It curled along his cheeks and shoulders and down his back. It was delicious and wonderful. I nibbled it after his baths, and when I rocked him to sleep, I’d slip a hand under his undershirt and stroke his fur. It was 14 years and four babies later before another furry one turned up. She’s six now, and when I catch her and kiss the back of the neck, she giggles to me, “You like my fur, Mom.” Sometimes new mothers seek me out, looking for some kind of insight into how to get babies to sleep all night or to eat their spinach. I have no idea, I say: throw the dang spinach away and take them to bed with you. Often, as I tell these mothers to let go and embrace their child’s infancy as the love affair that it is, they smile, and their shoulders relax. I have given them permission to be fools in love and to not follow rules invented by someone who never was a mommy, who never birthed, who never nursed, whose shirt probably never even had snot on it.
When my oldest son was an infant, nothing concerned me more than getting him on a schedule. I would spend a good hour before I fed him, jiggling him and holding off until the clock said it was time, diligently following some lame schedule prescribed by the pleasant nurses who had instructed me. My mother set me straight on that the very first time I complained about it. She told me, “Honey, I don’t go four hours without eating. Why should John? I think he’s hungry, and you should feed him when he says so.”
His grandma knew what to do. After that, our days went a lot more smoothly. And those nights! I really took on the whole sleep situation as a personal cause. It was my responsibility to get that tiny child to sleep. And not just to sleep: to sleep all night, in a crib way across the room. It seems so ludicrous to me now! What a futile endeavor! Here was a girl (me), dizzy with exhaustion, walking in a shaft of light from the hallway, back and forth, back and forth, patting the bottom of this darling, intelligent little bit of a guy who really wanted just to be on his mom. (One of my daughters talked very early, and this is how she referred to it, in completely blunt terms: “I wanna be on you.” She spoke for all babies, including her big brother.)
Infancy passes very quickly. Hold those babies tight. My oldest boys are now over 20, and so tall that when I hug them my face is against their chests. I still sometimes lose sleep over them, but not because they’re crying and demanding my arms. They’re out of my arms, away from me, going to college, trying to make their way in the world, and quite honestly, sometimes I worry.
One year ago, their little sister was born. She is our eighth child. The oldest is named John, for his grandpa, and we named the new baby Lydia , after her grandma. Last spring, when she was newly born and up during the night, I received her with the full heart of a woman who knows how fleeting infancy is. My little Lydia had a pink glow for months; she seemed to emit an aura. In those early weeks, I could hardly look at her without becoming tearful, she was so breathtaking. When she was awake at night, I didn’t think about the sleep I was losing, believe me. I thought, “I have the rest of my life to sleep. This night is once in a lifetime.” She had fuzzy hair like duck down, big blue eyes, and cheeks as bright as hibiscus blooms, and she smelled incredible. I actually wish there had been more of those nights. More time. More hugs. More milk gulped down the hatch from my breasts into her growing body. There could never be enough in those short precious months.
You can imagine, I am sure, the reactions I get to having so many children. Sometimes it’s uplifting, like when someone tells me about having grown up in a big family and how much life is enhanced by it. I myself love having this cushion of family all around me. What follows is an excerpt of a letter I wrote to a friend when Lydia Karina was a new baby. Read it, and hug your babies tight, no matter how big they have grown. God bless. Jay’s been sucked way into this scene, too. How can anyone be so taken by an eighth child? I heard him nibbling her the night before last while I was in the bathroom: “I’m the luckiest dad.” Then last night he said, “We have to stop doing this, but I see why we haven’t been able to.”
I ran into an old neighbor at the store Saturday and instead of congratulating me or saying Kari was cute, she told me, “Val, you’re a glutton for punishment!” I was so offended. I pretended I didn’t understand what she meant. And then on the way home I looked at that little rosy sleeping face, and I could see James in the rearview mirror, his big blue eyes grinning back at me. Maria was wearing her little straw hat and chattering away, and I thought, “If Kari’s a punishment, I should be bad more often.” The world is crazy. I’m not.
For additional information about love and your newborn, see the following article in a past issue of Mothering : “Unconditional Love,” no. 44.
Valarie Nordstrom lives in Minneapolis . She and her husband, Jay, are the parents of eight children, ages 22 years to 14 months. The household also includes a large furry dog, a guinea pig, and a turtle. Valarie, who has been breastfeeding continuously since 1984, is finishing up a college degree in finance. She and Jay run a plumbing business from their home.