My son’s scream sliced through the din of the restaurant lobby. It was a four year old’s panicked scream, the kind of scream that makes a parent’s body go cold in an instant.
Max’s tiny fingers were caught in the enormous door.
I keep replaying that moment in my mind. It’s a horrifying, slow-motion movie. We were on the first pit stop of our first road trip, having just logged three hours in the car with a four year old and a three month old. We had just sat down on the cool leather benches while we waited for our table. I had started to nurse Ben. Max was beside us. Max was walking around. Max was playing by the door. Sean and I looked away for an instant. And then, that scream. The scream that stops everything.
He was only two arms reaches away. But that was one too many. We all ran to him at once. Me with the baby still attached to my breast. The other patrons who were waiting. And my husband, who got there first. I didn’t see Sean push the door open to release Max’s fingers, because my eyes were on Max’s face. Panic. Terror. Pain. Sean scooped him up and Max collapsed on his shoulder, still screaming. His tiny hand, the one that strokes my cheek when I lay next to him in bed at night, was scratched and bleeding and starting to swell.
We alternated holding him, my husband and I. He wouldn’t dare let us put ice on his purple fingers, so I put my own hand on the ice until it was frozen, and then covered Max’s hand with mine. “Keep doing that Mommy” he sobbed. “I don’t want to see my fingers!”. Sean cradled the baby while I cradled Max. Then I held a sleeping Ben while Max fell asleep in Sean’s lap.
They say that when you have another child, your heart expands.
What they don’t tell you, is that it hurts like hell as it stretches and grows.
As we got back on the road that afternoon, I looked into the backseat at both of my boys. Max, happily munching on the entire bag of french fries that we let him eat (a sympathy snack, if you will) and Ben, batting at the squeaky peacock toy that hung from his carseat. My love for both of them is equal and different, uneven and guilt-ridden. What if I hadn’t been feeding Ben? Would I have made it to the door faster than anyone? Would Max never have gotten hurt in the first place? Was it terrible that I had unlatched Ben and stopped feeding him, so that I could have my arms free to cradle Max? Ben had been sleeping in the car for close to three hours prior, much longer than he usually goes during the day without nursing. What if my husband hadn’t been there? How would I have soothed two boys? Made decisions for two boys? Balanced two screaming boys on my lap without starting to cry myself?
My boys are the same and different. One falls asleep while sucking his thumb, content and satisfied with the chaos that our family brings. One tells me elaborate stories at night, summing the day up with questions and feedback, sorting out our new reality through a four year old lens. My love for them is the same and different. I’m learning how to give them each my undivided attention, but it doesn’t always work out that way. When I arrive at Max’s classroom to retrieve him at the end of the day, I pray that Ben will stay asleep in the stroller for just 3 more minutes. I want to have empty arms when I walk into Max’s class. I want to scoop up my four year old and look only at him, asking him how the day went and telling him how much I missed him. And when the sun is setting and Max is reading stories with Daddy, I pray for just 3 more minutes of quiet so that I can nurse my baby boy in the dark. I want my arms to be free, so that I can cradle my sleeping three month old and kiss his fuzzy head, breathing in his sweet smell and memorizing how tiny he seems in my arms. It rarely happens that way. When I race into Max’s class as the baby wakes, Max yells to his teachers “Come look at my baby everyone! Look at my baby brother!” and beams with pride. At night Ben wriggles and coos on Max’s bed while we read stories together. My undivided attention no longer exists in the same context. We are all woven together, for better and worse, as the sacred moments combine and we recreate the patchwork of our family.
A mother’s heart grows bigger, and stronger, and the growing pains are a reminder of how hard the act of mothering truly is. We love with our whole bodies. Aching arms from holding two children who both need to be soothed. Nightly headaches from the beautiful cacophony of voices that fill each day. Tired eyes from walking an older child back to their bed just before the baby wakes to eat again. The growing pains ebb and flow like the tide. On a good day I will tell you that “I’ve got this.” I yell into the backseat as we drive down the driveway, “OK Simon Boys! Everyone ready to go?!” Most days Max smiles and gives me a thumbs up. One day he laughed and yelled “Uh, Mom! You forgot to BUCKLE me!” The growing pain rushes in and covers the shore. I’m nursing Ben in the sunshine at preschool while Max plays happily in the garden. The growing pain recedes into the horizon. Max’s foot gets caught in the garden gate, and I’m trying not to drop the baby while adding a sobbing Max to my lap and assessing his ankle. The growing pain comes rushing back in.
My growing pains are a lesson for my boys. How we handle this transition time in our family will someday serve as a compass for them, guiding them in their own parenting. I want them both, little and big, to see my love reflected back to them. I want them to see that it’s overflowing, never ending, and that it washes away any of the growing pains that head to shore. That night, when Sean and I cuddled up next to Max in the hotel room bed, I wrapped my body around my little big guy, and cradled his swollen hand in mine. “I’m sorry you got hurt today Buddy. I know that was really scary” I whispered. He talked about the door, and how Daddy came to help him. As he drifted off to sleep, I whispered the words that I have whispered to him since the morning he was born. “You’re my best friend little Max.”
“OK Mommy, but Edward is MY best friend”. he said, in his soft, sleepy voice.
I stifled a laugh. “You know what?” I said. “Your heart is big enough to have as many best friends as you want. It grows as your family grows, and stretches as you start to love more people. My heart can fit you and Ben and Daddy and all of the other people that I love. And I’m glad that yours can fit Edward too.”
“Ok Mommy. So I don’t have to take anyone out?”
“Of course not Buddy. There’s room for everybody in there.”
I kissed his swollen fingers, and we tucked him in next to Woody and Buzz Lightyear. The sound of Baby Ben sucking his thumb in the crib mixed with the sound of Max’s deep breaths as he drifted off to sleep. My family was going to be just fine. My heart was full, swollen and expanding, just as it should be. There was room in my heart for all of this. This labor of love as the heart expands? This is how families are born.