There is a moment in motherhood when you realize that you have been holding your breath.
As if forgetting to breathe will somehow slow the passage of time, in all the right places.
It is the deep inhale as your baby settles in to sleep, buffered and bolstered by the crook of your arm, the sticky sweat at the back of his neck wetting your forearm as you move to stand up. In the seconds before you transfer him to his crib, you notice for the hundredth time how his cheeks flush when he’s sleeping. The way that his pouty rosebud lips purse and relax in a sucking rhythm, even when he’s done nursing. The way that his little hands clench as he dreams. You offer up silent prayers for a smooth transfer, for a soft transition, for a stretch of sleep that’s long enough to count. But on this night, as you place him gently on his side and watch him quickly roll over to his belly, tucking his knees underneath him, your prayers are different. Your hand rests on his back for just a few seconds longer. You smooth the little curl at the back of his neck just one more time. Until finally, you allow yourself to exhale.
Memorize this, you whisper into the darkness. Memorize this, you sigh, as your hands run over your newly minted one year old-s brand new 12 month jammies. Memorize this, you silently cry, as you look around the nursery littered with board books and diaper cream and stray socks and lovey blankets and burp rags that are no longer being used.
This is our last first year.
And I have prayed so long for this.
The sharp inhale of breath each month as I pulled yet another pregnancy test from the cabinet. The disappointed exhale as I threw it in the trash. The gasp of excitement as other friends became pregnant with their second babies, followed by breathless tears alone in my car as I wondered why it wasn’t me. A content sigh watching how kind and sweet my big boy Max was when he played with other babies, holding my breath and hoping that he would one day have a sibling to love.
I exhaled in a cascade of tears that morning on the bathroom floor. Positive. The test was positive. And when I climbed back into bed with Max, snuggled against pillows watching Curious George, I said another silent prayer. That we would finally be blessed with one more first year. Another pregnancy. Another baby to love. Another year of first smiles, first steps, first minutes of falling in love. Just one more journey. One more child. This would be our last first year.
As my belly grew over those first few months, I promised myself I wouldn’t forget what it felt like to fall asleep with both hands cradling my belly. I swore that I would hold my breath in the moments that I first felt this baby kick, just as I had with Max. Memorize this. The feeling of Sean’s hand in mine as we learned that our baby was a boy. The shape of my body as it grew a child, breasts rounding and belly stretching. This would be the last time that I wore maternity clothes. The last time I could pick out tiny, soft cotton onesies in the newborn aisle. The last time I would hold my breath and pay for 2 nursing bras, wonder if I would even need them.
Memorize this, I reminded myself, as I stood in the ugly hospital bathroom, and stripped off my clothes. Memorize this, I chanted, as I walked, trembling, supported by a nurse, to the operating room. Memorize this, I begged, as my breath caught in my throat and the needle pushed into my spine. Memorize this, I panted, as I focused on how beautiful it was to meet my Max for the first time, so that I could stay calm enough to meet my Ben.
Memorize this. Don’t forget to breathe. This will be our last first year.
When Ben’s angry, elated cry rang out for the very first time, I exhaled with him. The walls of the operating room were suddenly warmer, softer, more welcoming. I knew that the moments that followed would be my second chance, my last chance, and I couldn’t wait to drink up those first few minutes with my son. My last first minutes.
The first time I breastfed him. The first time I felt his tiny, warm body stretched out against my skin. The first time my hands moved through the warm water to wash him. His little bottom, cupped perfectly in the palm of my hand.
The first time he smiled at us, his eyes lighting up as he touched his forehead to Max’s. My mighty baby, rolling over on the play-mat. The way he would fall asleep on my chest in our big bed, his breath slowing and softening as we dozed together. The first time he reached for Max. The sound of his voice when he first called for his Da-Da. And each time I held my breath as he wobbled and stood. As he took his first bites of food. As he held his own cup. I paused with pride, with anticipation, and with the subtle undertones of sadness and disbelief. The moments were coming so fast. Memorize this, I begged. Stop and breathe. Take this in. This is our last first year. Two boys. Two growing, curious, fireballs of energy who chase after each other and taunt the minutes as they dare them to slow down. Two boys careening through afternoons, reminding me that every batch of firsts will soon fade into memory.
I create space for the moments to fill. We stay in bed just a few minutes longer, Max and Ben rolling around together like puppies, arms and legs reaching out for each other. We take too many pictures, hoping to capture what it feels like to watch your dreams grow older. My breath catches as Max takes off running across the empty field behind his preschool. The tiny, chubby legs of babyhood now stretching with strong and sturdy strides. He reaches for me as he gets closer, and catapults himself into my arms. The force of his boyhood sends me reeling. I scoop him up in a hug and his weight knocks the wind out of me. For just a moment.
Just one moment, as I regain my footing. Just one moment, as I quickly return from the daydream of remembering when I used to hold him steady as he walked. In that moment, I hover somewhere in the space between his first year and the ones that will follow. There is comfort in the space between. Ben’s first steps will turn into running strides, just like Max’s did. Max’s first day of Kindergarten will open the door to new beginnings that I haven’t even thought of yet. Our last first year may be drawing to a close, but there are so many beautiful, breathtaking firsts ahead of us. The winding, heartbreaking, overwhelming journey of motherhood is bookended by the times when we find ourselves holding our breath. The first time we meet our children. The first time we watch them walk away. And even though we exhale, we hold tight to the moments of childhood, sandwiched between pulling them closer and setting them free.
Memorize this. This was our last first year.