22 January 2008


Motherhood is on my mind. Perhaps a ludicrous statement coming from a mother of four...but mostly, my mothering is instinctive, without forethought or deep reflection. Well, I'm deep-reflecting because my dear friends Doug and Bridget have just welcomed little Jak-Jak into the world, and coincidentally, I spent hours yesterday flipping through stacks and stacks of old photos. (Remember those? Those slippery rectangular paper moments, shiny in the light, that require some sort of clear-paged album to gather them into a chronology?)

To flip through photos in this house means to revive babyhood for four distinctive personalities. You end up looking at these baldy little people; only their eyes and the occasional familiar facial expression belie who they became later. But of course, beyond that, I'm emotionally yanked there for each picture: The sleep-deprivation. The joy of their first communication (each of our kids first said ahhhh-gooooo before anything else). The ceaseless teething. The napping-on-my-shoulder. All the feedings (cumulatively, I breastfed for nearly 6 years).

Of all my kids, the last child summons the most immediate set of memories. Perhaps that's an of-course thing, but I'd like to use that immediacy here to evoke what it feels like to be a mom. Because I don't often write about it (see above...instinctive.) And because I love my motherhood, every day.

In hindsight, I guess it’s good that I wasn’t fixating on Desmond as my last baby when he was an infant. Because, truly, that thought never entered my mind--and I’m glad, because it might have distracted me from the heady, commonplace joy of mothering him. That rush when I lifted him up under the arms, and his hands and arms reached and circled upwards automatically, so that he could embrace my neck and hold on with chubby hands. That mutual move, of course, leads directly to the baby’s head being right near your face, so you can breathe deeply and take in the intoxicating scent of his softsoft skin, the halo-fuzz of his baby hair right against your nose. Meanwhile, his angled legs and toes in footie pants bounce and kick against your stomach gently. One of your hands is clutching stretchy terry that covers a clowny, plastic-diapered bum. The other feels his shoulder blades, the hollow of his back. You are all protection at this moment: a tiger with a gushing full heart.

When you look at his face, he has the tiniest mouth you’ve ever imagined: an ooh shape that you must supply with milk--and in these early days, the next meal always seems to come sooner than you were expecting it, which keeps you dizzily unhinged from routine and reality. After three breastfed babies, my fourth presented some unique issues. Let’s just say that my feeding vessels were extraordinarily out of size-sync with his wee hungry mouth. Thus, feeding Desmond was a daily ritual of initial searing pain and calming-down gradually; multiple times a day, for four months straight, until I healed and toughened.

Never once did it occur to me to connect the pain of feeding Des to him, personally; nor to give up this wacky breastfeeding idea and go for the instant, mutual gratification of bottles. Never once. It may be that, buried deep in my subconscious, I did know that this was the last hurrah for my feeding capacity--which had served everyone so well for a decade that I wanted to let the glands do what they did best, like a thoroughbred. Plus I adored the flow of communication--that’s truly what it is, silent communication, an exchange of needs and warmth--that occurred between me and this baby.

Des adored it, too. Clearly, any early challenges with his feeding did not affect him. In fact, he refused to have anything to do with any other mode of feeding than me, for almost a full year. Never did a bottle make it past his clenched lips; he wouldn’t consider it. And then, even as solids and sippy-cups dribbled into his life, I remained his go-to for two more years. Sure, it dwindled to just morning and night. No, he never asked for it by name in public, ever, or hoisted my shirt or pointed. But I knew when he needed it...and somehow, he knew I still needed it, too.

At intervals, seeking to be practical, I took "weaning vacations" of 3-5 days’ duration (and if I thought my feeding vessels were sizable before, those vacations swelled them into boulders). Since I went on actual trips--the only way I could break the feeding patterns--those ended up being my first adventurous forays away from home and family in four years. Felt great to tentatively reclaim my identity, but a low buzz of distraction persisted throughout each trip. As soon as I returned home, set down the luggage, and hugged everyone else, Des and I would sit down into the nursing posture (because, according to the clever books, this was the ah-ha moment that I would say, “Sorry, honey, Mumma’s milk is all gone"). I’d brace myself for that inevitability--his disappointment, my apology and the hug that would follow it. Then Desmond's head would cradle against the inside of my elbow, and--shazam!--what?!--a meal would be there again! defying any engineered attempts to alter the timing of weaning.

A few months later, Des’ nursing ended without any fanfare at all. No efforts on my part. Just: done. I believe it was a Monday night, just before bed. He wriggled in my lap in his blanket sleeper, newly turned three, and his eyes looked up and confronted me. He did not angle his head to nurse. He smirked a tiny bit with that familiar mouth. Yup, I get the message, Des. And no boulders afterward, either. So we were both done. Painlessly.

I can never fathom where the years went, between the suspended-in-time early months of Des’ life, and the backpack-toting blond wonderment who clambers onto the bus every morning. But when his gray-blue eyes assess me--when we’re talking or reading or getting pajamas on, and our eyes meet--it’s all there. The connection. The gratitude. And things that don't change, in the midst of childhood growth spurts and inevitable transitions: boy to bigger boy.

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