The moment I first felt like a mother wasn’t when they placed a wriggly, slick body on my chest; for me, that came later. It wasn’t the first time I sang Gabby to sleep or when she cried in the middle of the night and I rose out of sleep or when she fell at a baseball game and stood still and screamed in all her 2.5-year-old glory until I came and picked her up.
Those first few weeks, she cried every time we went someplace new because she was afraid we’d leave her there. Every morning, I dragged her into preschool and left teary when her (sweet) teachers had to unclench her arms from around my neck. Even so, I didn’t feel like a mother then, not even when I’d get in the car and text Caleb, “Screamed the whole way in. I hope she’ll be OK.”
But one morning–about seven weeks after she came to live with us–I noticed she was calmer as we walked into school. As we neared her classroom, I braced myself, but instead of crying, she gave me a hug around my leg, dropped my hand, and walked in.
And there, in my chest, for the first time, I felt it. You know that phrase “all the feels”? A mother came up with that.
Of course I was ecstatic–here she was, showing measurable progress, feeling secure and loved enough to trust we’d be back to get her that afternoon. Here she was, dropping my hand like it was nothing. Here she was, going forth.
It would be months before she’d stop throwing down whatever toy she was playing with and racing over with tears in her eyes when we’d come to pick her up in the afternoons. But eventually, she would barely glance up when we arrived to get her: “You guys again? Can I have a snack?” And my heart would soar and plummet all at the same time.
My last semester of college, I wrestled a lot with the idea of moving on. I loved college; I remember sitting on the library steps, reading Jane Austen, feeling like I’d found some sort of loophole in the rules of life. But near the end, I was ready for the next adventure. The unknown that lay before me was exciting and terrifying; I walked around wondering what was ahead while desperately trying to soak up every inch of where I was. That last semester, I came across the phrase “mingled contraries.”
I grabbed onto it–that’s what I felt. A yearning for the future mixed with a nostalgia for what had passed. Pulled in two–forward and backward, open hands with pockets stuffed full of things to remember.
After college, as most of you know, I moved to Birmingham to write and began dating Caleb and got married and so on and so forth. I forgot about how hard it had been to say goodbye to that life I’d loved so much, for I loved the next one just as much. But then, that day in the daycare, it all came flooding back: mingled contraries. All the feels. Not one or the other, but both.
When Emerson was born, I didn’t feel like his mother when they placed him on my chest (I did think, “Geez, what a very cute baby!”) or when they swaddled him up and put him in my arms for the wheelchair ride upstairs or even when I nursed him that first time (or the second or third or 56th time that night).
But our second night together, while Caleb slept, I stared at his little sleeping face (Emerson’s, not Caleb’s, though I have stared at Caleb’s sweet sleeping face. Another post for another time.) I imagined all that he could become. I thought about how God had stuffed him full of passion and joy and his very own sense of humor and, I know now, a firm distaste for spoon feeding and naps. I thought about how I’d be the one to whom he’d compare his wife’s cooking and how she’d thank me that she didn’t have much to live up to in that regard. I prayed over his life, which seemed so small right then–just a handful of hours. I mean, he’d only ever worn two outfits. He hadn’t even heard music yet or felt the wind. There was so much ahead for him.
And then, I felt it, that familiar mix of emotions rise in my chest.This time, it bubbled over and I sobbed, tears dripping onto my hospital gown, longing for him to stay tiny and new forever and also to have to have a conversation with him as a grown-up. I wanted his feet to always fit between my thumb and forefinger and, at the same time, to watch him learn to run. I wanted to bottle him right up so that one day, when he was 3 and tantruming in the floor of Target and I was muttering under my breath about “calling Daddy as soon as we get in the car,” I could pop that bottle open and be covered again in his fresh sweetness.
I’d feel all of this again and again–when he was 6 days old and we switched from newborn diapers to size ones. A week later, on his two-week birthday. Again the first time he laughed and again when he started sleeping in his crib at night and again just this morning, when he patted my arm until I helped him to stand.
“Stay here,” my heart whispered. “Onward bound,” the other half of it replied.
Today was the day preschool started back after winter break. We couldn’t wait–Gabby missed her friends and I needed some stinking peace and quiet.
When we got to her classroom, she darted in without a backward glance.
Even so, I still waved goodbye.