Before I had children, I firmly believed that a one-year-old was a kid, not a baby.
Babies were labeled in months; a one-year-old was therefore not a baby. (And women who explained that their children were “14 months old” or even “22 months old?” Monsters.) One-year-olds can walk and talk, right? Kids. They have teeth and can feed themselves? So, kids.
Then I had a baby, and on the day he turned one I felt mild horror knowing that there were ignorant souls out there who would dare to think of my 12-month-old as a KID, rather than a sweet infant — a baby who had only a few months ago learned to crawl, who had eight teeth and feet so fat hardly any shoes fit him. (Not that he needed them, as he was a whole season away from walking.) Though he probably had a handful of words by then, all I remember him saying was “mama.”
So much else I don’t remember. Mother Nature kindly erases much of the early months, so that the species will persist; accumulated sleep debt, old age and chardonnay have wiped out large chunks of the rest. There are flashes of clarity, though, whether memories or sentiments, that hold enough power to make me gasp.
In those early weeks I experienced a great deal of anxiety about how fast it was all going. I felt an odd sense of dread as my son’s one-month mark approached, strongly believing that “one month” was so much older than “three weeks”. On the one hand, I craved a time when he would sleep anywhere other than on my body, as sleep-deprivation was sapping my sanity, but every time someone told me that would happen at three, or however-many, months, I’d get a knot in my stomach. I wanted to sleep, but I didn’t want to have a baby old enough to let me.
Everyone told me I would only love him more as the weeks and months went on; I doubted it. He would get more demanding, less sweet, bigger and therefore less cute.
I looked down at my son somewhere around two-and-a-half months old and felt a distinctly physical gut-punch of love. Actually, I realized, I was in love with him. I had fallen head over heels into an intense love affair and somehow in the day-to-day grind of keeping him alive and clean I hadn’t really seen it coming. This! This was what everyone had been talking about!
Some women experience that feeling in the delivery room, the second they see or hold their child for the first time. I didn’t. In those earliest moments I loved him in a primal way, of course, and intellectually, but I wasn’t in love with him. The moment I realized I was, months in – that was the before and after.
When he was eight-ish months old, I remember driving somewhere with him and, after glancing at him in the rear-view mirror, having the clear and completely rational realization that he was my best friend.
Later, as I wiped solid waste from his nether regions, I laughed out loud at the absurdity of that revelation. I’d never even referred to my husband as my best friend, as I have two sisters and a small handful of women whom I’d proudly placed in that particular heart-spot.
I laughed, but I didn’t change my mind.
It’s annoying when “everyone” is right, no?
Becoming a mother, my own mother has often said, is a process, not a single event. Sure, there is the actual moment when the baby is born, and there are mothering instincts that kick in right away. But, at least for me, feeling wholly and completely like a mother took time. After I gave birth to my son, I still fundamentally felt like the same person I’d been. The world and my outlook upon it hadn’t undergone a seismic shift, like I had expected, or at least like I had been told to expect.
Those early weeks were hard because I was so tired and hormonal, but I didn’t find caring for an immobile lump who slept the majority of the day to be particularly challenging – there wasn’t much “mothering” to do. I still went out to dinner, car-seat shoved underneath the table. I still traveled, marveling at how portable he was and how lucky I was that he was nocturnal – at least for the sake of fellow airline passengers. Since I couldn’t really breastfeed I dove straight back into the welcoming arms of wine; I eagerly took my parents up on their offers to babysit so I could go to the gym and grocery store as needed.
Given all of this, I worried that when I went back to work the last piece of my “normal life” would snap back into place and any progress I’d made on the becoming-a-mother front would halt; after all, I’d only see him for an hour or so in the morning and a couple of hours in the evenings. But every evening when I returned home, he would lunge at me, beaming, from the arms of his wonderful nanny, and as we goo-goo-eyed at each other each evening I grew increasingly confident our bond was continuing to develop.
One night in bed, I abruptly paused the television and sat straight up, not hearing so much as sensing that my son had woken up. When my husband heard baby’s soft, gentle cry, he said, with genuine astonishment, “but…how did you hear that?”
Motherhood process: still on.
It rained on my baby’s first birthday, and it was also hot. All the friends and family members we’d invited to come celebrate were crowded into our humid living room, eating burgers on damp buns as my husband grilled under an umbrella. It wasn’t my son’s first taste of sugar, or even his first cupcake. Most of what I remember about the “party” was trying not to notice the ketchup and green icing that got on the rug.
I didn’t feel that the day itself was a milestone in any way, or even that it did a good job representing one, and I spent much of the afternoon and evening wondering if that made me feel let down. A first birthday! A whole year in the books! What a big deal for my son, who had officially begun the transition from baby- to childhood. And for me, who had survived a whole year of parenting, of motherhood. We should both take a bow, be feted, feel Different.
I can’t speak for him, but I felt the day he turned one was a day like any other. That said, everyone was right: I loved him more at one year old than I did at one month old, and I loved being a mother more, too. I spent some time on his birthday marveling at just that: that my early anxieties on both fronts had been eclipsed by my excitement about and anticipation of all that lay ahead.
That was how I celebrated the One-Year Milestone, and how I have tried to celebrate every milestone since: by rejoicing in all that he was, and allowing myself the truly ridiculous decadence of knowing that he would only get better.
He has. He will.