He used to be so small. He slept on my chest or in the crook of my arm. He nursed in the sling and lived on my left hip. My husband carried him in the front pack as he walked to the bookstore or coffee shop. He weighed 7 pounds 3 ounces at birth and 21 pounds at six month.
I don’t know how much he weighs now. I’m not quite sure how tall he is. But I know that tomorrow he will turn 7.
And today I grieve. I’ve been slowly grieving for weeks, allowing myself to assimilate the reality that my baby, my first born, is turning 7. I grieve now so that I can celebrate him with complete, unhindered joy tomorrow. I grieve now so that I don’t hold him back with even a strand of my own pointless desire for him to stay young. I grieve now so that tomorrow he will feel his mother happily launching him into this new stage and age of his life. I grieve now so that I can practice letting go, so that when he sleeps over at a friend’s house or has his first crush or leaves home for college I can healthfully let him go. I grieve now so that on the eve of his wedding, I will know how to grieve consciously and responsibly. I will know how important it is to allow my grief to wash through me to completion so that on his wedding day, he feels supported, celebrated, and loved.
I’m a big believer in grieving on the front-end of a transition. Grieving now reminds me of how I’ve felt on every birthday and every milestone as I’ve attempted to address my own loss so that I could fully support his gain. And, for some reason, it especially reminds me of how I felt when his first tooth poked through this gums, so many years ago.
April 7, 2005
The First Tooth
We know that teething is a difficult time physically for both baby and parents. Just when things start to go smoothly and you think you’ve established some sort of ritual, that little sharp tooth starts to poke its way through the gums and has the potential to disrupt nighttime sleep, naps, and independent play. My heart breaks for my little guy when I see that he’s desperately trying to sooth his swollen gums, putting anything and everything into his mouth and chomping down hard. I’ve even resorted to more infant Tylenol than I ever thought I would be administer in attempt to relieve his discomfort. I hate seeing him in pain.
But nothing could have prepared me for my emotional response to the moment I put my finger in his mouth and felt a little sharp point. It took my breath away, literally, and sent chills down my arms. And there it was – that pang of simultaneous and seemingly contradictory sense of loss and thrill that has accompanied every single one of his milestones.
With this first tooth he’s one step closer to eating solid foods, which means another step away from exclusive dependence on my breastmilk. With this first tooth he is physically changed, no longer the toothless grin of a tiny baby but quickly emerging into the two-toothed then four-toothed grin of a toddler. I know he’s still a baby, but as he’s crawling and pulling himself up to standing and now, cutting a tooth, he looks more and more like a little boy every day. And I celebrate his boyness. I love his real personhood and his delightful personality. I love that we are really starting to communicate with each other, that he understands my language and I understand his. And I miss his little babyness.
As the days progressed and I could see that there is only so much I can do to relieve his discomfort, another lesson in letting go revealed itself: I cannot take away all of his pain, nor is it my job to do so. As a human being on this earth, as a person in a physical and emotional body, he will experience pain and discomfort and hurt and illness, and there will be times when I can help him through and times when the best way to help him is just to be by his side as he endures and finds his own inner resources for battling the hurt, whether toothache or bellyache and later, heartache.
Being his mother means letting go of my need to make his life as painless as possible and doing my best to let him experience life on life’s terms. The doesn’t mean that I don’t hold him when he cries and pick him up when he falls, but it means that I can’t hover over him so much that I prevent him from falling. He will fall. He will hit his head on the hardwood floor. And by doing so he learns how to break his fall so that next time, or two or three or ten times later, he doesn’t hit his head quite so hard.
These are the private griefs of mothers. We don’t generally discuss these seemingly minor losses – putting away the baby clothes, boxing up baby teeth, the heartache with each passing year – but they’re the harbingers of our kids growing up, and as much joy and pride as we feel in their growth, we also feel the loss.
I used to believe that I needed to grieve privately around my kids’ transitions. After all, I thought, while he may feel some sense of loss at his impending change of age, the primary feeling for most kids is excitement. Kids love to grow bigger. They love birthdays and they love feeling celebrated. But with Everest, he seems comforted to know that he’s allowed to feel grief around his birthdays. Being the child of my womb and the son of my soul, he struggles to accept every tiny change and loss in life, so why would something as monumental as a birthday be any different? Here’s a snippet of the conversation we had tonight while eating dinner on the porch:
“Mommy, so this is my last day of being six?”
“And I won’t be a little boy any more?” He started to cry.
“Well, you’ll still be a little boy. You’ll be a little boy and a big boy. And it’s okay to feel happy and sad at the same time.”
“Yes. In fact, I’ll tell you a little secret that most people don’t understand: The more you allow yourself to feel the sadness, the happier you’ll be tomorrow. I always let myself feel sad the day before my birthday so that I can celebrate on the actual day.”
“I feel sad.”
“I know, sweetheart. And you’re so brave to tell me about it. You’re losing something but you’re also gaining so much. With every loss there’s a gain. With every death there’s a birth. Autumn lets go of her leaves and then they’re reborn in spring, right?”
Tomorrow I will encourage him to approach this transition just as we approach every other family ritual – to let go of the unwanted behaviors and call in the skills that need bolstering – and because I’ve been grieving for the past week in small increments, tomorrow I will bear witness to his transition without my own grief interfering with his story. He will walk the labyrinth in the morning and then we’ll celebrate in the afternoon. I don’t know what he’ll be thinking about this year as he walks the labyrinthian maze, but I trust in the power of this time-honored ritual to carry him into this next stage of his life.
Tonight, I cry. I cry from joy and gratitude. I cry from the awareness that time slips through my fingers like silky sand, and it seems to do so at lightening speed with children around. I cry a nameless cry, tears that spring from the bittersweet beauty of life in all of its perpetual and miraculous unfolding.
But tomorrow I will wake up and embrace my firstborn son with gratitude, reverence, and joy. Tomorrow I will marvel at his inner and outer beauty: his kindness and compassion, his passion for science and engineering, his love of every living thing on this great planet Earth, his convictions, his pure smile, his ocean blue eyes (that grew from two brown-eyed parents), his ivory skin, his flaxen hair. I will thank God for the privilege of being his mother, for the gift of being able to witness the miracle of him every single day for the last seven years, for the immeasurable joy that he brings to our life, and the immeasurable growth that arises through the challenges. I will thank God, quite simply and stunningly, for the blessing of loving him and the sheer joy of knowing he loves me without reservation. And I will send out the prayer that I’ve whispered every night since he was born:
Dear God, please protect my Everest.
Please protect Daev and I as well.
Please help me be the best mother I can be so that I can nurture this soul into who he’s meant to be.
Thank you for the blessing of this child.
May he live a long and fulfilled life on a healthy planet.