The early-summer sun dips lower in the sky, casting the backyard in a golden glow. The last dregs of sunshine warm my legs as the breeze picks up, ruffling the hair on my arm, dancing among the leaves in the tree overhead. I drape a muslin blanket over the newborn snuggled on my chest, buying us a few more minutes before we need to go in.
My son is four days old, his legs still reflexively curled into his chest, hands up by his head, mouth wide open. His breathing is quick and shallow, then slow and deep, the rhythm of newborn life. I embed my nose into his blonde hair and trace my fingers along the swirl at the crown of his head. I breathe in deeply, drawing the elusive scent into my lungs. My heart swells and breaks at once, because I know that smell will soon fade from his scalp and from my memory.
I look up at my mom, who is sitting across from me at the patio table.
My plea breaks our companionable silence: “Please don’t let me forget how much I love this.”
My first child’s birth was smooth and uncomplicated. My postpartum experience with her . . . was not.
Selah cried constantly—through every diaper change, every time I set her down so I could use the bathroom, when I left the room for two minutes to find food. She even cried when I didn’t hold her the right way. When I laid her on my legs, she screamed. When I cradled her body in my arms, she howled. But when I hoisted her over my shoulder like a sack of potatoes, she lifted her head, opened her eyes, and gazed in wonder at the world, quiet now that she had gotten the one thing she wanted.
I struggled with debilitating pain for months on end, which left me traumatized and afraid to ever give birth again. New sources of pain sprang up every few months—my breasts and then my hands and then my hips.
Worry plagued me. Nearly every minute of every day, I wondered if my daughter was breathing, if she was bonding with me, if she was getting enough food. I worried about myself, too: Will I ever figure this out? Will I ever heal? Have I made a terrible mistake?
People say that once the pain of labor is over, you forget all about it. That’s how second and third and fourth babies are made.
I didn’t forget, though.
I didn’t forget the agony of labor, the trauma of postpartum, the deep ache that settled into my stomach from the constant dread that something terrible was going to happen on my watch.
The story I told myself during my daughter’s first year, and for too long after, was that I simply wasn’t cut out to care for a baby. I could be a mother; I was certain of that. Maybe not the best one, but a good one. And for as much as people knock the chaos of toddlerhood, Selah and I blossomed in it together. I would keep having babies, I thought, if I could go straight from the joy of pregnancy to the fun of having a two-year-old.
A few years later, when I’d had enough distance from the baby stage, I consented to doing it all again. My husband and I had always wanted more than one child, and neither of us felt called to pursue adoption. The only path to the family we envisioned involved another trek through infancy.
I got pregnant twice in quick succession—a miscarriage one month, a healthy pregnancy the next. Having a miscarriage stripped me bare and revealed just how much I did want another baby. I spent the first many months of my rainbow pregnancy feeling grateful and giddy, but as I waddled into the third trimester, something inside me flipped.
All the difficulty of Selah’s first year rose to the surface of my memories. The dread I thought I’d buried churned in my stomach, snaked its way into my chest and my throat, invaded my mind.
When people asked me if I was excited to have a newborn again, I answered honestly: “No.”
They’d laugh at my deadpan response, which I took as my cue to continue.
“I’m terrified, actually. Selah’s first year was hard, so very hard, and even though I know every baby is different, she is the only baby I’ve ever known, so I have no framework, no concept, no reason to believe that this baby could be different.”
Their laughter usually petered out into an awkward chuckle, and then they found someone less hormonal to talk to.
We didn’t get off to the best start, my son and I. With my daughter, I pushed for less than two hours, and many friends assured me that second babies tend to see themselves out within just a few contractions.
Instead, a nurse placed an oxygen mask on my face at the two-and-a-half-hour mark and told me I needed to get him out for both our sakes. The next part she didn’t say aloud, but I felt it in the set of her eyes and the tone of her voice: I was close to an emergency C-section.
Twenty minutes later, my son slipped out of me, my whole body trembling with weariness and relief and terror. Eamon took his first breath, which turned into his first scream, and then the doctor placed him on my skin.
He quieted instantly. He laid his head on my chest like he knew he was home, and it’s been his favorite place ever since.
After my second birth, I recovered quickly, with minimal pain and no complications. Eamon nursed easily and frequently and was happy to be held or placed in the swing or left in his crib while I showered. He had (and still has) the sunniest temperament—he’s so happy that he sometimes seems more like a cartoon character than a real baby.
Every sweet moment with my second baby brought me right back to the sweet moments I had my first—the ones that had been overshadowed by the trauma. I recalled the hours I spent laying on the couch the winter my daughter was born, watching The Great British Baking Show while she snoozed on my chest. I remembered gazing at her while she nursed and how bewildered I felt that my body could sustain and nourish her. I relived the pride that surged through my veins the first time she rolled over, pulled up to standing, took independent steps.
The first year with Eamon was still hard, of course—the first year is always chaotic and overwhelming, even with an “easy” baby. He didn’t nap consistently until he was six months old, and I spent hours rocking him in the glider, walking with him in the baby carrier, patting his bottom, willing him to sleep. He was uncharacteristically grumpy for weeks at a time when he’s cutting a tooth or going through a developmental leap. He is high energy, and in the span of one month, he learned to sit up and then crawl and then climb the stairs, causing me some maternal whiplash. I struggled under the weight of being needed by two tiny people at the same time. Postpartum depression buried me in darkness for weeks at a time.
But when I look back on the first year with him, the tint of my lens is not gray but rose gold.
Perhaps the difference in my perception is less about Eamon’s temperament and more about the perspective I earned in my first year as a mother. Back then everyone told me that this too shall pass. That every hard thing ends, and so does every good thing. That we would arrive at some proverbial other side. I didn’t believe them.
The second time, though, this wisdom accompanied me through every moment—when I thought I might lose my mind if I didn’t get a few more minutes of sleep and when I melted the first time Eamon reached his arms out for me.
Every season truly, heartbreakingly, mercifully, ends.
My mom pulls her sweater a little tighter against the sudden chill and laughs at my request. She would love nothing more than a gaggle of grandchildren, but I know she is surprised to see me enjoying these hard days so thoroughly.
“I mean it,” I tell her. “When I wonder if I should have another baby, if I can really deal with the first year again, remind me that moments like this make every night waking and every stitch and every moment of exhaustion worth it. Remind me that even though I think I’m not a baby person, I am. I so hopelessly am.”
I tuck my son’s pajama-laden feet into the blanket, longing to hold on to this moment just a little longer, not willing to admit that time is already passing at an astonishing rate. If I had a magic wand, I would wave it and set up camp right here in this liminal space.
The sun finally plunges beneath the horizon, and an inky twilight envelopes us. I rise from my chair, open the back door, and step inside.