My baby turned five yesterday. Five years ago, I was begging nurses to get the OB to sign me out and let me go home. Today, he will read little words like “if” and “it,” “cat” and “sat,” “seed” and “need.” Without help, he will assemble a Lego set his grandparents gave him for his birthday. He will babble to me about nifflers and Harry Potter and when is the new Fantastic Beasts movie, Mama? He will announce loudly that he needs to pee and run to the bathroom. He will not need help. At bedtime, he will want a story but will not need me to lay down with him, at least as long as he can sleep with one of his brothers.
This is not my little baby anymore.
Until yesterday, I could still pretend. Four is still little, barely beyond a toddler. Four is a preschooler. It’s crayons and Play-Doh, Sesame Street and learning your letters. Four still needs to be carried. Four needs to be held to get to sleep. It’s finger-painting and making messes and building block towers, then knocking over your siblings’. Four is pesky. Four needs to be strapped in the car seat. But four falls asleep there still, and must be carted inside to the bed, shoes removed, laid down and covered oh-so-gently. If you bury your nose in four’s head, and you concentrate really hard, you can still get a whiff of that baby smell in between the little-boyness of him.
But not five.
Five is a magical line in the sand of childhood. It’s kindergarten and reading words, sharpened pencils and writing. It’s independence. It’s taking the first real steps away from mom and dad, running away instead of running towards. “You’re too big to be carried,” you tell five. “You don’t need me to get you to sleep,” you say.
Five can strap and unstrap his own car seat. Five will wake up when the car stops and stumble irritably into bed, where he will remove his own shoes and cuddle up with his own stuffies instead of you. Five wants Legos instead of Play-Doh, (though he secretly still adores his Play-Doh). I can no longer smell the baby in my little boy, his hair now cut short at his demand.
This hurts me.
Five is hard for us moms, especially for us moms who know we will have no more children. At five, we forever shut a door on the baby years. The baby years, which were so hectic and so chaotic and seemed to last forever, all those long nights of nursing, all those long days of carrying and strapping and unstrapping out of car seats, all those trips remembering diapers and pacis and all the baby things babies needs.
All those favorite baby books: Goodnight Moon, and in our house, Magritte’s Imagination: “All aboard/ Choo-choo/ Where do you think we’ll go?” the book asks. We will grow up, we could answer. We will grow up and up and up and up, and one day we will outgrow you, beloved book full of lions in dining rooms and roses that fill whole rooms. One day you will see the books gathering dust on the shelf and you will realize you’ve moved on to bigger books. You will know, sinkingly, that those little board books, dusty in their sadness, will no longer be read again. This is five.
Five means finally letting go of the notion that you have a baby in the house. It means purging: letting go of the toys no longer played with, the once-beloved relics haunting the corners of the playroom. I will find a stuffed Brobee today, so loved its pupil is nearly rubbed off, and I will burst into tears. My sons will be off playing light sabers. I will sort through the costumes and pick out the Chewbacca outfit that no longer fits into anyone, the favorite dragon costume that saw two children through Baby Norbert Halloweens.
For mothers, five is the end of an era. It is a stepping away, a stepping aside. Our babies are no longer babies. They move into the wider world. Mine moves into books. Letters begin to make sense, to coalesce into words. He can keep up with his brothers now, run with the packs of children on the playground, no longer sit in my lap with the other babies. I have stored all the baby wraps I love and put up the rest for sale. I am more concerned with fidget spinners these days, with Star Wars, with screen time allowances.
Never again will I hold a newborn of my own. Never again will I breastfeed a child. I will never wrap my own baby against my heart, hold my own baby to my chest and whisper, “You are mine.” I will never again live according to the overwhelming, yet somehow blissful, depths of someone else’s overpowering need, the need that cries for me, and only me, I feel momentarily lost. A piece of me, a piece of my identity is gone.
But when I woke up this morning, I found my five-year-old curled beside me in bed. He had a bad dream and sneaked in while my husband and I slept. He has finished his Lego set now, but his butt is still covered in Daniel Tiger pajama pants. He picked them out.
He cuddles into me. “Me love you, mama,” he says. On this five-year-old morning, that is enough. This sturdy little boy is mine, and I love him. I miss the baby he was, but I love the boy he is becoming. I try to focus on that. I try to hold to the becoming, rather than the losses.
But always, no matter not much I love him more every day, I miss my baby.