Sometimes he asks politely. “Pick me up, please,” he says.
Sometimes he is less polite. “Carry me,” he whines, as he stops dead in his tracks, and I stumble over him.
Other times, he just turns to me mutely, holding his hands in the air. And sometimes it’s not him. Sometimes it’s me. Sometimes I ask if he wants me to carry him. Sometimes I ask if his legs are tired. And sometimes I just scoop him up, settle his warm body against mine, his legs on my sides and his head on my shoulder.
His name is Sunny, and he is 3 1/2, and I tote him around all the time.
Everyone says I should let him walk. I can see people staring at us, hear what they’re thinking, either “That kid’s too big to be carried,” or “Get a damn stroller.” But for myriad reasons, I don’t want a stroller. And I want to carry Sunny. On our last vacation, I toted Sunny two blocks from Independence Hall to our parking deck. I carried him through half the dinosaur museum. I’d carried him through some of the museum before that one too — partly because he was tired, but mostly because I could.
My arms are strong enough still to bear his small, warm weight. He wants the extra cuddles from mama, especially around the unfamiliar and the strange. Now he is still half a baby, a gloriously clingy, darling 3. Soon he will be a curious 4, then a sprinting 5. Like his 5-year-old brother, he will no longer ask to be carried. He will not need me to perform this most basic of motherly offices. So I will carry my toddler while I can, because when I blink, he will be grown.
Even my husband says I should let him walk. When he sees me shift Sunny from my front to my side, he knows my 30-something-pound toddler is getting heavy. But instead of giving him his marching orders, he takes him from me. He cuddles him to his front, his nose in our last baby’s hair. When his big arms get tired, Sunny will ride on his shoulders. Daddy won’t make him walk either. Daddy, too, wants to get his cuddles while he can. He knows that soon enough, the two of us will walk hand-in-hand, arms empty, while three wild boys sprint ahead of us.
He’s watched our oldest, now 7, go from an always-wrapped baby to an always-wrapped or -carried toddler to a runner, a sprinter, a forward scout and occasional hand-holder. I treasure these hand-holding moments. Our middle son, August, took longer to run on his own. But he did, eventually, and while he still likes to hold our hands, August doesn’t want the warm intimacy of being carried.
I don’t get the soft, sharp smell of his head, half-boy, half-baby. I don’t get his warm little arms twined around my neck. Besides, he’s five years of tall now. His cowboy boots would dangle too far below my waist. His weight would make my arms ache. When I have to tote him around now, I put him on my back — either piggyback in the short term or back-wrapped in the long term. He still likes riding in a wrap, associating it with the warmth and calm of babyhood, and I love that. But he will not be carried on my front or hip.
Sunny, on the other hand, lives to be toted around. He begs his 7-year-old brother to carry him piggyback. His brother obliges, because why not? Blaise likes toting him and loves proving his strength. When he wakes up, I tote him out of the bedroom on my hip, plop him on the couch to watch Wild Kratts. I carry him to the bedroom to get dressed. Then I carry him back out to find his shoes. I pick him up every chance I get, smell the warm sharp scent of sweat in his neck, feel the soft straight baby hair graze my face. I carry him to the bathroom. He can use it mostly without help now, besides the wiping part.
I always pick him up when he cries — because you must scoop up your last baby when he cries. You must hear his piercing wails in your ears, feel his hot tears on your neck while you sway back and forth and make sh-ing sounds.
The day will come. It will creep up on us, but it will come. Soon Sunny will no longer need to be carried. He will no longer need to be wrapped through the aquarium so he can see the fish. He will no longer need to be carried because his legs are tired after one museum. He will prefer to race ahead with his brothers, to stop and investigate the world, to run ahead, to stop again and linger. He will be growing up. He will still hold my hand for a little while — when my 7-year-old holds my hand, I am grateful for every second his small fingers thread through mine, counting them down until he no longer needs even that.
But holding hands is not the same as the warm weight in your arms, the deep heft, the sweaty arms tangled around you and the little head resting on your shoulder. The physicality of toting my toddler reminds me that he is still so close to my baby. And one day that will end. He will be, full and complete, my little boy. A joyous and wonderful thing, of course. And in the end, whether I can tote him around or not, he’ll always be my baby. They all will be. But if I can manage to carry them, I will.
Time is short, the enemy of motherhood. Blink and they’re grown, they say, blink and they’re grown. I pick up my small son. And I hold my eyes wide, wide open.