I used to be like you. You don’t believe this, but it’s true.
You are kneeling down, a baby heavily, colorfully bandaged to your torso, to comfort your 3-year-old, who is crying about the earthworms.
“They come out of the ground when it rains,” you explain, “and then some of them drown, and it’s sad and scary.”
Your preschooler nods and adds, sniffling, “Also they have a smell.”
You both look up in awe as my daughter passes, because she is a sixth grader. She is playing Ralph Rackstraw in the school’s production of HMS Pinafore. She might as well be 11 feet tall. She might as well be wearing a crown, tossing handfuls of candy from the parade float on which she is sitting astride a bejeweled elephant. Your child knows her name. I know this because he whisper-shouts it to you as my daughter walks past.
Your eyes dart over to me, and I smile. But I’m afraid that I look like a smiling jack-o’-lantern to you, or a witch, with my teeth crumbling out and my grey skin sagging off my face in leathery pouches. In place of a baby, I have two skinny little breasts, and in place of milk, they are producing wiry hairs which, luckily, you can’t see but might be able to extrapolate, given the whole beard situation. If you look too long, you might see my uterus fall out onto the ground and blow away like a tumbleweed.
But now you stand to greet a friend who is wearing a matching baby. Others will join you, and you will linger in the parking lot to talk about glass sippy cups and sleep. Someone will make a joke about bringing tequila to the playgroup. You will be in no hurry to leave, unless your child spots you out the nursery window, and then there will be trouble and tears.
I will bend barely down to kiss my daughter on her face with its oily sheen, with its eyelashes as thick and dark as false eyelashes, with its cheekbones carving themselves out even as I’m barely bending to kiss her goodbye. I will climb into my car alone, buckle in my own self, and drive, still alone and not listening to Dan Zanes, to a café, where I will spend the morning writing (by myself). I will not order a lukewarm steamed vanilla milk for anybody, or share crumbly bites of my cranberry scone with a person who screams and darts wobblingly over to the door or trashcan every time my attention drifts for a single nanosecond. I will not leave the café an hour later, smiling apologetically at everyone we have disturbed, and drive back to the school because half-day preschool ends at 11:30, which is both bafflingly early and also 15 minutes later than the baby’s nap-time would ideally start.
You will whisk everyone home for Annie’s Mac and Cheese (with peas!) and afternoon sleep, and then you will wrangle everyone into their shoes and socks, and, in the spring sunshine, you will walk slowly over to the nearby farm. You will exclaim over daffodils and bees, over the wind in your faces and clouds scudding past like drawings of clouds. You will stand at the wooden fence to look at the goats and the miniature horses, and your son will go completely silent, his eyes huge. He will reach one small hand up to yours, and pop the other thumb excitedly into his mouth. You will wrap your fingers around his, and press your nose into the fragrant scalp of the baby, who is squealing and waving her arms and legs around, because horses!
You will wonder vaguely about dinner, wonder vaguely if the rest of your life is going to be this slow and dull and pleasant. The older moms, you will wonder. What do they do with themselves? (We drink wine from actual wine glasses while the children make the salad and salad dressing.)
Do they have to bend down every second still? (We do not.)
Do they miss this, the spring sunshine after all those snowsuits and endless colds, and the way the baby’s head smells? Oh, we do. We really do. Not the snowsuits or the endless colds, but the baby-head smell: the sweaty head of a baby newly woken from her nap, the morning head of one climbing into bed to nurse, the baby head pressed contentedly into your face while you’re reading Owl Moon. All of the baby heads on all of the different endless baby days that end up ending after all. One day you will sneak in at night just to bend down again, just to bend down and sniff your child’s sleeping scalp, with its teenaged-baby smell. You will become that person. One who bends down even when she doesn’t have to, and can’t get enough.
You don’t believe it, but it’s true.