Find Kate at her blog Sweet ‘n’ Sour, where she writes about all things weird and wonderful. She’s the astounded mother of two boys and lives in Oakland, California. You can also follow her on Facebook.
My older boy will be 12 soon. This is the child born more than a week early, weighing six pounds, three ounces. Now he’s over 100 pounds and within spittin’ range of my height (5’10”) — broad of shoulder, muscular of thigh. Lately, when I catch him doing some uber-physical boy thing like wrestling his brother to the ground or running the soccer ball until he’s dripping sweat, I realize, My God! I’m raising a man.
I have always felt at ease around this kid, connected and close. Of course, now that he’s on the cusp of puberty, he’s exploring the limits of this connection; he’ll pull away for a while, let some distance flow into the space between us, and then, when he’s ready, meander back. I notice this mostly in public situations, where my new (and utterly predictable) ability to be embarrassing seems to manifest. “Mom,” he mutters out of the side of his mouth as he throws himself into the car at school pick up. “Turn it down.” You’d think the kid would appreciate a parent who pulls up with Smells Like Teen Spirit throbbing from the car speakers. But no.
The other night, the six of us — me, my two sons, my husband, and our infinitely neurotic poodles — sat down to watch some DVDs I had made from old home videos of the boys. I assumed watching them would be lighthearted, charming, however, I was unprepared by the intensity and complexity of my feelings as I saw my babies come back to life on the screen. There was my older boy at one-and-a-half, shriek-laughing at the antics of a young neighbor, or dancing to Sheila E and yelling, “I’m a football player!” in his baby accent, or eating birthday cake with whole-body enthusiasm. My breath caught in my throat with the renewed realization that that kid, that time, is gone.
He was 15 months old when I got pregnant with his younger brother. Even though he watched my belly grow bigger, and we talked about babies and hung out with babies and read about babies, he wasn’t prepared the day his brother was born and our duet was interrupted. How could he have been? It was hard enough for me to grasp, and I was the grownup. In the home movies, I could see him trying to master himself, trying to be a “good big brother.” He’d tense his jaw, hug the baby a bit too hard, smile a little too brightly. In the weeks after my second son was born, my older boy had night terrors — a perfect vehicle, really, for expressing all that confusion, sadness, and rage.
The amazing thing is that he’s talked to me about how hard it was for him when his brother arrived. The first time was when he was eight or so. I was cleaning the bathroom, and for some reason unknown to me, he started telling me how, once right after the baby came, he had wanted to come to me, in the bedroom where I was nursing, but I had prevented him. I sat down on the closed toilet and drew him on my lap.
“Of course it was hard when your brother was born,” I said. “You woke up one morning and there was a new baby. And you were still a baby yourself.” I told him that I loved his brother and was glad he was in our family, but I had also felt sad about the big change his birth had brought.
Four years later, piled on the couch with my family watching those DVDs, I had to breathe through some tears. There he was, my first child, glorious in his fresh-hatched beauty, having his first experience of loss, and its companion, suffering. At just two, he got a taste of the bittersweet flavor of human intimacy — how hard it can be to trust the connection, even in disconnect. And there was nothing I could have or should have done to protect him.
If I had a choice, I wouldn’t want to go back to those baby days, not really. After all, the current iteration of my son is pretty great, with all the soccer and electric guitar and endless fart jokes. But even so, the night we watched the home movies, after the boys were in bed, I went to my room and cried for a while, grieving the passing of that kid, that time.