A while ago an old friend from college, who was then pregnant with her third child, asked me if I had any words of advice on the subject of going from two kids to three. I thought about it for a bit, and then I told her that with my first child, his first birthday seemed like a big milestone, the first time I could really pick my head up, rub the baby haze out of my eyes, and start to reclaim a bit of my old self. With my second child however, it took me a little while longer to bounce back. It wasn’t until my second turned two that I really felt like we turned a corner as a family, when my son and daughter were able to establish a true friendship and I could occasionally put down my referee whistle.
Although I felt a little like a creep to be saying this to a pregnant woman, I went on to tell her the rest of my personal truth, which was that the process took even longer the third time around. Actually, when she was asking me this, my third child was only two, and I was still ricocheting through life, feeling much like a pinball most of the time. But, I reassured her, my friend and neighbor who also has three children tells me that when the third turns three, happy once more I will be.
(I didn’t hear from my pregnant friend too much after that. Do you think that was too harsh, putting her hopes of peace off for three years like that? I tell my kids that it’s wrong to lie, except in a very few cases when lying is actually the kind thing to do. Perhaps this was one of those times.)
I tend to overreact to milestones like this. Like when my first child started kindergarten and I called my mom in a panic because I felt like he was so grown up now, so out there, that it surely meant that my job as a mother had come to an end—and if so, what was I supposed to be doing for the next 13 years? Or like when I was 36½ and started freaking out because I was getting close to being 37, which was only one year away from 38, which is on the downward slope of the second half of my thirties, which of course meant that 40 was looming and I was therefore OLD. (Sorry, Mom. I know people in their 60s must just love it when people in their 30s say turning 40 means that you’re old.)
In keeping with my long tradition of overreaction, I have spent this past week reveling in my newfound freedom as a mother of three nearly grown children. Undaunted by the fact that my three year old hasn’t even started preschool yet, or that he’s still in diapers, I’ve started planning the book I will write when he starts kindergarten. I even found myself filling out an application for a full-time job—until it dawned on me that this next life stage is still two and a half years away and right now the only person watching two of my three kids is me.
It’s easy to get carried away with this sort of thing, especially if you’re me. Half of me feels like I did when my oldest went to kindergarten—like the time has come when I can pat myself on the back for a job well (enough) done and clock out. That might have a bit to do with my particular three year old, who does give you the impression that if he were to be accidentally marooned on some Pacific island à la Tom Hanks in Cast Away, four years later we’d find him hanging out with his pal the monkey in the sweet hut he built for himself out of coconut husks.
But mostly I think these daydreams are just evidence that I’m excited about what’s to come. Sometimes at dinner, when the kids have already “eaten” their food, my husband and I sit and talk about what the next phase of family life will be like. (I use the term talk here more out of habit than anything else; more accurate would be “shouting in brief bursts as the kids run laps around the table screaming.”)
We get all giddy thinking about the day when all three children can bathe themselves and dinner conversations cover more topics than how poop is made and fart jokes. Hypothetical conversations about sex, death, and God don’t scare us. My husband, poor, wrung out man that he is, even goes so far as to say that in contrast to the physical demands of parenting in this stage, he welcomes the day when all he has to do is tell our daughter that no, she cannot attend the rave in the abandoned downtown warehouse with her friend’s older brother’s friends and then endure her yelling at him how much she hates him.
As much as I think I’m ready for this, though, this next stage in life that includes my children in school and me tending to my own pursuits, emotion overflows my chest cavity and pushes up into my throat when I think of what we’re leaving behind. Chubby legs so squeezable, arms flung tightly around my neck, early mornings with small visitors in our bed and cold feet tucked between my legs, funny pronunciations and made-up words and toddler lisps, and my current favorite, the forehead press—when my youngest son leans his forehead into mine, closes his eyes, and breathes me in. I know that someday soon, these things, these little intimacies, will be gone.
In the remarkable poetic prose of The Prophet, Kahlil Gibran says, “Your children are not your children . . . . They come through you but not from you, and though they are with you yet they belong not to you . . . . Their souls dwell in the house of to-morrow, which you cannot visit . . . for life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.” When I first read this, I was stunned by its basic truth. But what he doesn’t say is that somewhere between our children coming through us and then traveling beyond us into the future, they go through a relatively brief period of time when they need us so completely that they consume part of us, and we are forever changed.
Transitions in life are always difficult, and yet also filled with emotion and possibility. With the milestone of my youngest child’s third birthday, I am moving away from the time when my children consumed me (but when I was the star of their world), to the next stage, when I will play more of a supporting role. From what I have seen of this next life stage so far in parenting my oldest, it seems it involves a transition of its own; parents assist as their children transition from the safe cocoon of home to the vast unknown of school and the outside world.
Each of these life stages has its glories and its challenges. But to experience life through the lens of emotion is to be at once of many minds. This day, for me, is no different. I feel at once happy for what’s to come, sad for what’s passing away, and grateful for the cold feet in my bed today.
© Amy Daniewicz and Beneath the Trees