I keep a journal I write in every night. It’s a five-year journal, so each night I can look back at what was happening on the same day in previous years. I started year three in January, and the contrast of Penelope in 2014 and Penelope in 2016 is a chasm. The tiny details of our life with a 2-year-old I would have surely forgotten – what we were eating for dinner (sesame noodles), her favorite time of day (running around as a “wild and crazy nudey booty between dinner and bath”), the funny things she was saying (“Mama, this is not upsetting” when she spilled bath water on the floor) – bounce off the page and take me back.
Two years ago: “Tonight in the bath, P called herself ‘Penelope’ instead of ‘Pelope’ for the first time. Hugh and I were both instantly teary. She, on the other hand, could not have been more pleased with herself.”
For a few minutes, I am right back in that warm bathroom, back in that exact moment. I can see us giving Penel her bath, Hugh on the floor by the tub and me leaning against the edge of the sink, chatting and watching our fish flit around in the water. She sat up and started dumping water from one bath toy to another and said, “Penelope’s pouring water.” I remember Hugh and I looking at each other. He said, “did she just say…?” And then she said it again. And again. She was so proud, looking at us with her big grin. We grinned back. We cheered and exclaimed and bent down to hug her wet little body. Hugh squeezed my arm. We both blinked back tears. And just like that, she was Penelope forever more.
When I read it again, I can feel the feeling of my heart – the way it simultaneously swelled with pride and tightened with bittersweet acknowledgment. I can summon that familiar ache in an instant.
Since Ivy was born, Penelope has been very interested in growing and getting older. Many times each day, she asks, “Am I growing right now?” She is fascinated by the fact she is literally growing and changing a tiny bit each moment. I always answer, “Yes, you sure are. You are growing a little bit bigger right this very minute. Isn’t that wonderful?”
And it is. It is, of course, a joy and privilege to have two healthy, thriving children. I do not take it for granted. But, the passage of time is also a tiny bit of heartbreak every day.
As I see her becoming the person she is going to be, I feel a messy jumble of emotions – pride and gratitude and joy and sadness – all tangled together. I watch my lovely girl all day long. I try to memorize her. I take pictures. I write myself notes. I pour out everything I can think of into that journal at the end of the day.
And, yet, I know. I know no matter how present I am, how much I work to be only here, to appreciate right now without looking backward with longing or forward with worry, no matter how many notes I make or pictures I take or funny moments I text to Hugh, I know these days will fade away into a blur.
Already, I can conjure a highlight reel of them, my hazy, happy Penelope memories – the way she used to wave backwards, her chubby palm turned in; the squealing shriek she made to express her joy before she could talk; when she called hyenas hi-nennies; the tottering walk with both arms straight-up in the air; the way she only referred to herself in the third person; the way she couldn’t get both feet off the ground when she jumped – and they seem like a lifetime ago.
Before Penelope was born, I thought the letting go was one big moment. The college drop-off. That I would spend eighteen years building toward releasing her into adulthood.
But, by the time she leaves, I will have let her go over and over again. I will have cheered and clapped and smiled my biggest smiles for her thousands of times. I will have been standing there for her whole life, proud smile on my face and heart in my throat, as she inched away, looking back every now and then to make sure I was watching, so gradually I barely realized she was going.
Hugh and I celebrated our sixth wedding anniversary on Saturday.
Like many a bride before and since, I spent a ridiculous amount of time and energy planning our wedding festivities and obsessing about everything going perfectly. We had lists and sub-lists, timelines and spreadsheets.
And, in the end, it was a magical day. I love to look back at the pictures of our wedding. Some of the happiest moments of my life are plucked from that perfect April evening when I married my very favorite person.
I also laugh a bit to myself, because that was pretty much the first and last perfectly controlled, orchestrated day of our life. Real life, married or not, is messy and unexpected and full of twists and turns beyond your control. Hitch yourself to another person, and you get their twists and turns, too.
Right before we got married, Hugh and I were talking to his grandmother about the wedding and she said, In your marriage you are going to go through peaks and valleys. When you are in a valley, the important thing to remember is that another peak is coming, you just have to stick with it. You just have to keep going.
I have thought about that advice many times since that day.
In the last six years, we have struggled through valleys and slogged through the day-to-day banalities of life. We’ve had not enough hours in the day or money in the bank. We’ve lost beloved family members. We have paid bills and cut the grass and gone to the grocery.
We’ve moved and left our dearest friends. We have worked and worked and worked. We spent the better part of two years trying to have a baby. We’ve cleaned the house a thousand times. We’ve argued and cried. We have had a flooded basement and a broken heater.
And, in six years, we have ridden the highest peaks and reveled in the joy of everyday life together. We have taken unforgettable trips and chatted away hundreds of road-tripping hours. We have had professional successes and gotten promotions. Hugh has gotten accepted to medical school and become a doctor and started residency. I have thrown myself into Hugh’s arms holding a positive pregnancy test and shouting that we were finally having a baby.
We have spent countless evenings happy-houring on our porch. We became homeowners. We have laughed until we cried a thousand times. Hugh has stood beside me, holding my hand and cheering me on while I gave birth to our first child. We have watched our beloved baby girl grow and become the best little person. We have planted five gardens. We have shared two thousand dinners.
These six years have been joyful and heart-wrenching, effortlessly easy and damn hard. That’s marriage, because that’s life. It isn’t coordinated or controllable, doesn’t show up with a timeline and perfectly chosen dress. But, we keep going and apologizing and laughing and riding out the valleys for the peaks and feeling so lucky for the life we started that perfect spring day.
My whole life, I’ve been extremely neat and very short on patience. Neither of these are my most admirable personality traits, but they have always ensured my house is clean, my life is organized, and things are done quickly. And then, motherhood turned me upside down.
This weekend, Penelope and I made Sunday morning waffles together. If you’ve ever cooked with a toddler, you know it is a slow and messy process.
She stood beside me at the counter, wearing pajamas and perching on a dining room chair, her bear clutched in her arm, chattering away about making waffles and using the measuring cup. I watched her and listened to her, resisting the urge to clean up behind her or do it myself.
Batter made a drippy trail from the mixing bowl to the waffle maker and she kept insisting she needed more measuring spoons. It took three times as long as it normally does to make waffles. We were laughing and listening to the radio and the kitchen was warm and smelled like Sunday breakfast. Over and over, she exclaimed, “Pelope and Mommy making waffles!”
I felt a little bit like I was outside of my body watching us, knowing in my heart that this was it. That this sweet, ordinary, destroying-my-kitchen morning wasn’t to be taken for granted. It was what I waited for.
It took seventeen months for me to get pregnant with Penelope. Short in the scheme of infertility for many, but an eternity when you are the one in the thick of it. During that time, I would hear people complaining all day long about their kids, counting down the minutes until bedtime. I told myself, if I was lucky enough to have a baby, I would never be like that.
And, then I had a baby. And the truth is, motherhood is frustrating and exhausting and all-consuming. It is messy. There is no rushing. There are moments where I would pay someone one hundred dollars for five minutes by myself. I know now where those people were coming from. It is easy to find reasons to complain.
But, I know the alternative, too. I know how it feels to want so desperately the exact moments of my ordinary, every day life now. To feel like I would pay someone all the money I will ever have to have a little person stand beside me and dump waffle batter on my counter.
Somehow, I was lucky enough to get just that. And, when I feel the urge to rush, to complain, to race through and wish it away for a time that is neater, more efficient, quieter, less demanding, more mine, I ask myself, for what?
I had that time, and it didn’t hold a candle to this one.
Celebrate the joy, friends.