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.
We are quickly creeping up on Penelope’s third birthday in April, and, naturally, the baby parts of her have been slowly fading away. Suddenly, it seems, I am left with a little girl where my toddling baby just was.
She pushes her own little cart around the grocery store and unloads the groceries at checkout. She walks beside me on the sidewalk, chatting away like a little friend. She dresses herself. She drinks from a glass, feeds herself soup, can make it through a whole meal with little help at all from me. She speaks in paragraphs, in monologues, in elaborate stories, in all-day-long questions – from the minute she opens her eyes, her voice is the soundtrack of my life.
Those flour handprints on the counter are the stuff my Mama dreams are made of.
My favorite motherhood advice/reminder/cliche is, “everything is just a phase.” It is what I chant silently to myself during the hard moments – teething, sleepless nights, separation anxiety, two-year-old melodrama – hold on, Mama, this will be over before you know it. But, even more so, it is the whisper in the back of my mind during the perfect moments – backyard picnics, full force hugs and whispered I love yous, cookie-baking marathons, book-reading afternoons under a blanket on the couch – hold on, Mama, this too will be over before you know it.
And it has never felt truer to me than these last few month. Not only is she tiptoeing up to three, Penelope is becoming a big sister in May. She is so excited about “our baby” and and her excitement is only adding to my own about our second daughter. But, it’s also making me hold on tight. Even tighter than normal. I know this new baby will come and bring with her all the joy and love and how-was-she-ever-not-here we got from her big sister, but I also know that my long and simple days with Penelope as my only companion are drawing to a close.
More than ever, I am reminded what a privilege it is to be her Mama. To take her to the grocery store. To walk beside her on the sidewalk. To share my meals and my time with her. To be the eager ear to her stories and questions. To be her whole world. To be right here. Even on the hardest days, the days I countdown to bedtime, the days I wish for a split second of quiet with no one touching me, the days we both lose our patience, the days where I wonder if my life is too ordinary, I know. These are the days, and they will pass in a blink.
I go in to check on her one last time before I close my eyes, and, as I smooth her wild curls from her forehead and straighten her covers, all I can think is, my God, how in this world did one person get lucky enough to be her Mama. And how is that person me.
Penelope is two today. Two. Half of me feels like, well, of course she is. The other half of me can’t believe it. April 28, 2012 seems both a blink and lifetime ago.
This is the story of the day we became a family.
Heaven blew every trumpet
And played every horn
On the wonderful, marvelous
Night you were born.
It took us seventeen months to conceive Penelope. Those months were some of the hardest of my life. And then, August 15, 2011, I finally got the long-awaited two pink lines. The months that followed were the happiest, most worry-filled, most exciting and exhausting of my life. The hormones I took to sustain the pregnancy for the first trimester made the first twelve weeks feel like the first trimester on steroids.
After week 15, I picked my head up off the pillow and felt amazing. I loved being pregnant. I loved my growing belly. I counted down the days until my doctor’s appointments. I coveted every single baby kick. The whole process was new and wonderful and leading us to the prize we had been waiting for for so long.
At twenty-nine weeks, I woke up at 5:00am with continuous contractions. After spending hours at the doctor’s office, it was determined that they were Braxton Hicks contractions and the baby was fine. These contractions would continue, at least 4 an hour, every hour for the next eleven weeks and two days. I saw the doctor once or twice a week from that point on and spent hours on the monitor, in a little room by myself listening to our girl’s heartbeat whooshing away. That is to say, we could not have been more eager for her safe arrival.
Eleven weeks of continuous Braxton Hicks made it particularly ironic to watch her due date, April 26th, come and go on the calendar with her still happily kicking away in my belly.
The week of my due date, I’d been feeling especially ready. I started having cramps that would come and go and get almost frequent enough to time. My nesting kicked into overdrive, which is saying a lot as my personality basically has me nesting all the time, pregnant or not. But, after my due date passed, I was convinced I wasn’t going to go into labor on my own. I had an induction scheduled for May 9th (I wanted to give her as much time as possible to come on her own) and I felt certain that was when we’d meet our girl.
The morning of April 27th, I leapt out of bed like someone lit a fire underneath me. Between the time I woke up and the time I went to sleep I deep cleaned the house, wrote twenty-three thank you notes, finished every single thing on my work to do list and drafted my out-of-office response, went to the grocery store, groomed the pets, washed the last load of baby clothes, double-checked our hospital bags, rewrote the pet care instructions for my Mom, and, on the way home from dinner, pitched a huge fit until Hugh agreed to stop and fill up the gas tank, even though it was half-full and we live ten minutes from the hospital. Still, I went to bed thinking I would wake up still very much pregnant and not in labor the next morning.
At 3:00am, I woke up to pee (for the fifth time that night). I looked at the clock and then started the two minute process that was getting my hugely pregnant body out of bed. As soon as my feet hit the floor, I felt a rush of fluid. I immediately wondered if I had wet my pants (not a stretch when you’re carrying a small person on top of your bladder). Then I had a real contraction.
After eleven weeks of painless contractions and two weeks of cramping, I’d wondered if I would even know what a real contraction was. Answer: yes. They weren’t immediately painful, but they were different. I figured it was nothing and went to the bathroom. Then I had another one. I got my phone to start timing them and climbed back in bed. They were eight minutes apart.
Hugh woke up and asked me what I was doing with the phone. I told him to go back to sleep. He sat straight up and asked me if it was time. I told him that I was having contractions and there was a slight chance my water might have broken but it was probably nothing and I was just going to lie in bed and relax for awhile. My Group B Strep test had come back positive, so I was under strict instruction to come to the hospital immediately if my water broke so I could get antibiotics before the baby was born. Hugh did not take that the instruction lightly. Within ten minutes, he was out of bed, dressed, gathering up our bags and pulling the pillows out from under me to load into the car.
It was 3:45am and the contractions were five minutes apart and lasting for thirty seconds. They still weren’t painful, but were uncomfortable. I decided to take a shower. Hugh waited in the bathroom with me, pacing and hitting the stop and start button on the timer as I instructed. At this point, I was mildly uncomfortable, but still able to stand and talk through the contractions.
I got out of the shower and started to get ready, still telling Hugh that this probably wasn’t it and not to get too excited. He said he wanted to be out the door and on the way to the hospital by 5:00am.
At 4:30am, my contractions were four minutes apart and lasting for one minute. I was rolling my birth ball around the house with me, sitting on it during contractions. I could no longer stand or talk through them. I did, however, insist on blow-drying my hair, putting on make-up, checking my email, and finishing a project for the nursery during this time. Hugh followed me around, pacing back and forth and telling me we needed to go.
At 5:00am, I looked at him and said I though this was it and maybe he should call my mom. She lives eight hours away and I had promised to call as soon as I thought I was in labor so she could try to get here before the baby was born. I was sitting on my birth ball with my elbows on our bed breathing through a contraction and listening to Hugh on the phone in the hallway. It was 4:00am at my Mom’s house, so she was sound asleep. Hugh said, in his happy, excited voice, “It’s time. We’re going to the hospital.” At that moment, I started to cry. We were finally going to meet our baby.
40 weeks, 2 days. Final belly picture between contractions and on our way out the door.
We left the house at 5:15am. I don’t remember much about the drive to the hospital, other than the fact that the contractions were becoming more painful. We parked and took the elevator up to triage. Contractions were still 4 minutes apart and lasting for about a minute and a half.
In triage, I got changed into a gown and hooked up to the monitor. I was made to lie in the most uncomfortable bed. After the nurse checked me and watched my contractions, she informed me that I was 2cm, my water had not broken, and that I was not in active labor. She also informed me that the baby’s heart rate was not responding the way they wanted it to, so I would have to stay on the monitor, in the bed, flat on my back. She told me that if baby’s heart rate improved, they would take me off the monitor and let me go home until I was in active labor. At this point, I started to panic.
I had hoped to have an unmedicated birth with no intervention if at all possible. I planned to move around the room, to walk, to use the birth ball, to take a shower, to change positions. I did not want to be monitored, I did not want fluids, and I did not want to be confined to the bed. All I could think was that everything was going wrong and we were only three hours in.
By now, the contractions were painful enough that I started to vomit during each one. Watching the monitor, I could see that the contractions were four minutes apart, but lasting for three or three and half minutes. I kept thinking that if this wasn’t even active labor, I was probably going to die.
At 8:30am, the doctor on call, Dr. M, came to check me. 3cm. She agreed with me that I was in labor. And she thought my water probably had broken. She informed me that my physician, the one who had been there for every single step of this process since we started trying to have a baby, the one whom I’d seen once or twice a week for the last six months, was out of town. At that point, something inside me snapped. Every part of my plan went out the window. I said I wanted to be admitted. And then I went to a place deep inside myself. I did not speak to anyone, not even Hugh, for the next three hours.
They got us checked into a room, with instruction that I had to stay on the monitor and start fluids because baby’s heart tones were still concerning. I sat upright in the bed. As soon as a contraction would start, I would brace myself and try to breath through it. I would know that the pain was at its worst each time when I felt an urge to vomit. When it was over, I would fall asleep, sitting up, until the next contraction started.
The pain of the contractions shocked me. That wild physical pain was like nothing I had ever felt or could have imagined. But the thing that surprised me most was the energy it took to make it through the process. I was so exhausted after only a few hours, that I literally couldn’t stay awake between contractions.
At 11:30am, I looked at Hugh and started to cry. Until this point, I hadn’t cried, hadn’t really spoken to him, other than to request he not talk to me but also not leave my side. I cried and I told him I couldn’t do it, that I wanted an epidural. That I was so tired already, I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to push when the time finally came.
So, at 12:30pm, 8cm and 9.5 hours into labor, I got an epidural. And all that was wrong became right with the world. I know it isn’t for everyone and it wasn’t part of my plan, but that epidural was the best decision I could have made. After it was in, I felt relief within five minutes. I relaxed. I smiled. I talked to Hugh. I asked him to turn on the birth playlist. I called my mom. I joked with the nurse. I felt excited about the fact that we were going to meet our girl today. I spent the next two hours talking to Hugh and eating ice chips and basically saying to him over and over that I couldn’t believe the day was finally here.
At 2:45pm, my Mom walked into the room. She made it.
And then, after all of the chaos and pain of the morning, Dr. M came to check me and announced that I was fully dilated. She asked me to do a practice push and then her eyes got big and she proclaimed I was a great pusher and that it was time to go.
Immediately, the excitement level in the room picked up. They started getting the stirrups situated and turning on all the lights and coaching me on what to do. They turned on the warming bed and I realized that this was really going to happen. I was going to give birth to our baby today.
At 3:08pm, I started pushing. And I pushed and I pushed and I pushed. At 4:08pm, Dr. M said she wanted to start pitocin to increase the strength of the contractions to help get our baby out. I asked for 15 more minutes. I knew I could do it on my own.
With the next few pushes, the excitement picked up even more. They could see her head! She had a full head of dark hair! Dr. M kept saying I was almost there, that every time I pushed she thought the head would be out. With the next push, I decided if the head could be out, it would, and I pushed with every last bit of energy I had.
Success. Everyone cheered. Hugh and I were crying and laughing. And then Dr. M jumped back and blood sprayed onto the wall. Penelope’s cord had been so tightly looped around her neck that when they tried to remove it, the cord burst. She wasn’t breathing on her own yet and she was no longer getting oxygen through her umbilical cord.
The tone in the room changed immediately. Dr. M looked up at me and said, this baby needs to come out right now.
With strength I didn’t think I had left, I pushed one final time.
At 4:23pm on April 28, 2012, Penelope Catherine was born: 9lbs, 5oz, 21.5 inches of her, and a full head of hair.
They didn’t hand her to me or even hold her up for us to see, but rushed her to the warmer and started suctioning her and giving her oxygen. Hugh went over to see her. The NICU nurses came in and huddled over her. Everyone was talking quietly, but no one was talking to me.
I kept asking if she was okay, and everyone kept smiling and saying nothing. All I could see from my bed was her fat, pink leg kicking in the air. I kept telling myself that if she could move her leg, she was okay, but I was holding my breath waiting to hear her cry.
And then, she cried – the most perfect, indignant newborn shriek. I laughed and sobbed with relief.
A few minutes later, she was declared to be just fine. They swaddled her up and handed her to Hugh. He walked toward the bed with our baby in his arms.
For the rest of my life, I will remember those moments. He handed her to me and said, “Mama, meet your daughter.”
I held her and stared, and she stared right back. I said, “Hi, my baby. I’ve been waiting for you.”
At 4:42pm on April 28th, I was laid bare – a Mama, instantaneously and irrevocably. Forever changed in one instant, that brand new baby made me brand new, too.
She was worth it all.
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.
When I was pregnant, I was so eager for Penelope to get here so I would be able to see her and know that she was okay.
And then she was born and I immediately wanted her to be back inside, so I could keep her safe.
A few weeks later, I half-jokingly, half-completely-seriously-tell-me-it-will-stop-right-now, asked my Mom when I was going to stop worrying so much.
Without hesitation, she replied, “Never.”
Let me tell you, Momma doesn’t lie.
Twenty-one months into motherhood, this is what I would tell my brand-new Mama-self about worrying:
It’s not going to stop. It’s going to get worse and better.
Worse because she is going to grow, and as she does, so is the love you have for her. I know, you think you can’t love her any more than you do right at this exact moment. You’re still saying that almost every day in two years. And as she grows, right alongside your love, your list of things to worry about will grow, too.
Right now you’ve got the basics to think about.
Is she breathing?
Is she eating enough?
Is she eating too much?
Is she gaining weight?
Is she breathing?
Is she sleeping too much? Your pediatrician really loves this one.
Did she roll onto her belly while she was asleep?
Is she breathing?
Why didn’t you just get the damn video monitor so you could watch her breath?
New motherhood is a roller coaster of love and hormones and crying, but you’re doing great and, eventually, you will realize she is not going to stop breathing if you take your eyes off her. By month six, you will feel like a seasoned pro.
And then come the new worries. They are slightly more complex.
How can I teach her to be confident but not fixated on her appearance?
Am I challenging her enough? Too much?
Is she having fun at school?
Is she having more fun at school than at home with me?
How can the child only subsist off of six grapes and half a cup of yogurt some days?
How do I protect her from predators? No, not sharks. The more insidious kind of predator.
Though, speaking of, how do I protect her from sharks?
But, as I said, it gets better, too. Because the worrying comes hand-in-hand with the joy. You think you love this child right now?
In four weeks, she is going to look right into your eyes while you’re changing her and smile her first smile. It will be the best moment of your life.
She is going to roll over while you are sitting on the floor beside her, cheering her on. It will be your proudest moment in life to date.
In eight months, you will walk in to get her when she wakes up and, plain as day, she will say, “Mama.” This is not a fluke. You will cry your happiest tears.
She is going to say, “I love you,” totally unprompted. Brace yourself for that one, Mama.
In thirteen months, she is going to let go of the table she’s holding onto and walk. Real steps. Across the room and right into your arms. You will be laughing and crying and cheering and clapping like a lunatic.
She is going to show a heart so compassionate that she will cry alongside a character in a book because she is so sad for their sadness.
She becomes part of your little family in a way you can’t even imagine right now. She isn’t just a baby that you love more than anything, she’s your daughter and she’s fun and funny and happy and kind. She makes jokes and loves blueberries and headstands and animals and the color green. She is going to blossom into the most wonderful little person, and you get the privilege of the front row seat.
So, you sweet, tired, head-over-heals-in-love new Mama, the worrying. It’s not going away. You have to take the worry to get the joy that comes from the place of loving another person so desperately that you could not bear it if something happened to her.
It comes from being all in, and it is so, so worth it.