Tomorrow my oldest daughter will turn five. It’s a day to celebrate her, to send her off to preschool with a dozen sloppily decorated cupcakes that we made together from a box, to exclaim at intervals throughout the day, “You’re FIVE, Maggie! Can you believe it?” She’s incredible: smart and inventive, thoughtful and fearless, and totally deserving of celebration.
At the same time, five feels like a significant milestone to me, a notch on my parenting belt. Five years ago today I was laboring at home after a late-night visit to the hospital where they told us, “Come back when the pain is MUCH more intense.” Feeling stupid and dejected I returned home, tried to make myself comfortable, distracted myself with Netflix rom-coms, and double-checked my bag. (Peppermint-scented massage oil? Check. Motivating iPod mix? Check.) Through the rest of the day and another night the pain steadily intensified, until I was unable to eat or sleep but surrendered to each agonizing wave until it crested and I could breathe freely for a few blessed moments.
The distance between that brave, terrified young woman and the person I am today feels vast. Five years. Not such a long time, but consider all they contain, how full they are. A lot has happened. A lot has changed.
The past five years, in brief: Maggie. We don’t know what we are doing. We ask the nurse on the mother-baby unit to show us how to change her diaper, how to bathe her. As we climb into the car for the first time as a family of three we look at each other, both thinking the same thing. Seriously? This is happening? We don’t sleep. She screams and screams. When she’s not screaming, she’s pooping. The first time poop shoots across the room and onto the wall, I’m horrified. That doesn’t horrify me anymore.
When she’s not screaming or pooping, we record every movement and sound she makes. I go back to work. It sucks. I cry daily. Once in a while we get a babysitter, but we miss her as soon as we’re out the door. She grows. She walks. She talks. She’s hilarious, the funniest, greatest kid that ever existed. We wonder if we should stop now. She’s almost two; we’re starting to get our lives back.
I get a job closer to home. Things are good, mostly. I spend a lot of my time wrestling her into time out or into her clothes or into the bathtub, but I assume she’ll grow out of that. I get pregnant, faster than I thought I would. I am happy but nervous, more nervous than I want to admit. Within a couple of weeks I start bleeding. A lot. Somehow, miraculously, the baby is okay. She stays okay. Cecilia shows up with a thick head of hair and is loved and doted on by her big sister. Big sister gets potty-trained. Win! I go back to work expecting everything to be hard, but it doesn’t feel that way. I feel settled. We’re all pulling our weight at home, man-to-man defense. We have a system. We’ve got it all figured out. We might not get out as often as we used to, but that day will come. How about a third? We can handle that.
Ceci is not quite two when Alex is born. Maggie is four. Everyone has told me that adding a third child to your family isn’t that big a deal, they roll with the punches, they’re along for the ride. This is not true. Alex is a person. So are Maggie and Ceci. All of them believe they are deserving of all of my attention all of the time. I wish I was capable of that, but I’m not, even though I’ve quit my job. This is my job. Read them books and make them sandwiches and change fifteen diapers a day. Try to keep the edge out of my voice when responding to yet another request. Sometimes it seems like one of them is always awake, hovering in our doorway. We don’t sleep. I’m not sure we ever will again.
It’s hard. It’s harder than I thought it would be or wanted it to be, but I would never tell that to the young woman on the couch, jotting down the duration of her contractions and half-watching a movie starring the girl from Veronica Mars and the guy who played Leo on All My Children. She’s scared enough already.
What I would tell her, if I could, is this: You’re about to do the best thing you’ve ever done, and all of this will be worth it. Their love will turn you inside out. Your love for them will shock you. Five years later, it still does. That’s something to celebrate, too.