I never used to like to hold babies. Not even my nieces and nephews. I didn’t trust myself. Too fragile. Too pukey. I could just imagine the tiny little human spitting up all over me, at which point I would involuntarily toss the thing across the room, giving it some kind of traumatic brain injury. Everyone would cause a scene and never forgive me. I didn’t want that on my conscience.
When the kid is yours, though, you don’t have much of a choice. It’s like changing diapers. You can try to avoid it as long as possible, but eventually you have to reckon with the reality of poop. Like most things, the fear of it turns out to be worse than the fact. You get used to it. You fumble and bumble with all the flaps and flailing limbs until you figure out a process that works. You might begin to find it sort of sweet. You may miss it when they are too old for diapers or too energetic to sleep in your arms. I didn’t need to worry. For all the times I held them, for all the times they spit up, I never let go. Except for that one time I fell down the stairs while carrying Jackson. He was fine. My back hurt for a week.
Holding your own child for the first (or thousandth) time is to experience joy and fear, pride and inadequacy, significance and insignificance all at once. It’s a feeling of total dependence, which we often call love. This little person cannot move, eat, or poop without you, and you, somehow, can no longer live without them either. It’s a connection they won’t remember but which will mark the rest of their lives. That’s why our children’s independence, though exciting, feels like a loss.
I don’t mind admitting to having been a mama’s boy as a child. When my parents left us for a night out, I’d stand at the door screaming for mommy while the babysitter tried to pull me away and my older siblings unhelpfully reassured. I wouldn’t consider it a traumatic episode, though. I don’t remember it with shame or fear or hurt. I remember the height of the door (I was below the doorknob), the sound of the cries, that one inconsolable word, the touch of the tears of longing that wouldn’t stop. I look back on it with nostalgia. Although it felt like pain at the time, it was a good thing.
Right now, our daughter is attached to my wife. She loves me too, of course, but it’s just not the same. She doesn’t cry if I’m not there to tuck her into bed one night or if I can’t come to her soccer practice. I understand. Our son likes me better, anyway, so at least I have that. One time we all went to drop my wife off at the airport for a business trip. Virginia was all smiles on the way there, talking happily and pointing out all of the airplanes with her brother. Then we pull up to the terminal, and the door opens. Virginia bursts into tears. She knew this was going to happen—we all did—but there was nothing she could do to stop it.
As Christine got her bags, Virginia crawled through the back of the van and attached herself to her mama’s chest. The tears weren’t letting up, and now Christine’s began to flow. They sat in the trunk, the sweet drops falling from mother to daughter, as long as they could. I’m sure people were giving us funny looks. The security didn’t dare to move us along. But the plane wasn’t going to wait, an eventually they had to part. I hugged them both and carried my little girl back to her seat, buckled her in, and drove off.
“Mommy!….Mommy!….I want my Mommy!” Virginia cried the entire 30 minute ride home. Christine was still wiping away tears in the security line. I was trying to hold it together, my heart a little broken. Jackson was sleeping in his car seat.
Once at the house, the hysterics settled into a whimper, Virginia no longer fighting reality but no accepting it either. She took no comfort in my arms or my assurances. It’s hard to see your child cry and harder to know you can’t do anything to stop it. I tried.
“Let me tell you a secret,” I said. She loves secrets.
Her face tightened into that look of sneaky curiosity, her lips drawing in and her red eyes widening. “What is it?”
“I used to cry too when my mommy left.”
“Really?” she asked.
Yes, really. I didn’t tell her, because I didn’t think she would understand, but it was a good memory. She’s old enough to remember, so she may look back on this, 30 years in the future. By then, it will only be a distant sensation, a few hazy images, a jolt of feeling, but it will be a good thing.