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For My Daughter on Her First Birthday

My daughter just turned one, and I keep crying about it.

It’s been a year since this little one came careening into the world two days overdue. After the drawn out births of my first two children, I expected hours of labor, pacing the Labor and Delivery Unit on the short leash of the monitor, squatting against the hospital bed.

I did not expect labor to take a mere four hours, to hit two closed military checkpoints before getting on base, to give birth eight minutes after reaching the parking lot, still in my pink dress and brand new nursing bra. I lay in the hospital bed as the NICU nurses fussed over my daughter a few feet away, making sure her meconium stained amniotic fluid hadn’t done any harm, and I thought–she’s here. How is she already here?

The nurse finally placed her in my arms,, this creature formed cell by cell in my own body, known to my eyes only by the flashes and shadows of ultrasound images until that moment.

One year later, her body is different–taller and heavier, with legs that bear her weight, a smile with new teeth, hair that I can tie into pigtails. My body is different, too–my belly no longer taut with pregnancy, but soft with separated muscles and late night stress-eating, my breasts changed after a year of nourishing and comforting, my face more lined and tired.

She steals food and toys from her brothers, sneaks forbidden items like Legos and marbles into her mouth, and points her fingers insistently when she wants something.

The change from newborn to toddler has been so gradual, building moment upon moment, that it seemed natural–it is natural–but when I compare her to the soft, sleeping bundle of warmth I used to hold against my chest, I feel a sense of loss.

Don’t mistake me–I love my little toddler. The second year has been my favorite phase with my two boys, when they begin to act like little people but are too sweet and naive to be disrespectful or shrug off a cuddle. My daughter’s personality is showing more and more, and it is delightful to see new aspects of it each day.

But as she embraces new abilities and skills, she is shrugging off her babyhood.

I know vestiges of it will cling to her for months, staying with her like the scent of the lotion I rub into her skin each night, but those precious, impossible days and nights of sweetness and exhaustion are over.

Despite their difficulty, I find myself missing them.

***

I don’t like the newborn phase.

I’m at the mercy of my hormones, crying constantly, feeling a sense of gloom and despair despite the radiant new life beside me. I struggle with the lack of control, with the surrender to the mess and madness that only increases with each child that joins my family.

Routine slips through my fingers, and so does my composure. When I’m in it, sometimes getting through life only five minutes at a time, I can’t imagine wanting to stay in those postpartum months. I take my antidepressants and grit my teeth and sleep as much as I can, rolling the stone of my responsibilities up the steep hill of parenthood only to have it crash down on my head at two in the morning, when my baby’s needs start up again.

To borrow the cliche, the days are long.

But this year, this beautiful, impossible, crazy year, seems unbelievably short.

***

My daughter’s birthday was a little different from her brothers’ first birthdays. They were both born in the same hospital in Los Angeles, their babyhood marked by the same landscape of beachside walks and grassy, year round playgrounds. She was born in the South, in a military hospital where the nurse put a warm hat on her head showing a parachute floating a baby earthward and the words “81st Airborne Division, Straight from Heaven.”

We had no family with us for the first days of her life. My doctor was different, my lactation consultant was different, my home was different.

What’s most different, though, is that I’m not sure if she’s my last baby or not. I’m not sure if I’m saying goodbye to babyhood forever.

My husband and I always said we wanted three children; now the question of whether we are “done” hovers over us, and I watch my daughter, wondering if I’m experiencing each milestone for the last time. It seems like a big deal to throw a first birthday party for the last time ever, to snuggle to sleep for the last time ever, to nurse for the last time ever. Truthfully though, I need to savor those moments regardless of whether or not my daughter ever becomes a big sister; we’re leaving her babyhood behind, and these milestones mark sweet places amid the stress and uncertainty.

A few weeks after my daughter’s first birthday, we will move to another state. Our assignment in North Carolina has not been my favorite home, but it will always be special to me because she was born here. It’s strange to think we may not return (then again, it’s Fort Bragg, and people boomerang back all the time). I will miss the landmarks of her first year when we move on, just like I miss the landmarks of our home where her brothers were born.

***

My daughter seemed to know she was being celebrated on this first birthday. A little smile played around her mouth as she took in her presents, the cupcake in front of her. I’m sure she didn’t understand the reasons, but delight was evident in her face. She sat in the lap of my friend’s daughter–the friend who took care of my boys when I was giving birth in a state that is thousands of miles from my family–and opened baby dolls and musical instruments, snuggling and smiling and ringing her new toy bell. She grinned as I brought the cupcake and candle to her, singing, delicately sampling the pink icing before shoving her hands in and smearing it across her face.

She sat surrounded by the women who brought meals after she was born, was tripped over by the boys and girls who rubbed her soft head and peered into her car seat when she came home from the hospital. As we leave behind her first year, we leave behind this home and this community as well.

Unknowns are hard. The question of if I’ll ever have another child confronts me in unexpected moments in daily life, parading itself flagrantly on this milestone of leaving a phase of life behind.

Parenting is hard. The newborn days were physically demanding, and the days ahead promise to be no different.

Military life is hard. We leave behind the homes we build and the families we choose to start over, again and again and again.

But this first birthday, this day of celebration and remembering and love, reminds me that all of this is a gift and a blessing. It gives me a pin on the map to say yes, we are leaving this beautiful and difficult place behind, and journeying forward to more challenges and delight.

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