I remember that day clearly, like I remember all the other important milestones.
Dinner dishes still sat on the table with spaghetti sauce scraped across the plates. Now that it was early November, the evenings turned dark in the middle of dinner, so I got up from the table to turn on another lamp for more light. The older two children, Caroline and Elliott, had run off into the kitchen to grab a piece of candy from their Halloween buckets, while Leo squealed in his highchair, his excitement always fueled by his older brother and sister without needing to know what for.
My husband, Mike, grabbed a washcloth to attempt to wipe up Leo’s face, a futile task as the spaghetti appeared to have landed everywhere but his mouth. Leo squirmed away from him and reached his arms towards me, protesting “Mama!”
“Oh you think I’m going to save you, do you?” I joked, but really, the joke was on me. He was the baby and I was always saving him. But as I reached my arms to pull him out of Mike’s arms, he held Leo back.
“Now, wait. You want your Mama, you’re gonna have to work for it,” Mike told Leo. He squatted in our dining room across from me, his hands firmly gripped by Leo standing between his legs.
I raised my eyebrows and gave Mike a skeptical look. Leo was almost sixteen months old and still not taking steps, now my latest walker. I pretended this didn’t bother me but of course we all know this was a lie. Despite what we say, we are never chill about baby milestones. I couldn’t help but feel responsible for Leo’s delayed motor skills, what with my tendency to rescue. Still, maybe Mike was right. Maybe Leo’s motivation to be in my arms would work this time.
Resolved to give it a try, I squatted down and opened my hands wide. Mike slowly pried chubby baby fingers from his grasp until Leo was standing on his own. He paused for a moment, his spaghetti covered arms out to his side matching mine, his gaze fixated on the ground as if this helped his balance. Then he looked up. Our eyes locked as he flashed me a grin, two dimples lined up on either side of his chubby cheeks. His bold resolve to reach my arms propelled him. Wobbly feet toddled forward, more like a moving fall, into my waiting arms.
I scooped him into a tight hug, forgetting all about how messy he was from dinner. His siblings with lollipops in their hands cheered and we all laughed along with Leo’s giggles. He was proud of this new ability to explore his world. I was too. “You did it! I knew you could!” I whispered softly into his hair.
And just like that, the deja vu surfaced. It always does in these moments.
As I held him tight, my mind became a projector, replaying videos of the past. I saw my Caroline, six years younger, standing on the cold tile floor of our rental home in Texas, light streaming into the bay windows of our kitchen. I released her to her dad that time, my arms wide as she toddled away like she had been doing it every day. I held that grin of a mom experiencing her baby walking for the first time, pride and joy emanating from my cheers.
And then another image. This time I sat on the dingy carpet of our townhouse, a three year old with shoulder length blond hair sitting in my lap coaxing her brother, Elliott, mimicking my open arms and excited grin. He looked to me and then to her before taking those first few steps, fearless, as he is with everything.
It’s like this each time we reach a new milestone with Leo. My mind flashes a memory—same experience, but with the babies that are grown now—first giggles, first bites of food, first words, and now first steps. The familiar rush of triumph over a milestone achieved fills me with nostalgia. Memories nearly forgotten resurface like a gift.
But as Leo crawled off my lap, another thought clouded the memory—this must be why I keep having babies. This was why I wasn’t ready to press pause after two, why I wanted another chance. Not just to experience the joy that comes from another child. But because I wanted to feel that same joy I had with ALL of my babies, to remember them as they once were on repeat.
There is a problem with this theory, though, that suddenly devastates me.
Leo is my last baby. I know this in my heart as much as in my body. There will never be another first like this one. Suddenly the joy of nostalgia turns to pain.
The dictionary definition of “nostalgia” will tell you it comes from the root word “nostos” meaning return home and “algos” meaning pain. Sitting there on the hard dusty floor, watching my last baby crawl away, that was exactly what I felt—an aching to return home. What happens when I don’t have these milestones to remind me of the others? Will I never again see the looks on their faces, the joy in their smile, the warmth in my heart? What happens to the memories when they run out, when I no longer return home to my babies?
“Come on kids! It’s time to go!” I shout down the stairs to the three children playing in their room.
“Ok!” they shout back, followed by the familiar thump thump thump of their eager footsteps running up the stairs, pushing each other out of the way as they grab for snow pants and coats, boots and backpacks.
“Caroline, you’re gonna love school. It’s great,” Elliott, the kindergartner, says to his third grade sister. It’s a “first day” of sorts for Caroline as it’s the first day her grade returns to in person learning in 345 days (but who is counting?). The younger grades have been in school already for two weeks so I know how proud Elliott feels to have been the first to do something for once.
“I’m so excited! And nervous, but mostly excited,” she mutters while pulling her knit cap over her head and rummaging around in the mask basket for the perfect “back to school” mask. I can’t help but chuckle at the absurdity of all of this. First day of school and snow gear and masks. These are weird times we live in.
She rummages around in her backpack checking that the folders, the laptop, and the extra mask are all accounted for. I can feel the butterflies bubbling up in my stomach. Some of it is sympathy jitters, but mostly I recognize them as protective mom nerves. She isn’t riding the bus to school this year like her brother. She is walking with her friends. It’s a good responsibility for her, but it’s new, and I’m still adjusting.
“Ok, now you are sure you know where you are meeting your walking friends, right? A few blocks up the way? And you’ll wait at every corner and look both ways and not cross a street until you know the car has come to a complete stop?” I ramble to her with her back turned to me, not pausing for her answer. I can hear her rolling her eyes.
“Yes, mom. I promise. I got it. I’ll be fine.” She stands up and slings the backpack over her shoulders, taking a moment to regain her balance as it pulls her backwards with a weight she hasn’t felt in 11 months.
“You got it all?” I try to change my tone from naggy to cheery.
“I got it all!” she says again. She gives me one last grin, the one I remember from her first day of kindergarten, and the first day of preschool, and maybe, one day, the first day of college, nerva-cited, as we like to call it. I grin back, mine matching hers.
“Ok, then, have a great day!” I wave her off and she tumbles out the front door and down the front steps.
I walk down the steps behind her pausing to watch her skip down the sidewalk.
And that’s when it hits me, again.
The flashbacks, the first steps, the nostalgia. I see her at one years old, walking out of my outstretched arms, on her own, across the tile steps, padding ever so carefully, a little out of balance, but confident and proud. I hold back tears now, but not because I’m sad to see her go. These are relieved tears today.
I once thought there would be no more memories when the milestones ended. I realize now that the memories come back after all. New milestones will trigger old ones. Memories will return just when we need them, ready to bring us back home to our babies.
Now as this baby walks away from me, her bright pink snow pants, purple coat, and teal backpack standing out against the snowy backdrop, I know it’s a memory I will return to again. Maybe when her brothers walk to school alone for the first time just like this (but please don’t let it be the “first day of school” in the middle of a February during a pandemic!) Or maybe when she walks across the stage at her high school graduation. I’ll see her like I see her today, pausing at the intersection, carefully looking both ways, and crossing the street, carrying herself with confidence and pride as she walks out of my view and off to explore her new world.