Five years ago this morning I was shocked to learn that I was in labor with you. I knew you were coming, just not three weeks early. As the contractions worsened in the wee hours of the morning, I was told that by the end of that day, I was going to be a mom for the first time.
When labor was done, and the friends and family had all gone home for the night, I was left alone with you in a hospital room. I hadn’t the first clue how to talk to you, or comfort you. I hadn’t a clue in hell how to swaddle you. In the months leading up to your birth I had often reassured myself with the following mantra: just feed her, change her and keep her safe. Everything else will fall into place.
Little did I know on that first night how much my life was truly about to change. The person I am today was born when you entered the world at 12:35 p.m. on April 24, 2008. There is no way to chronicle every lesson I’ve learned along the way, but some engulf all the others.
1. People are unpredictably good. I had so many preconceived notions about how life should look before you were born. I thought I knew what my parents would say when they learned I was single and pregnant. I was wrong. I thought I knew how your paternal grandmother would act when I called her and told her that soon you would walk this earth. I was wrong again. I prepared to be a lonely, well-meaning single mother with my hands full and no one to help me. Friends, co-workers and strangers all proved me wrong time and again. I never felt more supported and loved than in the days leading up to and following your birth. I didn’t have just one parenting partner — I had many. I learned that though judgment exists, the world is full of kind people who just want to do the right thing.
2. Life is fleeting. Just shy of your second birthday, you lost your grandfather. He was not related to you by blood but established himself as an integral part of your young life. As he struggled with terminal cancer and the side effects of chemotherapy and radiation, he watched you with pride as you took your first steps, said your first words and explored your new world. He always made time to hold you. To hug you. To tell you he loved you. As I moved through life at seemingly warp speed, juggling my financial and parental responsibilities to you, he stood as a reminder of what life lived as a parent — of any kind — should look like. I learned to slow down. I learned to snuggle you for no reason at all. I learned not to wish away the challenging moments of your development because at any second, our time together could end. I learned that life is precious and you being in mine was the greatest gift I’d ever received.
3. Adventures lurk around every corner. We spent your entire third year adjusting to life in the big city of Chicago. We lived in a just a one-bedroom apartment but were rich in culture as we walked to parks, museums, libraries and down the parade route from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Sometimes we had no idea where we wanted to end up but enjoyed the journey just the same. We made new friends in the dozens, ate giant pizza slices and snuggled together in my big bed on the very cold Chicago nights. In a very quiet moment one night you put your head close to me and seemed to inhale my hair. I laughed and asked you what I smelled like and you said simply and contently, “My mom.” I knew in that moment that I could be in any city in the world and I’d be complete if you were there too.
4. Families are built, not born. We traded in our Windy City days to return to our roots as a team: Florida. When I gained a husband, you gained two siblings overnight. You went from being my one and only to an equally important piece of a larger family puzzle. I worried that you might resent the new arrangement. I wondered how you might respond to a father figure in your life after over three years without one. More than once I asked myself if the steps I was taking were good for you — if they were good for us as a duo. What I learned through your example was that there was plenty of room in our lives for more members of our family. Not only was there room, but you flourished in a larger family setting. You took every new complication in stride and showed me that family bonds are earned, not given.
5. There is always room for more love. Just when I thought there was not one more ounce of energy left for love in my life, your baby sister came along. This past year has been full of sleepless nights and difficult moments (at times) for me. More than once I’ve promised to tuck you in, only to get called away by a crying baby with more immediate needs. While I’ve had to slice and dice my attention even thinner in tangible ways, my heart has grown fuller. My love for your sister, and step siblings, has not taken away from my love for you; in contrast, it has helped me reach new depths of caring for each of you as individuals.
I watch my youngest double fist corn casserole and shove it in her mouth, and I remember the little girl who used to do the same thing with mashed potatoes. I watch your little sister jumping in her horsey seat, laughing loudly, and my mind goes back to my other little girl in a different version of the same toy, laughing without abandon as she bounced. I often wonder what happened to that little baby girl and how the time has escaped so quickly.
More often though I wonder what happened to the young woman who had never really considered being a mom before she realized that she was actually going to become one. If I could go back to the day that terrified woman looked down at a positive pregnancy test and tell her one thing, it would be this: Your baby is going to be wonderful, and so are you.
If she let me stick around for another piece of advice, I’d add in the following: Life as you know it is going to change, but in more fantastic ways than you can imagine. You may not notice the changes in your everyday routine because they will be gradual. It will only be when you look back in one year, in five years, in twenty years, and beyond, that you realize the true meaning of a life transformed because there was a child in it.
Happy fifth birthday, Emilia Grace. Thank you for being my sunshine this past half-decade and for letting me shine too as your mom.
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