A year ago today I’d already been in labor with you for 24 hours. Nothing was going as I’d hoped it would. We were in a hospital, not a birth center. After 24 hours of laboring with no medication, I’d succumbed to an epidural. And then, in the late afternoon on January 4, after trying to push you out for 3 hours and you keeping your head at the wrong angle for 3 hours, I was wheeled into an operating room for a c-section. Your dad saw you first–your tongue was sticking out ( you still do that), but his first words were, “She’s so pretty!” You really were. You were a beautiful newborn, and so strong, and acted like you knew what you were doing from the beginning. Breastfeeding? No problem. Sleeping long stretches between feeds? No sweat. You were what the books call an “angel baby.”
Angel or no, I’ve never been a baby person. And, unlike you, I didn’t know what I was doing. So as my body tried to recover from that marathon labor and then the c-section, I tried to figure out how to take care of you.
It’s true that most of it is instinct. It didn’t take long to get the hang of diapering, even though I’d only changed one diaper before! It didn’t take long to figure out nursing, or how to tie you snugly onto my chest with a wrap. But it took a really long time to adjust to the fact that this was my life now—that my life was about you, instead of me.
When I think back to those days, I remember a lot of long, lonely days in our house in Denver, pushing you in a stroller through our snowy neighborhood, all bundled up so I could only see your nose and eyes. I think of sitting next to you on your activity mat, once you were a little older, and being bored out of my mind. I couldn’t wait till you were an older baby, moving and playing and babbling. I imagined making it to your first birthday, and how I would feel totally adjusted to my new normal of being a mother, and I would be confident in my parenting—I would know what I was doing.
It’s like your first birthday was this finish line that I was running toward, and I pictured myself getting to the end of it and collapsing in a heap, crying tears of joy and relief, like someone who just finished running 100 miles in the desert. But of course, your first birthday is not the finish line. Parenting will change as you change, but I will always be your mother, and for the next several years I will still be responsible for pretty much everything about your existence. I’m still getting used to this idea, this “new normal” a year later, as embarrassing as that is to admit. I wish today was a finish line, where I’d get to hobble off and have my blisters tended to, and get a massage, and eat a great meal followed by 12 hours of sleep in a cushy hotel bed. I’ve been waiting for my chance to recover, to rest, but the cruel fact of motherhood is that rest looks different now. Rest looks like getting to sleep in till 7:30 on a weekend because your dad gets up to feed you. It looks like lighting a candle and making a cup of tea in the evening, after you’re in bed. It’s not enough, but it’s something.
I guess if you ever read this, you’ll be old enough by then to know that I’m not very good at hiding my true thoughts. Other people are good at putting on a brave face and faking it till they make it, but not me. So this is the only way I know how to write you a birthday letter, to include the fact that I feel like a failure as a mother sometimes.
However, while your birthday does have me reflecting on the traumatic first few months of my experience as a mother, it also has me reflecting on all the beautiful moments we’ve shared together. Your first birthday is the official Beginning of the End of your babyhood, and for that my heart breaks, which is a testament to how truly, indescribably special and lovable you are, that you have a mother who has never really liked being around babies mourning the fact that you will soon no longer be one.
This is such a magical age, where you astonish me every day with something new that you’re doing. You just started walking last week, and it’s so much fun to see you staggering around like a tiny drunk pirate as you try out your new skill. You love to have me carry you around while you point to things and say, “dat!” so I take you to them, like you’re a queen and I’m your slave. You get really punchy sometimes and shake your head for no reason, and you have this wonderful dance where you rotate your torso and hold your arms out stiffly and clap in an off-beat sort of way.
You love to have us read to you, and lately you’ve been very into this “Baby’s First 100 Words” book, which is many pages filled with many simple photographs accompanied by their names, like a frog, a tree, a goat, a hat, a truck. As I point to each item and say its name, you study the page with a furrowed brow, looking for all the world like you’re studying for the bar exam. You love to play spontaneous games of peekaboo with strangers at coffee shops, ducking behind something and then popping up (!) again, with a huge smile on your face.
You’re like your dad in some ways; fairly content to do things on your own, but not a loner. You are super playful and get this very mischievous look on your face when you’re going to do something you think is funny. You like trying to place objects on my shoulder, my head, my face, my shirt, to see if they’ll stay there. You love squeezing stuffed animals as hard as you can, and have taken to carrying around a stuffed dog that’s about the size of your torso, even though it severely impedes your limited walking ability, so you basically use it as a crash pad. You love hanging out with other kids, and you often cry when we come to pick you up from the church nursery because you don’t want to leave.
Most of your tantrums involve food, and I must admit you get your hangry tendencies from me. Right now pears, clementines and club crackers are your favorites, but you also love the ube (sweet potato) scone we get at our favorite coffee shop—once when I pulled it out of the bag, upon seeing the scone you squealed, “Mommy!” excitedly. But you still don’t call me mama, which feels ironic and awful but I know better not to take it personally, even though you’ve been calling your dad, Dad, for a long time now. You’re starting to babble in earnest, as if you really are talking about all sorts of things, and it makes me so excited to hear you say more words (other than “ball,” “bye,” “dad,” and “up, up, up!”).
I’m excited to hear you talk, and to see you run, and to see you kick a ball and stir cupcake batter and sing a song and do a cartwheel and jump off a diving board and splash in the ocean and roll down a grassy hill and ride a bike and write a sentence and draw a picture and do a dance with your friends you made up—I’m excited to see it all.
And I’m excited to know you in it all, too; to know you as you discover your first favorite color, and favorite animal, to know you when you go to school for the first time and find your love of reading (hopefully!), and when you make your first really good friend and when you have the best time ever at camp and when you do something you’re really proud of and when you do something you’re not so proud of but learn from, and when you have your first heartbreak and when you decide whether or not to go to college and whether or not to get married and whether or not to have kids, and if you have a baby I’m excited to know you as you become a mother and discover all the wonder and pain that lie behind that curtain.
It is an incredible privilege to be a front-row witness to a person Becoming, and while I don’t always feel like I’m the best person for the job, I’m so thankful I get to be that person for you, to be your mother.
Happy birthday, Zadie.