The last baby.
These words are spoken by parents with so many emotions attached. Sadness, relief, hope, uncertainty. Whether a family is wishing for one, planning for one, or surprised by one, youngest children stir up big feelings for parents.
Our family falls into the category of "surprise last baby."
Infant-obsessed since my Barbie days, I always planned to widely space out my family so we were in the baby stage for many years. When our three children were born in a 24-month span — a singleton followed exactly two years later by twins — nothing happened as planned. My "last baby" ended up being two babies, born while my first was still a baby himself. We had three kids in diapers, three kids running in opposite directions, and three kids who didn't sleep through the night.
Three under three was hard, though there was a lot of joy, too. I convinced myself that it was fine that we breezed through three concurrent "baby stages" and barreled right into school-age before I even caught my breath. I love all my children, but there wasn't much time to actually sit and cherish them as babies. It was more of an all-hands-on-deck situation. Often, that deck was the poop deck.
We called our family complete. The expense and time commitment of three kids is a lot, and to be honest, three was more than most of our friends already had. And it was undeniable how much easier things got with our children once they left babyhood, as they grew in independence and required less supervision.
Yet I couldn't shake the idea that someone was missing.
Shortly before our big kids turned 5 and 7, our youngest daughter joined our family through an unexpected kinship adoption. As my big kids gazed down at the tiny newborn, I felt the tumblers of my heart click into place. We dubbed our newest addition "our little exclamation point" to signify both her surprise arrival and her role as the capstone of our family. Everyone was here; this was our family.
Before she was even a month old, my three big kids went off to school, leaving me home with just a newborn. A freelance journalist, I expected the school year to be filled with 40 hours per week of writing while my kids were in school. Instead, I found myself with an unexpected gift: time to cherish my last baby.
I had been home with a newborn before, yet everything felt different about this journey. When our eldest was my only, I was so anxious. I worried about every gurgle, every red bump in the diaper area.
But time and experience had eased my mothering anxieties. Nothing but time could do this—no blog or book or class. We grow into our role of mothering and increase our confidence simply through living it. I delighted in actually being able to cherish this baby, without all of the fears that dampened my joy the first time around.
As the year marched on though, I began to wonder if we are truly able to cherish our last baby. Babyhood is such a fleeting stage to grasp at, and these little souls wait for no one as they achieve milestone after milestone.
For as many moments as I found myself snuggled on the couch with my daughter, I found myself waking her up to go get "the bigs," as we began to call them, from school. As many times as I tried to "sleep when the baby slept," I was called into conference calls for work or asked to come help at book fairs and class parties. Before I knew it, I was once again packing away the tiny clothes and opening bins of hand-me-downs in ever-growing sizes.
I had my moments to cherish, absolutely. The knowledge of how ephemeral babyhood is allowed me to navigate the hard stages with the end in mind.
I sat up rocking her at 2 a.m., knowing that in a blink she would be brushing her teeth and climbing into a toddler bed all by herself. This big picture allowed me to enjoy the quiet stillness of the night in my rocker for what it was: a season. Friends find it hard to believe, but I truly experienced some sadness when she began sleeping through the night shortly before her first birthday.
I loved walking her through the mall or park in the stroller. Moms of older kids would stop and fuss over her or offer a tidbit of advice and commentary on babyhood. I rarely noted to them that she was our fourth baby, and smiled as I accepted their well wishes.
One mother in particular touched my heart.
As I stood at the changing table in a public bathroom, navigating a particularly tricky diaper situation and a screaming baby, a woman came in with a toddler and a very pregnant belly. She smiled, offered me a hand, and teared up as she shared just how fast it had gone with her first, and how worried she was about adding a second. She added those ever-familiar words, "Cherish this time with just her."
In that moment, I chose to divulge that this sweet child was our fourth, and that I understood every one of the feelings behind her glistening eyes. She was entering that huge leap when your first baby becomes the big kid, and all of the changes that go along with that. Her time to cherish just him was coming to an end—with a joyous reason—but an end nonetheless.
I've come to the conclusion that cherishing your last baby is an imperfect art at best. Life moves faster with more children, and youngest kiddos race to keep up with their big siblings. Our baby will be a "toddler" any day now as the three "bigs" cheer on her wobbly attempts to stand and cruise. She wants a fork like them, a big-kid cup like them, and she wants to play with intricate, minuscule toys like them.
She's loud and opinionated and makes sure no one loses her in the crowd in our family. She's a joy to parent, both in the moments I was able to cherish and the moments that blew by me at warp speed.
I am so grateful I got one more chance to enjoy babyhood with her, even as it slips through my fingers once again.
This story originally appeared on Apparently.