Who was it that coined the term ‘bittersweet’?
Whoever it was, they weren’t talking about chocolate. They were talking about love. About the exquisite agony of complete, all-consuming love. Love so overwhelming that it fuses conflicting emotions: bliss with grief, joy with sorrow.
They were describing the state of my heart since you were born. Since I became a mother.
I thought my heart was full of love before you came. I have felt, have known, have given and received, abundant love – all kinds of love. But this? This bright, joyous, watchful anxiety… This arms-out-wide-encircle-the-world warmth; shut-us-away-keep-us-safe-fear… This heart-and-head-feel-my-way uncertain sureness… This filling me, draining me, teaching me, tiring me, opening-me-up and smalling-me-down… All this in the colour of your eyes, the flutter of your pulse, the tight grip of your little fist on my index finger…
When a friend tells me now that they are expecting a baby, my heart both leaps and lurches for them. Yes, they may anticipate the nights of broken sleep, the changes to their career, the new demands on their budget and the toys that will litter their floor. They might lather themselves in cocoa-butter as they anticipate stretchmarks, tears, veins and stitches. And, as I did, they might imagine changes taking place, deep inside, as they learn to respond to and fulfil another, utterly dependent, person’s needs.
But until they look into the eyes of their own newborn baby, they will not imagine the massive tear that will simultaneously halve and double them. Bliss and grief, joy and sorrow: every emotion forever with a shadow; every feeling borne as a conjoined twin.
Time becomes a cheat, the clock and the calendar no longer keeping pace. Minutes stretch and bulge, fat and full – crammed with small things that take forever. Long nights follow long days of long hours. But whole months are suddenly spent and gone. Past. And these hands that listened through my skin to your secret stirrings are now steadying you as you stand.
I look at your fat little knees, the only rough skin on your perfect, chubby, alabaster body. You have been slow to walk, crawling instead, fast and boisterous over our floor, wearing holes in your pants.
I drink in every detail of you: the tips of your eyelashes, the pores of your skin. Somewhere deep in my brain I know this little cherub on my lap will become a man. This soft down on your arms will turn coarse and manly. Your white skin will go brown. You’ll probably get big stinky, hairy feet. You’ll play sport and get bruises and might chip a tooth or even break an arm.
And that’s as it should be. You’ll make friends and share secrets. You’ll have arguments. And you’ll probably fall in love. Your heart might get broken. You might get a tattoo. And you’ll probably drive too fast, work too hard, travel too far… And that’s all as it should be.
It’s as it should be and it’s impossible. Yes, I want it all for you. I want you to walk and run and fall and get up and bruise and heal and trust and laugh and grow and explore and learn and love. But, oh, I want you to stay exactly as you are, with your warm weight on my lap and the sweet softness of your hair against my lips forever and forever and forever.
Oh, sweet darling, stay just like this my darling Little Little and let me hold you to me and keep you small and safe.
I wash and fold and pack away your too-small clothes: 000s, 00s, 1s… I am bustling and busy, but I stop. Still. I hold your clothes against my face and breathe them in. Then I fold and gently pack away my Little Little baby. I fill your cupboards with new, 2-sized clothes for my beautiful, big, strong, toddler. My Little Big Boy.
You took six steps towards your dad last night and we, all three, laughed and clapped. Your plump little body is slimming and you can reach the kitchen benches. You say a new word each day – sometimes two. Ball, car, cheese, bikky, daddy… One day you’ll say ‘I love you, Mummy’. One day you’ll say ‘I’ve got to go now’.
And that’s as it should be.
This too shall pass. My mantra makes the unbearable bearable. It makes the sweet bittersweet. And it compels me to linger. To hold each moment still, even as I let go to welcome the next.
And there it is, my Darling Little. I will celebrate every one of your precious achievements, big and small. I will carry you until you can walk. Then I will hold your hand to steady you, and be ready to catch you when you fall. I will brush off your knees and say ‘uppaday’ when you stumble, and I will hold you as tight as tight and dry your tears when you fall hard. Then I will steady you and help you to try again.
And one day, as I walk beside you, you will shrug my hand away and I will step a little to the side. I will be proud of my empty (ever-ready) hand as I watch you make your own way. You will grow taller and you will run and play and climb, as you must. Then I will walk behind you – and return, perhaps, to some of my own paths. And, one day, I will need to stand still in my doorway and be content to blow you kisses as you walk away.
And I will be full of joy for you. It will be a bittersweet day, as all my days are now. Now that I am a mother.
“Grown don’t mean nothing to a mother. A child is a child. They get bigger, older, but grown. In my heart it don’t mean a thing.”*
As our children grow and become more independent, we might become a wee bit complacent about their existence, lost in the daily grind and focusing on the world outside the home. But it doesn’t take much to realise how shockingly fragile human life is, and how quickly childhood will be over, though the connections and feelings that bind us will remain for eternity.
* Tony Morrison (American novelist, editor, and professor)