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The Grief in Growing Up

06/10/2015 08:28 am ET | Updated Jun 10, 2016
Catherine Naja

Last night, I put my littlest baby girl in her own bed, in her own room, for the first time.

I should have been happy. Happy she's growing up. Happy to have my own room back. Happy I don't have to worry about my husband snoring her awake in the middle of the night. It marks the beginning of the end of so many sleepless nights and early mornings. In real life, this is where I'd insert a joke about how I haven't slept through the night in five years, and how great this move will be because if I put Desitin on my toothbrush one more time during the hazy edges of the day, my mouth is going to suffer an identity crisis.

But as I laid her in her bed and walked away last night, all I could feel was a gripping sense of loss.

It starts the moment a baby is born. After being a physical, real part of me for almost a year, suddenly she's not. They cut the cord, and the process begins. In no time, she's sleeping out of my arms and in a whole different part of the house. Soon, she'll be running off to school. One day, she'll move out and start her own life, her own family.

It's natural. It's good. It's the process of life. But for a moment, when the Band-Aid starts to rip, it feels a lot like grief.

Of course I want my kids to be happy, adjusted, independent people. (And of course I'd like to return to standard bedroom behavior with my husband... you know, like rolling over in my sleep without stirring her into a two-hour state of alert.) I have been through the early stages of this process with two other children already. Why does every milestone still carry such a burning ache in the background of our happiness?

My heart is swelling for their accomplishments. They're becoming their own little people, preparing to stand on their own feet in the world. As a mother, I'm reassured that they're developing, that their brand new timelines are forging ahead. And yet, there's this villainous voice in the pit of my chest that's wailing to me that they're leaving, crying frantically to stop the train. This is the beginning, and one day, they won't need me at all anymore.

It's a good thing. It's. A. Good. Thing. And in a week or a year I may not even remember feeling this way. In fact, my little one is still a terrible sleeper, so I got two and a half hours in the middle of the night to mull this all over, drinking in her warm baby softness and only occasionally imploring her to go ahead and grow into a sleep-through-the-night phase already.

As I held her, I realized that all the photos in the world can never preserve this. I try to write things down and hoard mementos, but there's no way to bottle the way she feels in my arms or the way I get lost in her smiling eyes as she coos to me.

All I can do is soak it in while the moment is still alive, and remind myself, for instance, that the first showing of those two little bottom teeth isn't just heralding the end of the sweet, gummy baby smile. It's also the beginning of a smile that will tell me she loves me, that will tell the world who she is, that will one day kiss the love of her life.

They're changing and growing away from us every day. And it's true that this, in itself, is a wonderful thing.

But today, I'm letting myself feel that hollow grief, the loss of this little snippet of babyhood. I'll let myself feel it again when my 2-year-old doesn't want to hold my hand to go down the steps, or when they run away from me to play with their classmates, or on that day down the road when the air sucks out of my universe and they leave for college.

It's there. I see its glare reflecting off of so many happy memories. I feel its burn in my throat. There's a tear in my eye knowing I won't always be needed as much as I am today, but there's also a smile on my face, because I know it's good. Soon, the Band-Aid will be torn off completely, and the skin underneath will cool and heal -- still there, and changed perhaps, but better off. We will press on with our little lives, knowing every bit of change also marks the beginning of a new era of firsts in our ever-evolving relationships.

The initial one that comes to mind? The era of not keeping Desitin in the bathroom.

catherine naja

This post first appeared on Choking On Applesauce.

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