05/06/2015 04:40 pm ET Updated May 06, 2016

We Cannot Go Back, Only Forward

You were behind me last week in the Target checkout line with your partner beside you and your new baby sleeping peacefully in his infant car seat. I was there buying god-knows-what with my two daughters and my husband. He was wrangling our 3-year-old as I fumbled around for my credit card while holding my squirmy 13-month-old. Despite all the activity, I noticed: Your red-rimmed, bloodshot eyes and the bags underneath them. Your hair was pulled back into a messy ponytail and you were both wearing soft pants and tattered beach sweatshirts at two o'clock in the afternoon. I found my card and asked how old your baby was, and you replied quietly, "He's a week old."

Instead of regaling you with congratulations and well wishes, the words fumbled out of my mouth before I could stop and think about how they might be received: "It gets easier. Someday you won't feel this tired." I'm still not sure if I lied or told the truth, as some days with my little ones are still challenging and exhausting, but it seemed like what you needed to hear at the time. There was something about the look on your face and the tone of your response that made me think so. It was a familiar expression: like looking at my own reflection when my first child was a newborn, and again after the birth of my second. You smiled genuinely and thanked me. I hope you believed me and realized that my words were rooted in kindness and empathy, not judgement.

Our brief interaction at the checkout made me reflect on how our lives are intertwined by these small moments in time, as well as think about my own experiences as a new mother. I remembered all the beauty, love, exhaustion, and pain; all the smiles and tears. The feeling of being so hopeful and anxious about this new life and all its promise. The fear, excitement, overwhelm, and confusion. How every phase felt endless as it happened, but passed so much more quickly than I can even fathom. Right now, I find myself mourning the end of those peaceful nighttime feedings, the weight of warm, scrunched up little bodies pressed against my chest, the sleepy smiles and those first hints of recognition.

My babies are so much bigger, and I'm happy that we're here. We've gotten to know each other and we aren't quite so tired all the time. Their sleep patterns are predictable, and I'm able to go through life without shedding tears of exhaustion daily. (You'll get there too, new mom at the Target checkout.) But sometimes when I see a mother and her newborn, it makes me long for those first weeks and wish I could go back for just a little while to fall in love with them for the first time and nuzzle their tiny heads. I regret all the moments I wished they'd grow faster and sleep longer because now we're concluding the baby phase and we cannot go back; only forward. It's bittersweet and I get a lump in my throat if I think about it too long.

A friend of mine wrote recently about how she'd reached a point of acceptance after mourning the baby phase. I can only hope that someday I get there too.

An earlier version of this post appeared on the author's personal blog here.