I dreamed last night that I had a brand-new baby girl.
The dream wasn’t all snuggles and coos—it definitely included some bizarre elements, as dreams do. I was, for instance, somehow surprised by the arrival of this baby, even though it seemed clear in the dream that I had given birth to her, not adopted or found her wrapped in blankets in a cardboard box on my doorstep. My level of surprise about the baby was palpable in the dream, but I knew enough to hide my astonishment from others. I calmly went along caring for her and showing her off to friends as if I, too, had been expecting her all along.
Because I wasn’t actually expecting this baby, Dream Me had to improvise a bit to get her properly clothed and geared up. A significant scene in the dream involved me pulling big plastic bins off a top shelf in an enormous closet to look through the clothes my two real-life daughters wore as newborns.
One such bin exists in a (much smaller) closet in my waking life. It’s filled with the tiny shoes, Easter dresses, and footed pajamas deemed Most Special, along with handmade gifts like the pale blue cardigan my grandmother knitted for my firstborn, with its kitty-cat buttons and row of silhouetted white cats along the border. But in real life, I haven’t looked through that bin for probably a decade—not since that moment when I somehow knew my baby days were over, prompting me to sort all the little clothes into two piles: items to pass along to friends having babies, and favorite treasures to carefully pack away and keep.
When I woke from the dream, I was filled with longing, love, and loss. This might not seem at all surprising to most people, but it completely surprised me. I have never been a woman who longs for babies.
Of course, an entire season of my life was devoted to babies. It’s a season I treasure and wouldn’t trade for the world, but mostly because it is a necessary season for all who want to have children who will some day not be babies. The Baby Season was simply the first stage of parenting—the inevitable season leading to all of the seasons that follow.
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Every parent, if they’re being honest, will admit to having favorite (and least favorite) seasons of parenting. Yet somehow I’ve always felt guilty for not being baby-crazy. It’s almost as if not getting the “uterus aches” that other women talk about when they see newborns knocks your womanhood status down several notches and calls your maternal instincts into question.
Don’t get me wrong—I loved my own babies fiercely. (For those of us who are not “baby people,” our own babies defy that category). But I don’t remember thinking “I never want them to grow up!” I loved the experience of nursing my babies (and I did nurse them each for about 13 months—does that earn me extra credit?), but I don’t recall a heart-rending pull as my babies began to rely less on my milk, eventually weaning without a fuss.
Instead, I was happy to see them grow into unique little personalities, with opinions and relationships and senses of humor. I loved watching them develop friendships and put feelings into words as toddlers, then problem-solve, create, and become more independent as they ventured through their preschool years.
During my daughters’ elementary school years, I was forever fascinated by the glimpses of myself and other family members I saw in my girls, and was equally fascinated by the many facets of them that seemed to crystalize out of nowhere. And the ways my two children are different from each other—two girls created from the very same gene pool!—has never ceased throughout the years to be amazing, refreshing, and challenging all at once.
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Today my daughters are 17 and 14, both in high school. There’s no doubt I’m in a different season of parenting. Along the way I’ve loved many of the stages—six and 18 months were ages I savored, along with their preschool and mid-elementary years—but I have to say the particular season we’re in is one of my favorites. It’s also possibly the hardest (teenage girls!). And it has occurred to me several times that those two opposing feelings—the love and joy as well as the stress and challenges—are in fact intimately bound together. Everything is intense, on both ends of the spectrum. Preparing girls to go into the world as women, sure of who they are and what they are capable of, is no small task. It’s both exciting and difficult, like all of the best adventures.
And as I consider last night’s dream, I’m also realizing how very bittersweet this season is—much more so than I want (or have the time and emotional space) to admit in the day to day. It’s more bittersweet than weaning my babies, or packing their tiny shoes away into plastic bins.
Yes, as parents we’ve been preparing our daughters for independence all along, but these are the years when it gets real—not only in how their experiences and our conversations will prepare them for what’s next, but also in the ways “what’s next” will impact me. I can begin to envision a time when our household won’t strain at the seams to contain the whirlwind of kinetic energy that exists between 6:45 and 7:45 each morning; when the pile of shoes by the front door will diminish in number as well as colorful variety; and when the dishwasher won’t be packed full after a single family dinner with everyone at the table.
It’s true, I’ve never wished my daughters could remain captured in a state of babyhood. But they are still my babies. No matter how grownup they become, they’ll still embody all of the love and longing of the seasons we’ve been through. And as we rush through these final years of childhood, the baby in my dreams reminds me that it’s OK to pause—to long to bundle them into footed jammies and enfold in my arms.