One of the joys of the end of the newborn stage is when the baby starts to show he loves his parents back. The first signs are smiles: finally they’re so unmistakable that no one can say they’re just gas. And they only get more and more expressive. By four months my son has a range of smiles. There’s the shy, half-buried smile. There’s the “whoa, let’s go!” manic grin, eyes and nose crinkled. His slow, sweet “good morning” smile when he wakes up from a nap. The occasional quirk of the lower lip that reminds me of his dad’s most unguarded expressions.
Sometimes I set the baby on a blanket with a toy or in his bouncy seat, looking away from him for a few minutes while I do a chore or check a website. When I look back at him and catch his eye, he lights up immediately, so thrilled to have my attention, and it makes me feel both wonderful and a little guilty. If a look from me can make him that happy, but I look away from him, it’s like I’m denying him happiness. I try not to think like that too long: that way lies madness..
My baby’s love is physical and messy. He reaches for my face, claws at it, pulling me to him with a handful of my hair. It looks like he wants to kiss me, but finally he aims his wide open mouth directly at…my nose. Which he sucks on like it’s my nipple, pressing his hard gums into it, shaking his head from side to side rapidly, leaving a disgusting wet feeling that makes me want to wipe with a tissue. But that’s how he wants to love me, so I let him do it again and again. In return I growl and attack his cheek and neck with slobbery, gnawing kisses that make him crack up.
Laughs are only one of the many sounds my baby can make now. He makes a gurgling goo and lots of vowel sounds. He will look straight at you when making these noises, like he’s telling you something you should be able to understand. I know I’ll miss these tender sounds when he starts pronouncing consonants and babbling more meaningfully, even though that will also be a new kind of fun.
Another great thing about a baby who’s no longer a newborn is how adventurous he can be. He insists on my holding him upright on my hip all the time because it allows him to look at the world from almost the same angle as an adult. He hooks his arm around my shoulder as I hold him, looking forward as if to ask where we’re headed next. His other arm shoots straight out for balance. Sometimes he leans into the direction I’m taking him, like I’m a ship and he’s a sailor pushing his face into the wind. When he sits in his bouncy chair, he concentrates so hard on his strong kicks. He can get a regular rhythm going until he’s bouncing as high and fast as the seat will allow. He’s like an extreme athlete or a gymnast on a challenging apparatus.
What’s best of all might be the wide-eyed, wondering way that he looks at the world, teaching me to find joy in the simplest things the way he does. I take him to the window when we wake. “Look at our bright morning world,” I tell him, pointing out the trees’ branches swaying in the breeze, the blue sky, and the squirrel scurrying across the lawn. If it weren’t for showing him the backyard, I would never have appreciated it like this.
As I go back to work, I am sad about missing some of these moments. The rate he’s growing is insane; every hour we’re apart is time his little body will use to grow and change and become less babylike. Every day he’ll be a different kid when I pick him up than he was when I dropped him off. I worry I’ll end up in tears while pumping and looking at baby pictures during my all-too-short lunch break.
But I’ve also felt bored and isolated at times during this long maternity leave, and recognize that getting out of the house and away from the baby is best for my mental health and my relationship with my child. What’s more, my continuing employment is best for my career and our family’s long-term financial stability. It also helps a lot to know that I have a good school to teach in, with amazing coworkers, where I can make an important contribution to help some students earn their high school diplomas.
These are intellectual consolations; I’m not sure they’ll reach from my mind to my heart in those moments when my arms ache to hold my baby. Maybe I should work to remind myself not to romanticize these first few months of his life, to remember what it feels like to be covered in spit-up, zombified with exhaustion, pacing the house mindlessly with a fussy baby.
I’ll always be grateful I got to have such a long time at home with him, so that we had time to not just fall in love with each other, but to enjoy that love singlemindedly. If this day had come any sooner I’d have been even less ready. Honestly, I’m not sure if I would ever have been really entirely ready, if my feelings were the only factor in deciding when to return to work. But sometimes adulthood is about getting yourself ready to do things when they have to be done, rather than when you want to do them, because the world doesn’t run according to your own personal emotional clock. And there’s nothing like parenthood to make you into an adult, like it or not.
Mary Jo lives in Nashville, where she’s a high school English teacher and mother to a four-month-old baby. Her interests include zumba, YA literature, and almost anything that can serve as an excuse not to clean. She blogs at MeReader.