On a beautiful fall morning last week, I took my daughter to the zoo. I planned to enjoy the day with only her, away from her two school-aged brothers who demand my attention as soon as they get home. But instead of being focused on her, I was preoccupied by all the other mommies.
The younger ones.
The ones with toddlers and pregnant bellies, basking in the newness of it all. Wondering if their sons would be given brothers or sisters. Hanging out with other new mommy friends. Pointing out the biggest chimpanzee for the very first time.
It made me want to go back.
I’ve been coming to the zoo with my kids for the past 12 years. I pushed my first 2-year-old in a stroller as my swollen belly bumped the handlebar. I sat with other moms talking about whether my infant was ready to eat puffs or pretzels (I know, I know. Pretzels are a definite no). I knew that I could be there until exactly 1:00, because if I didn’t head home then for lunch and naps, they’d fall asleep in the car JUST as we hit my street and I’d have to sit in the driveway with them for another hour. When I look at these young ladies now, 10 years younger than me, just starting their journey into parenthood, it makes me miss the newness. The excitement. That predictable schedule.
But for all the reasons that I miss those early years, there are twice as many that make me thankful I’m not there any more. While their toddlers are arching their backs and kicking and screaming to get out of strollers, I have a little girl who loves to ride in hers because most of the time I don’t even bring one along any more. At four years old, she asks questions about the animals as we stroll. What do they like to eat? Where do they usually live? Does this one have a name? And if it doesn’t, she gives it one.
I remember having to wait in line for the bathroom, hot and sweaty, with a huge double stroller blocking everyone’s way out. With one baby screaming in my arms because he was so tired of sitting in his poop, and one baby squeezing his butt cheeks together in a Pull-up, trying hard to maintain the progress we’d made in the past two weeks at home. And then I remember having to change them both on the changing table, with all eyes on me because my 2-year-old was the size of a 4-year-old. And now, those boys are at school, going potty on their own, and because I no longer need to carry a diaper bag, my hands are free to hold my daughter’s hand as we walk.
I remember panicking when my newborn started to fuss. I had only a few minutes to find a discrete place to nurse or else he would go totally nuts, making my older son plug his ears with his fingers. And most of the time, especially at the zoo, the only discrete place I could find fast enough was in the bathroom on the toilet. Gross. At least now, even if I have to spend $9.50 on a burger and fries, every one of my kids can chew their food.
I wonder how those new mommies are doing at home with their husbands. Because I know when I was first starting out, I didn’t talk to mine much. I got mad because I changed the last diaper, so why couldn’t he change this one? I slammed groceries down when I came home from the store and saw that he was sitting on the couch watching TV, when there was a whole pile of laundry on our bed he could have folded. I yacked on the phone with my mommy friends, complaining about how he got to drink beer in a boot while working in Germany, as I gnawed on grilled cheese crusts at home. Now, when the kids are occupied playing ball alone in the backyard, we talk. Mostly about what the kids have on their schedules this week, but also, sometimes, about what’s happening at his work, or a new freelance project that I’ve taken on. We’re finally starting to reconnect.
When I first quit work, I felt like I had an endless number of years ahead of me — and going to parks and museums and zoos was a big part of my job. I didn’t consider then that the time spent doing this job would leave a dent in my real-job resume. But in this last fall as a stay-at-home mom, it’s pretty scary to wonder what I’ll be doing a year from now. It would be easier to go back and start over – without a care in the world but babies and puffs.
But there is no going back, and doing so would erase a lot of the amazing memories I’ve already made as my kids have grown. First steps. First chimps. First pretzels. And my excitement about our future outweighs my desire to push rewind. What sports will they excel in? What will they be when they grow up? Where will we go for our next family vacation? Where will my husband and I go for an adult vacation?
When will I finally write my book?
Toward the end of our day at the zoo, as she always does, my daughter asked to ride the carousel. I bought our tickets, lifted her onto the cheetah and stood next to her with my arm around her waist.
“No, mom,” she said. “You don’t have to hold on to me any more. You ride that one next to me.”
I hesitated, then let go of her and climbed up. And I held on tight, ready to enjoy a ride of my own.