Although I've been asleep for hours, it only takes a minute for the subtle pitter-patter to permeate its way through my slumber. As a parent, my sleep is only as deep as my child's. My tired conscious quickly catches up to my sub-conscious and processes the familiar scampering of two little feet.
"Vivian?" I say, not yet fully alert.
"I have to go baf-room," the sweet but determined voice answers in a cadence unique to her three years of age and vocal experience.
It's our third time around potty training a child. It's our last time around, yet it is new all over again. Since our older two children were given strict orders to never get out of bed by themselves, the midnight sensation of having a child stand outside our bedroom door is an original one for us. We didn't intentionally change the rules for our youngest, we just forgot.
I elbow my husband who startles and then rolls out of bed to help her. As they pass back from the bathroom to the bedroom that Vivian shares with her older sister, I say, "Vivi, do you want to come snuggle?"
"Ya!" she exclaims and crawls up into our bed nestling into my side. Just like a missing piece of a puzzle, she still seems to fit exactly into the curve of my stomach. Like a muscle memory, both her body and mine remember that she once spent nine months inside this cove, followed by 18 months nourished from the breasts that settle just above her head. The last several months were admittedly more for me than for her. She wiggles her little legs and I rub my hand up and down them to warm them up.
Co-sleeping is a luxury that was never afforded to my older children, nor a gift I gave to myself. With them, I had worried that it would become a bad habit, or cause too much dependency. With their youngest sister, I now worry that this will be the last time she'll want to do this. In the past, when I was newer to motherhood, the days felt endless and long. Here at the end of this stage of motherhood, I acknowledge both the threat and promise of endless days. Now I know that the days are numbered in a way I didn't understand before.
The passage of time is the cruelest paradox of parenthood. In the most frustrating of moments, you can't wait for it to pass. These are the moments of splattered peas on the floor and toddlers throwing themselves to the ground. Skipping ahead in the books, you can't wait to see your baby crawl or your Kindergartner read a book. But as soon as the stage arrives, you mourn what came before. It's a different kind of ache because it is for something that is not lost, rather something that has passed.
I look down at the little girl who in the dark of night is still my baby and whisper, "I love you," and kiss the top of her head, savoring the smell of her clean hair.
She looks up and gives me a sleepy smile. Willing myself to freeze this sacred image forever, I add, "I'm so glad that you are here".
We don't have children, we are given them.
We have often said that our youngest child, our last child, Vivian, is a pure gift. Prior to having her, our hands were already full with a healthy and happy 6-year-old son and 2-year-old daughter. Things felt busy and full, but yet, not "done."
We always knew we wanted three children. Long before we understood that you can't plan everything, that was the plan! Now, we knew firsthand just what could go wrong. In our combined six years and four pregnancies of parenthood, we had struggled through infertility and having our newborn rushed into surgery before recovering in the NICU. He now lives with life-threatening food allergies, which keeps us on our toes. We suffered an early miscarriage and a devastating unexpected and unexplained full-term stillbirth before finding the courage to soldier through the pregnancy of our then 2-year-old daughter.
Making the decision to try to have another child carried tremendous weight, because we knew just how high the stakes were. Our hearts had been broken, crushed and abused and were now full of joy. Could we really risk it all again?
We had many conversations about this topic and agreed to enjoy our daughter for two full years before we made any decisions. But as her second birthday approached, so did the topic.
We discussed the heavier issues surrounding this decision and the lighter ones too. Did we have enough bedrooms in our current house? Would it be hard to get a hotel room as a family of five instead of a family of four?
But our tender yet brave hearts wouldn't let us be done. While the plan had been shattered, our hope for more children remained steadfast. Fine. We agreed that we would try and pursued two simultaneous paths. We looked into an international adoption and tried to conceive, trusting that something would present itself.
Just a few months later an answer did present itself by way of a positive pregnancy test. And nine months later, our youngest daughter, Vivian, was born.
Looking at her now in the twilight I can't imagine our family without her in it, or a life in which she didn't exist. She rounds out my motherhood and completes us, all five of us.
It is fascinating to watch the dynamic of these three siblings as it ebbs and flows. Sometimes the girls pair up and other times it's the older ones who stick together. Then at another moment, it might be the oldest and the youngest in sync with one another. They bicker and argue, but they share a bond of siblinghood that will last for the rest of their lives.
As parents, transitioning from two to three children has been for us the biggest of the challenges. We often joke that with her arrival, we became that family that is always running late and whose car is spewing food crumbs when the doors slide open. Three years in, I still haven't found my footing in this arrangement yet I'm very content. Being out numbered on the parent-to-child ratio is not only for real, but a for real force! It rarely seems that all three of them are happy at the same time and I joke that someone is crying, always. Things feel very, very busy.
And then there is her. In many ways she is our easiest child, and in other ways the hardest. She was given the most daring of our baby names, yet likely won't have a birthday party until she is 10. She tags along to the activities of others, and draws attention to herself in ways her siblings never did. Her socks are never matching, and her hand-me-down clothes are always running just a tad too big. I forget the names of the kids in her preschool class and hope I remember to sign her up for soccer. She's my sidekick for errands and grocery store trips more so than a participant in playgroups or music class.
She is the last of our three greatest gifts and the one who will preserve this stage of motherhood for me. I will parent her with a confidence I didn't have before. With my first child, I was always reaching and desperate to take hold of what was next. With my last child, I cling to time even as I feel it being yanked away from me. With her every stage, I'm desperate to freeze it, knowing it's the last. But alas, it slips away, just as another one enters. My mind plays catch up, while my heart is stuck for a brief moment, finding a home for the memory of what has just passed.
So as I gaze at her sleepy smile in the stillness of the night, I snuggle her a little closer. I know that this age, this stage and this exact moment will only be presented to me once. She can fit right here in the nook of my belly for just as long as she wants, because I'm just so thankful that she's here.