I had been preparing myself for when my 3-year-old daughter walked into the hospital room and met her new sister. I expected my heart to both swell with love for the two of them, and also break a little with my eldest's realization that my love was now being shared. But it didn't break me. I learned that your heart truly can expand for another child, to divvy your love equally. Perhaps it was the sleep deprivation from my middle-of-night labor giving the day a protective fog, but I sailed through that moment with ease. Even when my daughter leaned over and kissed her sister's head for the first time, I remained dry-eyed.
But when I walked through the door after giving birth to my second child, I wasn't prepared for how I'd now see my first. As my 3-year-old stood at the door to greet me, it was as if her legs doubled in length and her face stretched wider. As the bucket seat hung off my husband's forearm, her new sister small and silent beneath a blanket, I said goodbye to my first baby.
My husband and I lived in our house for a year before I gave birth to my first daughter. Before she arrived, the house felt unnecessarily spacious. The rooms boasted newly-waxed wooden floors, and an emptiness seemed to hover above them. But after she arrived, the house became something else. It became warm and purposeful. It became the space to hold her squeaks, her hiccupping sobs. The living room held her first steps, the back porch where she tried her first solids—pureed apricots that she happily smacked between her gums.
Even throughout my pregnancy she remained my baby. At seven months pregnant, I still swooped her up, however awkwardly, after she stubbed her toe during a game of chasing with my husband. Her long legs wrapped effortlessly around my widening waist, but the sound of her thumb sucking, the feel of her hot tears running down my neck, let me believe she was still my baby.
We tried to prepare her for the family's new addition by explaining what babies are like—they don't do much in the beginning, mostly poop, sleep, and eat. I also started calling her a big kid, but I didn't really believe she was one. Not yet anyway. I was tricking her into thinking she was, only to prepare her for the baby.
When I was eight months pregnant we bought her a twin bed so that we could use the crib for the new baby. I felt something pull loose from my insides as my husband broke down the crib, the wooden slats leaned against her wall, the screws collected in a small plastic bag for later use. My daughter sat watching from her green polka-dot bean bag chair, excited for her "big girl" bed to take over her room. But even with this big change, and the hint of losing something that was running through my limbs, I still saw her as a baby with her white metal railing keeping her safe in the bed. When I snuggled with her in the new bed, she still had that warm, baby smell right at the nape of her neck. I managed to convince myself that she was playing the role of big kid.
As I neared my ninth month of pregnancy, I explained to her that she might wake up one morning to find a family friend here instead of Mommy and Daddy. "We'll be at the hospital getting your sister!" I grinned with forced excitement. "Okay," she said matter-of-factly.
I spent so much time preparing my daughter for the change that was about to occur that I forgot to prepare myself.
Two days after my second child's birth, we pulled up to our pink house around 11 a.m. It was mid-January and though there wasn't snow on the ground, the conifers and bare hydrangea branches stood stiff as if guarding our home. I knew that behind the maroon door my daughter was waiting for our arrival. But that's all I knew. I had no idea how much my world would shift in that simple moment of walking through the door.
Still a bit unsteady on my feet, weak from the effort of childbirth, I stepped over the threshold into our small foyer. My husband placed the bucket seat down next to my daughter. The antique light still hung above my head. The radiator was still cluttered with mail, forgotten snack bars, and extra keys. You could still hear the sound of the heat tank in the basement kicking on.
But in front of me was a child I didn't recognize. She still sucked her thumb for comfort, but inside our house with the baby sleeping beside her, she sprouted into something new. No longer a toddler, but a knobby-kneed, lanky kid. The house no longer held her baby sounds—it was ready for something new. The stairs now creaked under her heavier, purposeful steps. Her shadows against the blue living room walls, cast by the afternoon sunlight coming through the windows, were now longer.
When I got pregnant, my 3-year-old was on the cusp of bidding her toddler years farewell, but I never expected the transition to happen so drastically—with the simple act of walking into my house. Even with the new baby I wasn't ready to let go of my first. And so, even though her heels knock against my shins when she sits on my lap, I still bury my face in the nape of her neck, close my eyes, and find the smell of her newness.