The Last Child

We walked together yesterday afternoon. The five of us.

Every year in early spring, we attend the Maple Syrup Festival at a local conservation area as a family. We all file out of the minivan, eager to enjoy the fresh air after a long, cold winter inside. Anna, my 6-year-old, skips and hops ahead. She is dancing with her boundaries. Seeing how far she can get before we call her back. She doesn’t want to wait.

Lauren, our quiet, gentle little 4-year-old stands by my side, squinting with one eye into the sky. Her face isn’t used to the sun yet. She reaches for my hand and stands soundlessly. She is okay with waiting.

My husband helps our 2-year-old toddler out of the car and puts her down next to the van. She stands still and grins at her sisters for a moment. She pauses, taking the moment in before she flees. She knows she has graduated into her sisters’ group. She is free. Her little legs start moving quickly while she fiercely pumps her arms back and forth to help propel herself forward.

She runs. The girls skip and hop and bounce. My husband and I walk. We go on our annual outing – this time, for the first time, without a stroller. Our baby will no longer accept her status as baby.

We follow the muddy, grassy pathway, past the conservation workers dressed in ‘old time’ garb. The girls run toward the tractor, their rain boots thumping onto the soft ground in perfect excitement. Their hair whips wildly behind them. We take our place on the wooden benches set up at the back of the tractor – ready for our ride.

 “Look!!!” Anna gasps. She points at cows and big hills and a pond nearby. Her eyes are wide, watching everything that passes. Her sisters shout out happily with her. My husband smiles at me over Lauren’s curly head.

Our outings have become easy again.

It wasn’t that long ago that the baby was younger and everything seemed hard. When she was too little for most things her older sisters wanted to do – but still aware that they were doing things without her and desperate to join in. When we had to navigate everything with a stroller and a big bag of snacks and spare clothes. When outings became a fine art in planning around naps and feedings and bedtime. When she was too little to be out in the cold for too long. Or in the hot, hot heat of summer. When it felt like we constantly divided up parents and kids – one of us almost always missing out. When it felt like we rarely went anywhere with all five of us.

“Follow me, guys!” Anna hops off the tractor when we arrive at our destination. She turns around and smiles widely at us, her small, perfectly shaped 6-year-old teeth shining in the sun.

"Lauren, Paige… look! That’s where we get the pancakes!” She points at the little hut teeming with people. Families of all sizes, enjoying fresh air and pancakes and syrup and hot cider. 

We are now one of those families, savoring the ease of our activity. No longer struggling with bulky strollers, worrying about whether or not the baby is going to cry.

Paige sits at the picnic table and waits her turn for a pancake. She is smiling the way she does – her small lips making a perfect upturned line across her face. The joy of today’s experience is unwavering for her. Her two-year-old face seems so grown up already. Her cheeks are still slightly chubby, but thinning the way her sisters’ did. Her hair is getting longer, shaping her face. We no longer carry her everywhere – she insists on doing it for herself. She takes her jacket off by herself now when we come in from outside. She is evolving. Sprouting up. Blossoming.

She is my last baby and leaving that stage so quickly. It is both sweet and sad. I feel both relief and melancholy about it.

I will never hold a tiny newborn on my chest while I lay on the couch watching television. Her little head won’t fit into the crook of my neck underneath my chin perfectly. I no longer wash tiny, soft sleepers in pale colors adorned with little lambs and ladybugs. I won’t spend quiet, dark nights nursing alone, studying tiny hands and stroking soft cheeks.

I will never again watch my child take their first steps. See their confused expression at their first taste of food. Hear their first words.

They will grow and grow, stretching upwards and moving onward. If I do my job right, they will need me a little less with each passing day. Just as Paige does now.

The clichés are true. It really happens so fast. As I pack away diaper box after diaper box full of clothes she is rapidly outgrowing, I realize I will never open these boxes to clothe another child again. I realize we will never need size 2 diapers again. For each hard stage I leave behind – the teething, the waking at night, the unsteady walking and falling – there are an equal number of stages I am desperate to hold onto.

I stand up, brush the pancake crumbs off my lap and watch my three girls walking ahead, hand-in-hand onto the next event at the festival. The older two are waiting for Paige. Helping her find her legs and move into the next phase of her little life.

It is beautiful and easy and sad all at once.

Paige stops for a moment and breaks her hands free of their grip. She turns around and looks for me, making sure I’m still there. Our mouths both turn up into a wide smile when we look into each other’s eyes. She reaches her arms up into the air for me, silently expressing her desire for me to lift her.

I pick her up and hug her to me, grasping hold of this moment on our first day out without a stroller.