C. was conceived during hunting season: the gunmetal skies and barren woods of November. The deer were rutting, stags dragging their great antlers across rough bark. Once Daylight Savings Time ended, the nights grew long and velvet dark. What else was there to do but make love?
The next night I slipped into tight jeans and a silver tank top that shimmered like mercury. I pulled on my cowboy boots and went out to a dive bar with a girlfriend, drank two Margaritas, and danced to 80’s pop.
Meanwhile, inside me, the singular egg and seed that would become C. were making their determined passage to safety. Five years later, I look at my daughter and remember the circumstances of her conception: the liquor, the dancing, gunshots on the mountain, animals criss-crossing the dark woods, and realize she was destined to be a wild child.
They say the second child fills the space that the first one leaves empty. That’s why two siblings close in age can seem like polar opposites. People have been quick to pigeon-hole our daughters— A. is the calm, artistic, literary one, while C. is bold, physical, and exuberant. But this division doesn’t serve either girl and won’t stand up to scrutiny. A. adores horseback riding, and C. loves the writing table in Kindergarten. C. will curl up with a pile of books, and A. goes crazy doing naked flips at bedtime.
Last night I tucked A. in with her latest chapter book, granting permission for 10 more minutes of reading.
“Okay, Mommy,” she said sweetly.
Then I crossed the threshold into C’s room, where she was busy stacking her stuffed ducks into a tower: Big Duck, Same Duck, Ducky, and Pillow Pet all teetered precariously at the foot of her bed.
“Climb in, honey,” I told her. “Time for snuggling.”
“Mommy, I want a hug but not a snuggle tonight,” she ordered.
“No snuggle?” I asked, a little wounded.
“No,” she said brightly. “And don’t check on me, either.”
“Carmen…” I warned, getting suspicious. “What naughtiness are you up to?”
“Nothing, Mommy,” she replied with a grin. I tickled and squeezed her but got no answers. As I suspected, she had her own secret plans—to spy on her sister and sneak down to watch football on the couch with Daddy. God help us all in ten years when she turns 15.
Our youngest is already a skilled negotiator, continually jockeying for gum, ice cream, or video time. Unafraid to push boundaries, she demands marshmallows with maple syrup for breakfast, and when denied, asks for marshmallows dipped in honey.
These negotiations exhaust me—the constant power struggles and limit testing. Sometimes I put on the rosy glasses of nostalgia and dream of a pre-verbal baby, incapable of arguing for treats. To make my fantasy concrete, my husband pops in the one home movie we have of the girls’ babyhoods:
In the beginning, there was A.—7 weeks old and lying in her Baby Gym, staring wide-eyed up at dangling bees and butterflies. As we cooed over her tiny bare feet, somehow the obvious hits me as a revelation: A was born into a world without C, but C knew only a world where her sister was everywhere.
Fast forward two years and A’s a toddler in fleece pajamas building a block skyscraper besides Baby C, who sits plopped on the playroom rug gnawing on a toy cow. She scrunches up her face in a weird-looking baby yawn.
“Are you tired, Carmen?” I ask from behind the camera, an edge of hysteria in my voice. “Let’s talk about how much you slept last night, so Mommy can watch this video if she ever thinks she wants another baby.”
C. blinks her large, gray-blue eyes.
“Did you wake up every hour to nurse, Dumpling? And then, did you get up for the day before 5 am? Luckily your Daddy was willing to hang out with you so Mommy could sleep more.”
Daddy sticks his face in the camera at this point. “Wicked good sleeping!” he chirps in a caffeinated soprano.
For a good 30 minutes, we follow the video action from the couch. Babies bounce in the Jolly Jumper; A eats her first meal of pureed pears; Carmen totters like a mini-monster, walking at nine months. I remember that time was drenched in fatigue, but from this vantage point it looks so sweet. I look young and girlish, fresh-faced in my hooded sweatshirt.
So the four of us snuggle close watching tidbits from our past, excerpts from a former life that leave me with a sense of loss. You can rewind the video, but time only moves forward. I’m never going to be the mother of those infants again.
Then I hear A. crying beside me.
“I want to be a baby again!” she wails, not in faux melodrama but genuine distress. I pick her up and twine her long legs around my waist, wrap her arms around my neck. I manage to carry her 45 pounds up the kitchen stairs and nestle her into bed.
“I wish you were a baby again, too, sometimes.”
Right then, I want to go back into the Cave, before discipline and House Rules and fights over gum, back to afternoon nursing naps and beyond that, back to the rutting deer, the empty woods and the promise of procreation, our family still a blank slate, open-ended.