Then we had kids. With a baby in the house, I no longer need to seek out a warm body: I've got one attached to my hip. The baby, my permanent lap cat, patiently indulges my every caress. She smiles when I run my fingers endlessly through her hair. Awake or asleep, we're both equally content.
No one prepared me, before I became a mother, for the sheer visceral pleasures of the flesh of the little body now entrusted to me. The delicious softness of a baby's skin. The familiar rise and fall of every plump fold along those dimpled limbs. The rosy scent of the top of a newborn's head. The incredible perfection of miniature fingers and toes. The familiar soft weight slung over your shoulder or working at your breast. And the mixture of thrill and pride at one day letting that always-growing body slam into yours for a great big hug.
I never felt this way about other people's children. Still don't. Sure, babies are round, cute, and gurgly. I smile at Anne Geddes' cherubs sleeping in roses and pea pods just as much as the next greeting-card buyer. I cluck at passing strollers. But such appreciations are merely visual.
To hold your own miracle in your arms is another matter entirely (though adoptive moms feel this way, too, they tell me). Only then do you really get to know that little body -- every inch of it -- perhaps even better than your own. Knowing it so well, in fact, that you can lift your baby from her crib after a nap and feel certain that she's bigger than she was when you laid her down. And cherishing her so much that you're positively joyful to see her again, even though just a scant two hours ago your sleep-deprived self thought it would go mad if she didn't finally doze off.
What's most astounding is how quickly and deeply this enchantment kicks in. When I was pregnant, one of my many irrational worries was that somehow my baby would get "switched" in the hospital. How could I be sure, if the nurses took my child out of my room for tests, that the right baby would come back to me? Weeks later, sitting in the delivery room cradling my hours-old firstborn, such concerns vanished as abruptly as my labor pains had. Already the curve of his round, bald skull and the set of his lips were imprinted on my brain in permanent ink.
But I don't just know my babies. I crave them. Take diaper changing. The task gets a bum rap in the mythology of parenthood. And yes, by the time my oldest finally was potty trained (a few alarming weeks before his fourth birthday), I'd had quite enough, thank you. But changing the diaper of a small baby is oh so different. Like giving a bath, it's a stolen moment, another delicious excuse to feast your eyes and fingers with undivided attention on that sweet baby skin.
My oldest, that perfectly round-skulled newborn and former balky potty-trainee, is now 7. He has recently discovered Privacy, causing him to do things like close the door during bath time. Inspecting a playground scrape on his ribs the other day, I realized that I no longer knew his body better than a mirror did. He's much too long and bony to linger on my lap (though he tries). It's been years since I've explored his physical self. Of course, this is as it should be. But still, a mama can mourn.
Now when my 5- and 2-year-old daughters bathe together, I find myself watching them with a proprietary gusto. The kindergartner has the unself-conscious radiance and graceful lines of a moonbeam, and I still marvel to think that my flabby old body produced her. The little one has recently lost her toddler belly. Her legs are suddenly more long than stout, though her cheeks, thankfully, still hold the rounded remnants of babyhood. I wish I could stop the clock and memorize their perfection -- even as I screech at them to stop splashing water out of the tub.
Tonight is just another magical evening on the sofa with Page, my youngest child. The repetitious tick of everyday life awaits, but I can't move. It's as if her merry blue eyes, locked into mine, have magnetic pull. Her gaze never breaking, she stares and grins. Her eyes crinkle; her dimples deepen. Her little body quivers, fists waving and legs kicking with glee. I immediately stuff her sweet fingers in my mouth and shower the nape of her neck with kisses. She laughs and laughs. Can my mere presence actually bring her as much delight as she brings me? Impossible.
My husband, too, is reeled in by Page's spell. He comes over to nuzzle and kiss her. We all cuddle together, unable to resist these delicious little morsels of babyhood.
Paula Spencer is a contributing editor to BabyTalk.