I didn't know what she meant then. But by the time Gus was a year old, I did. During that first year alone, I noticed five distinct milestones, each of which sent a small fissure through that intimate bond he and I'd had, and set him well on his way toward independence.
The Babysitter Divide Gus was just 2 1/2 months old when I first left him in the care of someone besides my husband and ventured out without him to get a much-needed massage. Throughout the 50-minute treatment, all relaxation efforts were thwarted by needling worries. As soon as I'd start to drift off into delicious oblivion, I'd think that something terrible could be happening to Gus and I wouldn't know it. When the masseuse finished, she suggested that I linger on the bed for a while, but the instant she shut the door, I was up and dressed.
As I sped home, my mind filled with disaster scenarios. When I pulled up to the house and saw that her car wasn't parked where she'd left it on the street, I gasped and was ready to call the police. I careened around the back of the house to the garage, and what did I see but her car, under the shade of a tree, where she'd moved it on that very hot day. I could only laugh at my wild imagination, more suited to action-flick screen-writing than rational mothering.
The Inaugural Bite The books said 4 months. So exactly on Gus's 4-month birthday, we did the whole first-solid-food production: the cereal, the new bowl and spoon, the pastel bib, and the camera. There was lots of resistance, lots of gagging, and enough gray globs on his face to make him look like a spa-goer in a mud mask. As proud as I was to get even a thumbnail of cereal down his throat, it hit me: That gruel was the only non-Mama nourishment Gus had ever tasted. From here on, I was going to be less and less central to his daily sustenance, until one day I'd be only as important as the sandwich-maker or the purchaser of Chee-tos and Dr. Pepper. The next day, I skipped his cereal and relished in feeding him one last all-me meal.
Bye, Bye, Sweet Caress I loved breastfeeding -- it made me feel essential to my baby in a way no one else could be. So, when I weaned Gus at 8 months, I was sure that our primordial connection had somehow been split. After all, with a bottle, anyone could feed him now.
Convinced I was in the throes of delayed postpartum depression, I ended up talking to a therapist. She told me that most women feel some heartache when they stop breastfeeding -- though maybe not as intensely as I was experiencing it -- and I'd feel that bond again, probably after my hormones settled down. She was right. After a few weeks, I snapped out of my funk and felt that familiar and overwhelming rush of joy when I looked into Gus's face -- all of this prompted by some random babblings that my eager ear interpreted as "Mama."
His Stroll to Higher Ground When Gus took his first wobbly trek across the floor, I was certainly elated, but now that my arms no longer served as his personal transportation device, I knew he needed me that much less -- and that I had that much less control. Not only could he run away from me, but there was a whole world of trouble and hurt awaiting him.
The first wound came a mere four days after his walking debut. He did a spectacular face plant, slamming down on the hardwood floor like a chain-sawed redwood. He cut his lip and bloodied his nose, and I was frantic as I picked him up. An hour later, of course, he'd forgotten all about the fall, and now I realize that it was important to get this colossal stumble out of the way right up front. "See, he's tough," my husband said, beaming, when Gus was scooting around again. "Just remember that." Oh, how I try.
24-Hour Separation When Gus was about a year old, a friend invited me and four pals to a free night at a country inn to celebrate her birthday. When I tried to explain to my friends why there was no way I could possibly go and leave Gus for an entire 24-hour period, the name "weenie" came up several times. In the end, I was shamed into going along.
Dinner was nice; I simply pretended I was going to head home afterward and peer in on Gus in his crib. Before climbing into bed, I phoned my husband and learned that Gus was snoozing just fine. "My guess is there won't be any permanent scarring over this," he said as we hung up. I woke up several times that night, imagining that Gus was wailing or calling my name (and that my husband, who goes completely comatose for eight hours, was sleeping through it).
I resisted the urge to pick up the phone again (my husband wouldn't have heard it anyhow) and was surprised at how the anxiety was supplanted by the delectable knowledge that I was going to get to snuggle in my bed all night long -- without interruption. Just as the sun rose -- and before I could start worrying again -- my husband called to report that they were both still alive and eating scrambled eggs. Gus hadn't woken up the whole night. "As far as I know," he added, sheepishly.
I spent the day savoring my freedom -- shopping, lunching with my friends in a lakeside cafe (and feeling relieved that I didn't have to worry about a certain someone toddling off the dock). I missed Gus, but I was also thrilled that I'd gotten past this separation milestone. As I drove home, I fantasized about all the new possibilities -- business trips without lugging along a stroller and my mother as a sitter, romantic vacations with my husband....Gosh, I thought, maybe I'm the one who's growing up.
Contributing editor Jeannie Ralston's last article for Parenting was "Making Miracles" (September 1999).