I read to my youngest earlier this evening, the pair of us sitting on the floor in his sister’s bedroom. Me, with my back against the wall, him enthroned against me, legs drawn up in a miniature copy of mine, one small, slightly sticky paw starfished against my bare foot.
He’s almost too big to fit comfortably now: the top of his head no longer tucks naturally under my chin, and my hand had to bend at an awkward angle so that I could read the words around his shoulder. At not-quite-four, he’s still a cuddler, a mummy’s boy. He snuggles and kisses and worms his arms up my top whenever he gets the chance. He still takes a frank physical pleasure in being close to me, and I, in turn, greedily relish the satiny, solid, smooth weight of him on my lap or under my arm, because I know he won’t be there for very much longer.
The move away from physical dependence happens so slowly, so gradually, that it’s hard to pinpoint a time where there’s a definitive separation. The days of pregnancy, a relationship so intimate and so intense that you feel each other’s hiccups turn to the early weeks of babyhood where time apart is limited to a snatched shower or toilet trip – if that.Only one of my children would tolerate any sling or baby carrier, but all three preferred – naturally, though, at the time, infuriatingly – to be held most of the time.
And then on, and on: through crawling, then toddling, then running joyfully ahead down the road. In the early days of parenthood, especially when I had three children under five, there would be days when my skin would feel as if it were crawling with over-stimulation. Breastfeeding, having a child at my chest or on my hip or clinging to my leg (and sometimes all three at once). Small fingers snaking into my ears, up my nose, tiny fingernails picking at my cuticles or stealing under mine and trying to force them up, vice-like. Arms vanishing to the shoulder down my neckline or up the hem of my top. I’d daydream of being alone, suspended in space, with no portion of my body touching that of anyone else (draw your own conclusions from this).
It is just so intense, the physical demands and constant proximity, day and night. It is so intimate, the wordless, unconscious connection: your heartbeat calms, your skin soothes, the smell of your body means comfort and safety (and food). You don’t notice the growing that happens day-by-day, till you realise that the babygro’d feet that once tucked under your elbow are pressed up tight against the arm of the rocking chair and then suddenly, one day, they don’t lie across your lap anymore at all. The other two still cuddle, of course, but a self-consciousness is starting to creep in. My eldest has developed a quick, reflexive glance around before slipping his hand into mine. He’s so tall that he has to fold himself up to loll against me on the sofa. He will, occasionally, grab my hand as I kiss him goodnight and tuck it into a Masonic grip of complicity beneath his cheek – but he’s starting, quite rightly, to pull away into his own space. Meanwhile, I’ll gloat over the unthinking head on my shoulder and the legs draped across me. Wrap my arms closer round the awkwardly lanky child on my lap. Squeeze that bit tighter the hand curled into mine. For as long as I can.