I can remember it so vividly, looking at you for the first time and marvelling that you were strangers, perfect strangers, that everything about you was so new – your skin, peach-fine, peach-soft, your eyes unfocused, the seashells of your ears. And I can remember thinking how strange our voices must seem, out of the water, and wondering if you knew us any better than we knew you. Everything about you was a surprise to me, and yet you felt so familiar as you nestled against my body; the shape of you, the way that you kicked your legs out and I knew, I knew exactly how that felt on the inside of me, and all at once I was so glad to have you but so sorry that my time of carrying you had passed.
And I remember so clearly the weight of you as you slept on my chest and the soft rise and fall of your baby breaths. Your hearts beat beneath my palms and I marvelled that I had grown those, and that days ago they had beat within me. My baby Olympia, you lived on my nipples and howled ferociously whenever you were disentangled and passed to somebody else. Embla, you didn’t miss me; you and your mama have something so special and I have loved watching you become her own ‘wrap baby’, her little kangaroo.
Midnight feeds. One-ay-em feeds. TWO-ay-em feeds. Just me and you and a chorus of birds outside in the trees and the promise of the sun beginning to rise above the school opposite our garden. I remember waiting to resent these middle-of-the-night wakings, searching my mind for hints of anger, and snuggling back down with you in my arms, the tickle of your hair against my chin. Everything was perfect. Mornings. A last kiss and a LAST-last kiss, and how unnatural it felt to hand you to your mama and walk out of the door. The way that you lurked in the shadows of my mind; the baby crying for her mother, who was working. Refreshing my phone constantly for updates of you and your sister. Were-you-feeding-were-you-sleeping-were-you-happy. Photographs that stung my eyes; photographs that made my throat constrict even as my lips curved. The way that spending so much time away from you made me feel upside-down, underwater, and how I would rush giddily out of the darkness and through the front door, snatching you out of your mama’s arms and holding you tightly, so tightly, and breathing in your baby smell as though it were oxygen. Olympia’s first smile, stolen mid-way through my second week back in the office, a lopsided thing that made me want to laugh and to weep because oh, you were growing and I was missing it.
Embla, impossible fairy child, you were so small. You bewitched your mama. She tells me that you have given her everything she might have hoped for from a biological child, and you live in her wraps and slings, in her arms, your little fingers intertwined through her hair, through her necklace, fiddling with her buttons and the detailing on her dress. We laugh about your ‘summoning hands’, how you bounce upright on your knees whenever we come into your line of vision and outstretch your arms as though you were reaching for the sun, twinkle-starring your fingers as you implore us with your eyes. You laugh whenever we speak to you, startled and full of joy.
You grew. And it startled me every time. Sometimes I worried that with all of the time that I spent documenting you, I failed to experience you, and then I would breathe you in again and feel my heartbeat settle, and the rest of my evening would be taken up with editing one-handedly with small, sweet, insistent you feeding in my lap. Embla, my firstborn daughter. Olympia, my end-on-a-high.
I wish that one could capture memories like photographs, to wear proudly in lockets around one’s neck. I wish that words were enough, that video was enough. I wish that I could bottle that feeling, the way that your first year has been the happiest and the saddest of my life, that your existence and my absence has been like living the sweetest bruise. And nothing rivals the joy that I feel in waking up to you and to your brothers on a Saturday morning.
[Olympia, five months old, sets her jaw and hauls herself across the floor to her brother’s pizza, and ignoring his howls of dismay, jams a fistful into her tiny mouth. Olympia, six months to the day, pulls herself into a stand to stare with her brothers at the rain splattering the window and pattering to the pavement beneath. Nine months old, Olympia walks across a room and falls, triumphantly, into my arms. Ten months, Olympia solves the problem of the closed door by dragging a chair beneath it. She climbs up and turns the handle to pull it open, before letting herself back down and sauntering out of the room. A smirk plays about her tiny lips as she up-ends the dog’s water on her way to clamber up the stairs.]
[Embla Wilde, four months old and with eyes like saucers, like tiny planets taking over her face, has learnt to create tsunamis in the bath. The way that we have called her Piggy Wigglesworth for so long now that her brothers introduce her to strangers as ‘Emmy Wiggles’. Her favourite weaning food: paper, delicious, illicit paper, tucked away in her bulging hamster cheeks, and how ten minutes after her sister has wandered away from meal there is Emmy, plopped down where we put her, quite happily tucking in.]
So many firsts. And in the absence of post-natal depression this time around I felt every one of them, whether I was at home to feel them or at work. Your mama got your first laugh, both of you. Olympia, nothing has ever made you laugh harder than your mama biting your chin. Embla, you laugh when we look at you, when we speak to you. You love peek-a-boo. You love everything – except dogs, and loud noises, and being squeezed by your brothers. Olympia, you rough-house with those boys as though you are one of them and when we prise them off of you, worried that they have harmed you, there you are at the bottom of the pile of toddlers with your smile cracking your face in two.
I breathe you. Greedily, at weekends and in the mornings before work. Desperately from the office, photographs of you, anecdotes about you. My babies, my babies, my babies.
Embla, for months you refused to sleep independently of your mama. Hours after your siblings’ bedtime, I would come home to find you and your mama in the living room; she would be knitting and you would be on her chest, either soothed to sleep by her heartbeat or your eyes and your hands all trained adoringly on her face. She has been my favourite person for half of my actual entire lifetime, and it warmed my heart every time I found you there with her, loving her as fiercely as I love her. Olympia, you slept with me, my sweet armful of baby, until you decided one day that you could no longer sleep through my disturbance and when your mama moved you to a bed of your own, graduated in the space of two days from waking every hour (oh, my midnight baby, my one-ay-em baby, my two-ay-em baby, my witching hour little goblin) to sleeping through. And how I grieved those wake-ups then, as I knew that I would, how it stung to have you be mine for a few stolen moments before work each day and then no more until the weekend. And how sure I was that you would transfer your attachment to your mama, but your enormous baby heart swelled to accommodate the both of us and I was so grateful that I could have wept.
If you are a compass then I am North. You find me every time. And you are connected to me still; your cry is a red rope, a noose around my heart, and it hauls me close, into your room, scooping you out of your cot and against my chest so that before I am quite aware of it myself it is five o’ clock in the morning and I am awake, and you are unravelling the loo roll whilst I pee.
You have learnt to play hide and seek and you hurtle around the side of the sofa and crouch there, silent as a mouse, and I am halfway convinced that you are a genius because at ten months old, should you really be able to play hide and seek? And even as I know that I am being ridiculous, I study the set of your jaw and find myself pondering if this is how Mary felt. The both of you love to come with me to take the dog for her morning wee, tucked inside my dressing gown like infant marsupials. You take it in turns. On the way in, Olympia, you grasp the handle and close the door. Embla, you laugh with joy when you see your mama’s face again. You stretch out to her like a flower to the sun.
You eat like piranhas. You devour everything but Embla, the mere sight of a custard pot has you so overcome with excitement that you almost leave the ground. Olympia, if you share a plate of food with your sister, without fail you will snatch it away from your sister every time that she reaches toward it. You think that you are funny even as your sister sobs. You roar at each other, back and forth, like dinosaurs. You can make each other laugh so hard and when you are separated and then reunited, then without fail, my baby Embla, you smother your sister in kisses.
The nicknames we have given you. My Polly, my Pocket, my Poobum McBitey. Pigtilda Wigglesworth, Emmy Wiggles, Em, my Pig and her Baby Wiggles. Embla, you have a muslin with a rabbit face – Bunny Wiggles – and you will only sleep if you have Bunny Wiggles on your head. Olympia, you have no special toy, but you love to walk about a room with your shopping basket, gathering up the detritus that your brothers leave in their wake. You pull down the washing and you walk around waving it like an emblem. When you plan to do something naughty, you shout with excitement – and then you seem to wonder how we knew to swoop on you! Your greatest joy is in emptying our kitchen cupboards and your big brothers are delighted to help you.
It seems only the other day that the wide expanse of your babyhood stretched ahead of me and I was so afraid. Would I love you like I was supposed to, and would it be too unbearable to return to work away from you? I remember that after the euphoric, first few days of you, I felt complacent; there was so much time in which to get to know you as babies, to treasure you as babies, so many mornings and evenings and night-time wakings and weekends in which to breathe you in. And even as you grew and I grieved the smalless of you in the same moment as I delighted in your milestones and achievements, I knew that there was so much more of you, so many more quiet, perfect nights of birdsong and the babies in my arms and on my breasts. Even as you transformed quite in front of my eyes into toddlers, even as I held you one Saturday morning and realised that my Baby Olympia was gone and in her stead was a walking, chattering little goblin, and as I scooped up my sweet Baby Embla and knew that it was only a matter of time.
You will be one next month. A whole year old. And I wanted to immortalise you on paper as you are now, as you have been, because this year has been the most momentous of my life. I want to capture and to treasure each and every last minute of the last month before you are one.