In December 2000, the back seat of my car was pristine. Untouched.
I was eight months pregnant. Still me. Still incredulous that I was soon going to join the demographic “women who have given birth.” I was aware that carrying my child above my bladder and under my heart, might be uncomfortable but would be the easiest phase of parenting. My body did the cradling, feeding, and nurturing, while I went on with my life. All the conscious effort, decision-making, and second-guessing would come later.
And so would the stuff.
The rear-facing infant car seat, installed weeks before the impending due date just in case the baby arrived early, was the first harbinger of the stuff that would take over our lives. Every time I returned to my car after work, it sent a jarring message from the future: Soon everything will be different.
At our house, a guestroom bed was moved out, and a nursery appeared. A mural painted by Christopher’s sister and aunt; a crib, changing table, and gliding armchair to welcome the soon-to-be new addition.
The arrival of a baby brought sleeplessness and worry, monitoring of poops and pees, and a whole new awareness of the world being so much bigger than me, and so much smaller than everything else that used to matter.
It also brought piles of soft blankets, clean bottles, and increased board books. It brought ridiculous gadgets with ridiculous names, like Diaper Genies and Wipey Warmers.
Some things came and went. Bottles and their cleaning accouterment disappeared after our baby refused to take one. Pacifiers went next after I forgot one in a pot of boiling water and it burnt to an unrecognizable crisp. The house smelled like plastic for days, but the firemen assured me I wasn’t the first.
When the baby became mobile, the blankets we had laid him on spawned soft toys, which in turn spawned wooden train tracks and giant blocks. Tiny four-wheeled cars lined up end-to-end from the front door to the back.
A second baby joined us. Tiny diapers and baby things reappeared, now added to the big brother’s essentials. Yellow construction trucks. More books, a few balls.
They churned out watercolors and tempera paint creations, five or six a day. I hung them with clothespins from a string I affixed to the ceiling separating the kitchen from the family room. A rainbow-striped rug on the floor added to the sensory overwhelm.
“Your house looks like a preschool,” my sister observed, which I did not take as a compliment. If my house looked like a preschool, it was one run by a madwoman who could create, but not curate. I kept everything. We should have bought stock in Scotch tape.
To hold all this stuff, a three-by-four-foot “toy table” anchored the family room, with two giant drawers filled with puzzles and games and whatever else could be shoved in there. By the end of each day, a Fisher Price three-level parking garage with a car elevator — the same kind I’d had as a child and played with for hours at a time — seemed to have survived a hurricane, with cars parked willy-nilly, upside-down, and sideways. Red and blue plastic train tracks, uprooted by a light tornado waited to be sorted and stored. Or not.
Around that time, I went with my pre-schooler to a new friend’s house. Watching them play, I could not take my eyes off the neat array of plastic storage bins on wall shelves, each with matching printed labels. Is this how my house should look? Every time the boys got a new play idea, the other mom made them stop, clean up the toy they had been playing with, and return it to its proper bin on the shelf. I made a mental note — Aha, that’s how it should be done!
Our house “rules” for cleaning up toys were only consistent in their inconsistency. Some days I made him clean up before doing the next thing, but most of the time I let it slide. After all, a car race he had toiled for hours to set up on the living room floor was too impressive to be taken apart so soon; surely he would want to come back to it the next day! We stepped around and over it for days until he (or I) finally had enough.
Twenty-two years after that car seat marked the end of one phase of my life, that first baby is graduating from college. His “baby” brother is weeks away from finishing high school. In the morning when he leaves for school with a ‘bye-mom-luvya,’ I want to chase him down (and sometimes do) to get a hug. In a few months, he will be walking out of a dorm room in the morning, living in a new city.
I know this much is true: Toys get picked up. Dinosaur jigsaw puzzles with pieces as big as your face get boxed up, put in bins, and migrate to closets out of reach. Legos are stored. Yellow construction trucks are donated to Goodwill or given to friends with younger kids. Toys give way to balls and gloves, then video game consoles and phones. What is left: discarded socks and size 11 men’s shoes kicked off on the family room floor. Blankets spilling off a couch where a teenager falls asleep watching movies into the wee hours. Shaving cream and razors on sink counters.
I limit the number of glances I make into my sons’ bedrooms. In one, the blanket curls in the middle of the bed. Clothes that might be clean or dirty decorate the floor.
And in the other, where my older son sleeps when he comes home to visit, the bed is made. The room is neat and tidy. Pristine. Untouched.
Laura Nicole Diamond is the award-winning author of Shelter Us: a novel, and Dance with Me: a love letter and editor of the anthology Deliver Me: True Confessions of Motherhood. She is writing a memoir about becoming a foster mom to a teenage asylum-seeker from Guatemala. For more, go to Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.