I can barely believe I am a mother of three. Hardly road-tested, for sure, but a mother of three all the same.
Jack is eleven days old and however hard I try to hold on to his one-day-old features, they are already fading. The little boy who felt so unfamiliar to me when he was born. I suppose that shouldn't be a surprise, we were meeting him for the first time after all, but his was a face I didn't recognise and it threw me. Max and Oli had just looked so alike, hadn't they? Induced a week early, Jack had lighter hair than either of his siblings at birth and he had little dimples on his cheeks. It was a face I couldn't see beyond. And perhaps that is where I have gone wrong, in even attempting to see beyond the moment. Childbirth can only be experienced in the moment and yet as soon as Jack was in my arms I found myself casting about in the shadows; looking to the past for guidance and reference points, already comparing this little boy to his brothers, comparing his sleeping habits, his temperament, wondering, was he happier or hungrier, thinking how long was it that I swaddled the others, or what soothing techniques I used?
Four years on, the hospital is the same. These peach and grey walls welcomed my first son, these pale green hospital gowns, warm from the heater, still have their delicate detail of purple snowflakes. It all comes back to me; the first tentative walks to the bathroom, the panic button by the loo, the oversized underwear, the constant checking of body temperature and blood pressure, the babies on clear plastic trollies swaddled in blankets decorated with pastel coloured footprints. I think back to Max's birth and how our lives as parents began, trying to remember the tiny details, trying to remember those first few nights, the specifics of feeds and changing and burping, trying to make comparisons that might enable me to take confidence, looking for signs that say, 'yes, I can do this'. And all the time, my mind is also casting forward; looking to the future, trying to problem solve imagined scenarios, wondering how things will work out. We are indeed lucky that Jack appears healthy. So many things could have already gone wrong.
Jack and I have been discharged. His features have already changed and he looks more and more like his brothers. I hear Max and Oli hurtling down the corridor to find my room. Max is running. Oli will be racing to catch up, angled for a fall which miraculously doesn't happen. They pile into the room giggling. Max is feeling confident but Oli takes comfort in his thumb, waiting to see what happens now. I grin from ear to ear seeing them. Their moon faces loom large, their eyes so wide and full of colour. I have spent the last 24 hours cupping Jack's head in my hand, his tiny almond eyes are all pupil, inky black. I suddenly feel every pound of Oli's weight when I lift him onto the bed, he is no longer the baby I had before the weekend.
When we get home Oli chuckles at the sight of me nursing 'Baby Dak'. His words come slowly and well punctuated: 'Baby, eating, yous, tummy, right?' Max gets quite cross with the inaccuracy of this statement, 'No, Oli, he's drinking.'
I couldn't have hoped for a more loving reception for Jack by his brothers. There are kisses and clammy palms on his head. Yesterday Max barricaded him in with chairs around his stroller, 'to keep him safe'. Oli, too, seems delighted with the new addition, despite being ousted from 'my dot' and put in a grown-up bed in Max's room. It was something I thought we'd do a few months down the line but in the interests of everyone's sleep, the plan was accelerated.
And among all this, I feel towards the older boys, an aching tenderness, like I've cheated on them somehow.
'Stro Me!' Oli demands at bedtime, head down, bottom in the air, thumb in his mouth.
'Stro Me!' I begin stroking his back, and he pulls at his pajama top, indicating that he wants my palm on his back, skin to skin. My hand tingles a little from the rubbing and I close my eyes trying to seal this in my memory, trying to make this another moment I won't forget but knowing in my post-partum haze that my mind is not a tidy filing cabinet. 'Remember this', I think, because too soon, it will be gone.