My little guy loves to stroke my arms. And snuggle his face into my neck. “You smell good,” he says, looking up at me with his liquid brown eyes, “Your skin is soft.” His apple cheeks lift up as he grins at me.

His little nose sniffs at me whenever he can – as I help him into the car, he leans toward me a little. When I sit on the couch looking through a magazine, he comes up and smells my shoulder. “I like your smell,” he says with a smile, and runs off. Jo Malone Red Roses. Tide laundry detergent. Just plain old soap. It all coalesces into eau de Mommy for him. Powerful potion.

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He rubs his small hand on any length of my exposed skin he can find.Over and over, with gentle, repetitive four-year-old rhythm. My neck, my forearm, my shoulder, my shin. I know he likes the feel of his mommy’s skin – which is soft because it’s getting older, losing elasticity, wrinkling a little bit. I used to love feeling my grandmother’s neck for the same reason – turkey skin she would say, and I’d giggle thinking of her as Granny Turkey, but also because I didn’t know how else to respond, it was like turkey skin! He loves to feel it because it’s soft but also because when he touches his skin to my skin, catches a whiff of Red Roses, it means I’m really his mom, and I’m here, right next to him, for now and for always.

But I hate being touched like that, by anyone. Those featherlight fingertips running up and down my arm make my skin crawl. I can stand it for barely two minutes, before I take his hand in mine, pull him into my lap for a squeeze and suggest he build a Lego tower, or go find his brothers. “Okay,” he says cheerily, all smiles and brown eyes.

He’s my baby, the youngest of four over an eight-year-spread. We didn’t really plan on having four kids. As the story goes, I thought we’d kinda start talking about it… right when I discovered I was pregnant. We didn’t feel we were quite done with three (don’t ask me why, I really couldn’t answer without sounding like a kooky, mystical palm-reader trying to earn a fast buck), but theoretical exploration of having another seemed like the right thing to do. Let’s talk about it.

Ha! Man plans, G-d laughs… as I’ve learned only too well.

Even while I knew we were in for a wild ride, I could never have predicted the extent to which adding another beating heart under our roof would drive me over the edge! And he wasn’t a difficult heart to care for – easy baby, no issues with eating, sleeping, developing, growing. Thank G-d. But he was another live being, needing something, many somethings, from me.

Thankfully we all doted on him, took turns playing with him, feeding him. His brothers and sister adored him. Even if I wasn’t available, there was always someone taking care of him. And in a big family, the youngest has to learn to roll with it – more than anyone. Sometimes I couldn’t feed him right when he woke up, because his siblings had to get to school. Or his afternoon nap would last no longer than ten minutes as they and their friends noisily pounded past his bedroom.

And almost five years later he still rolls with it. If there’s nobody in the kitchen, he fixes his own snack. He learnt to dress himself way earlier than his siblings. There’s usually someone to play with him, but he’s more than happy to enter the world of Ninjago alone. As he makes himself tea in a sippy cup, I jokingly say there’s a fine line between independence and neglect – but he has learnt to be independent because there’s not always somebody there to do it for him.JedTea

And most often, that somebody not there is his mom. I am schlepping the others. Or helping them with their homework. Or making one of the 800 school lunches I will make this year. Or being a mom to a 12-year-old, which is very different to being a mom to a four-year-old. Or I’m writing. Or reading. Taking a break from the chirping cacophony of “Mommy.”

Often I have no patience for him: his sister is upset or his brother is stressing about his paragraph on Mark Twain, and I don’t feel like watching the ninja move for the tenth time. Or I’m running late, and I shoo him out the door, but he wanted to go round the back and meet me at the car, and now he’s crying because he really, really wanted to do that. But I don’t have time for a tantrum right now, just get in the car. I don’t even listen to him as he wails, “You never let me do what I want to do.” I couldn’t be further away from him.

But he is always here for me. Urging me to be present. When the house is too quiet (it happens on occasion), and I can’t listen to my own thoughts any longer, I wander into his bedroom, and watch him happily playing by himself. He looks up, all smiles and brown eyes. I sit down on the floor and he climbs into my lap, buries his face in my neck. He strokes my arm for two minutes, and then I hold his little hand in my slightly wrinkly one.

“You’ll always be my baby,” I tell him.

“Not when I’m a dad,” he says, laughing.

“Even when you’re a dad.”

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