Empty Arms

My baby is growing up, and soon I will have empty arms. It’s a natural progression, but all the same I’m finding that I’m not ready for it.

One of the silver linings of Sam having Down syndrome is that he has stayed small and portable for much longer than a typically developing child would. He’s going to be four years old next month—a time when normally a child is walking independently pretty much all the time, and it’s a fight to get them to even sit in the stroller.

But not Sam. He can walk independently and really likes to do it, but he fatigues more easily than a typically developing child, which is a completely expected result of the hypotonia that most people with Down syndrome have. So he will run like crazy or march along happily for a little while, but then he fatigues and wants to be carried.

And honestly, I haven’t minded. He is my cuddler, my snuggler, the baby I have loved to hold. The only baby I have really held a lot. I’ve never been comfortable asking people if I can hold their babies, and I’ve definitely never been comfortable simply walking over and scooping up a baby. If someone asks me if I want to hold a baby, I jump at the chance. But I never ask. So I have nieces and nephews who I love but who I have never held, simply because I never asked. Somehow, it has always felt like an imposition, so I’ve always stood back.

And with my own kids, Theo was never a baby who liked to be held. He liked to be with people, but he was far too busy to want to be held. He wanted to be down, exploring, doing. And on those rare occasions when he did want to be held, like for a story, it was like holding a bucking bronco, because he is—and always has been—in perpetual motion. His body is tense and coiled at all times, ready to spring into action. His arms and legs are never still, and he is forever flopping this way and that. The constant motion is exhausting—for me, although it doesn’t seem to bother him in the least.

But Sam is different. He is a busy sort in his own way, but he very much loves to be held and cuddled. If you sit on the couch next to him, he will immediately look at you with delight and scoot over so that he is wedged right next to you, perfect for cuddling. If you put an arm around his shoulders, he will grab your hand and hold it close to his body, to ensure that you don’t remove your arm. And then he will look at you every so often and smile, to let you know that he enjoys you being close.

And when he is sad or hurt, he wants cuddles. Even if I’m the one who made him sad or angry, by denying him something he wanted, he still comes to me with his arms up, wanting a cuddle to make it all better. And he buries his little face in my neck and nuzzles as he simultaneously pats my back with his little chubby hand.

So when my almost-four-year-old turns to me with arms up, wanting to be held because his little legs are tired, I have happily scooped him up. And I’ve silently remembered how I’m secretly happy that he’s ridiculously tiny, because it means I can hold him and carry him for that much longer.

But in the last couple of weeks, I see that changing. Or rather, I feel that changing. Chris and I have both noticed that Sam feels markedly heavier. He was 26 pounds at his last doctor appointment some months ago, and it wouldn’t surprise me if he’s now up to 28. He’s still a good 10 to 12 pounds less than the average four-year-old and about six inches shorter…but even so my back is feeling the extra couple of pounds he’s put on. And four years of hauling him around hasn’t done my back any favors. I often wake up in the wee hours of the morning aching and unable to go back to sleep because of it.

And so in the not-too-distant future, I’m going to have to stop carrying him around. When he turns to me with arms outstretched and says, “Mama, up!” I’m going to have to turn him down. And that breaks my heart just a little bit, because I have loved being able to hold him, carry him, cuddle him.

As if that wasn’t enough to make me melancholy, I realized the other day that my arms may be empty from here on. The only babies filling them in the future would be grandbabies, and Sam can’t have children. (Virtually all males with Down syndrome are sterile, a fact which I find very sad.) And Theo…well, he is such an enigma that I don’t know what the future will bring for him, family-wise. I want him to be happy, and if that means he has children, then wonderful. But given his personality, I could very easily see Theo finding his happiness and fulfillment in areas that have nothing to do with raising children. Chris and I joke that he’ll be “off climbing the Himalayas,” but it’s really only half joking—he has wide-ranging and often unconventional interests, and I’m not sure he’ll necessarily ever want to settle into a parenting life. And if he doesn’t, that’s fine—it’s his choice. But it does mean that when I stop holding his little brother, my arms may be forever empty.

And wow, I’m just not sure I’m ready for that yet.

How much longer will I have this?
How much longer will I have this?

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