My 3-year-old lays on her back on top of a white muslin swaddle blanket dotted with cornflower blue petals connected by twines of green leaves, my personal favorite from the newborn months. I am consciously aware of how much she has grown since it was last underneath her. Her toes tickle the edge while her mass of curls brushes the other. I spread the blanket like a diamond, and she is my gem. She giggles with her arms tucked tightly at her sides, waiting for what comes next.
I snap out of my nostalgia. I need to focus. My sister is on the other end of a video call, waiting patiently.
“OK, so this part down here at the bottom,” I grab the bottom corner and hold it up as best as I can under the weight of my daughter’s strong legs. “That part on yours is basically a little pocket for his legs. Slip them in.” My husband zooms in on the feet as I tuck up as much of the fabric at the bottom as I can. My little girl is so tall.
My husband continues handling the camera, trailing it over my shoulder as I talk. My sister, younger by three years, had a baby 10 days ago and she needs help swaddling. We live exactly 6.2 miles away from each other, but COVID-19 expands those miles exponentially. You know how parents say the days are long, but the years are short? They were talking about a global pandemic where space and time feel irrelevant.
I grab the remaining end on the left. “And, for yours, this part just velcros down. Again, you want to make sure it’s not too tight but really snug.”
She responds and we hang up in a few short moments. The requests to be swaddled again come fast, but this time they are interchanged with my 18-month-old, who also wants in on the fun. As I toggle back and forth between swaddling my two girls, I reflect on having a new nephew, my first.
It wasn’t always a certainty my sister would have kids. For her, it was a gradual decision that took time. Many people live happy, fulfilled lives without children. It is a decision I respect, and I don’t believe it is one you can be “talked into.” There are too many aspects of women’s health that are owned by someone other than the woman, and the decision to have a child is a deeply personal one that should be yours to make.
When my sister held my first daughter for the first time, I knew she would have her own one day. During the 40 weeks of my pregnancy, we talked about my daughter and how she would be my sister’s test case.
“I’ll see how I do with her,” she laughed.
She and her husband announced they were pregnant two months deep into the pandemic. There was fear as well as a growing knowledge we wouldn’t be back in our offices and in each other’s homes anytime soon.
I passed down every single thing we owned that could be of use for an infant or toddler. I picked through baby clothes and gave her the gender-neutral ones. I fine tuned my baby necessities spreadsheet, complete with links and notes. I wanted to feel like I was doing something, that I was there for her.
We attempted to celebrate her with a very small, socially-distanced shower, but I couldn’t relax the entire time. I was second-guessing our decision and everyone’s safety. I wanted so badly for my sister to enjoy and remember this special time in her life—a time she hadn’t at first been sure she wanted. Now, I just wanted everything to be memorable, perfect.
In her third trimester, as restrictions tightened again and cases at the hospital where I work rose, I cooked. I stuffed a tray of sweet potato enchiladas into a bag, added a second tray filled with cheesy pasta next, and topped it off with bags of homemade muffins, containers of soup, and an apple cake. Cooking for others has become my love language and my reusable grocery totes were brimming with love. I hoped she could carry love into her home along with the aluminum tins.
A call came in at 2:30 a.m. on February 24. Before I sat down to lunch later that day with my girls, they had a new nephew. I showed them the pictures of my beautiful sister with her son snuggled into her chest. My 18-month-old pointed and shouted “Baby!” from her high chair while my 3-year-old marveled at how cute he was.
As I flipped through the photos in between bites of cracker and carrot, a momentary lapse of sadness overtook my joy. I work at the hospital where my sister gave birth. It wasn’t supposed to be like this. I wasn’t supposed to be working from home. I was supposed to be able to walk across campus and check in on her, talk the nurses I love into giving her the bigger room, and sneak her good food and snacks.
I accepted the news of my nephew’s birth in the same space where I work, take care of my own children, cook countless meals and conduct countless bedtime routines. A space I had occupied for months with mundane and never-ending tasks now held the weight of this moment. It felt strange to know my sister’s life had changed so entirely while mine was exactly the same.
It’s a common refrain to say to a new mom, “Your life is going to change!” The motivation and attitude of the person delivering this sentiment can vary. But there is truth in the words. Having a baby alters life as you know it—it alters you.
But it doesn’t just happen at the moment of their birth. Children change your life again and again and again. With each passing moment, each new milestone, each new surge of independence, each new expression of love, they change how you see the world.
In the coming days, I answered texts about sleep routines, Sitz baths, and breastmilk storage. I laughed when my sister finally realized firsthand how useless actual baby clothes are (#teamsleepers), and I was reminded of my own transition to motherhood. I recalled the late-night texts to my mom’s neighbor—a nurse and mother of four—about whether or not to wake my daughter to feed her. I remembered distracting my friend from work with countless calls about breastmilk storage as I navigated this new task in my office.
Their support and care didn’t come from their physical presence. It came from their ability to fill the gaps in my learning curve, straightening it out to put me on the right path. It came in knowledge passed down and encouragement passed through the airwaves. It came in the space between the chaos and the newness.
There are more ways to be there than being there.
I desperately miss watching the shared bond between in-person connection, but the bonds of motherhood are not broken that easily. For my sister and I, the space created by COVID-19 was bridged by our shared experience as new moms. And just as the bonds with my friends grew deeper in our shared role of motherhood, so too will the bond my sister and I have as I help her navigate this journey, in ways big and small. He will change her life again and again and again.
And, no matter what, I’ll be there.
Krystina is a content creator, and storyteller fueled by coffee and making a difference. She enjoys all kinds of writing, including grants, profiles, healthcare, sports, lifestyle, and creative nonfiction, especially about motherhood. Her work has appeared in Babes Who Hustle, Baltimore Style, Multiplicity Magazine, OneVillage, and more.