The One Thing My Toddler and I Can Agree On

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Photo: thenakedsnail/Getty Images

One of my two-year-old son’s favorite things to do is to scroll through my phone and look at photos and videos of himself as a baby. It’s a great shared hobby of ours, one of the few things we seem to love equally.

When he was younger I wasn’t sure if he understood that the baby was really him or or if he thought it was some other kid with the same name. Can 1-year-olds grasp child development? This would be a fine misunderstanding were it not for the fact that occasionally I’d be in the photo, in the back corner, trying to sneak out of frame, or holding him on my hip while we take a selfie. His dad is there a lot, too, tossing him around and singing songs. “Mommy!” he squeals, pointing to my phone, and then looks over his shoulder to find me still here, in the flesh. “Yes!” I say, nodding my head, emphatic as a cheerleading squad. Then it occurs to me that if he thinks this baby is someone else, what if he feels betrayed, or worse, confused, to see me hanging out with this non-him? Maybe he’s wondering where this other baby is now, feeling a little betrayed that we evidently hang out with some impostor while he’s away at daycare, let that guy play with his toys.

Or maybe he always knew the baby was him. Maybe I’m projecting my own dissociation, because the whole thing of him feels discontinuous to me. His face when it was brand new was only a hint of what it would beI am shocked by how round his head was, how bald — and yet he’s still undeniably in there. I’m looking at a totally different being that happens to have the same face. Baby him (baby all of us?) may as well be another species, a glow worm with the same big brown eyes.

“Was that him all along?” I think — my funny companion? Was he in there or was there no him yet, no self, or not really? Will I feel the same way when he’s 4, or 12, or 23, looking back at a video of him trying (and failing) to hold two fingers up to show how old he is?

“Let’s never go back,” I think when I remember the glow-worm days. Those were days I often spent feeling trapped, unable to see them as temporary and not really representative of the larger project of parenting. What I really want is to pluck his baby self out of the past and hold him in my June 2016 lap. I want the impossible: to be now-me and hang out with then-him, knowing what I know. I want to be his mother with my wits about me, with enough sleep and enough time to myself. I want to love him from the start with equanimity, with real joy as opposed to hospital-bed desperation.

Probably this is when people have second babies. (Surely it will be easier the second time around!) I want it to be my kid again, though, not some other baby. I can’t yet risk feeling the same way again. I want to spend afternoons rolling around the floor with him, looking for all the flickers of his future self. I want to feel a new kind of awe, to think, “That’s so much like you!” any time he laughed. “You’ll laugh like that for the rest of your life.” How could I have known?

I knew then that he’d become a person eventually, though I don’t think I really believed it. I didn’t want to jinx it. I didn’t let myself imagine him with hair, with language; didn’t envision him walking across the room. My shoulders were stiff; my neck was craning to check on his breathing; I didn’t really consider that he would get older and we would love each other. That he would console me, help me forget myself when I needed to, make me laugh at the end of a hard day was unfathomable, much less take care of me when I was older or help me when I needed it. He was all fragility, an un-cracked egg held in the fist of the world. (Or was that me?)

This awareness of time and its attendant loss is a lot of what motivates me to pull my phone out of my pocket and start filming him now. That and my overwhelming delight in him, one I know only his dad really feels equally, but even if our friends and family can only feel 60 percent of it, I feel justified asking them to indulge me. Documenting a moment, trying to capture it, is one of many gestures we make in an attempt to do something with our joy, to take action, spend some of the energy, be of use. I don’t know what else to do with my love sometimes, other than to hit record and ask him a question all over again, participate with him in what is now a performance. It’s never quite the same but afterward he loves to come over and watch the video. He throws his arms up with joy and falls over laughing. I feel the same as him.