The very last bath of childhood

two little boys covered in bath-time bubbles

By Kelli Kirk

As a new parent seventeen years ago, the idea of bathing an infant who I could hold in the palm of my hand was bone-deep terrifying. I left the bathing of my new daughter to her father. On the day he returned to work from his very short leave, I had to squarely face my own fears.

Giving a newborn a sponge bath is somewhat tricky due to their small size and fragile nature. Not only do you need to keep parts of them dry, but you need to keep them calm and comfortable, too.

—Wikihow, How To Give a Newborn a Sponge Bath

I longed for those sweet hours in the hospital, when capable nurses bathed and handled my newborn. They whisked her tiny body with confidence, wrapping her in warm blankets. It seemed inevitable that if I were left alone to wash her, I would snap her bird-like limbs.

Recently my youngest child, on the cusp of becoming a teenager, gave up his daily bath in favor of showering. “Mom. I’m getting way too old for that stuff. I’m only taking showers now,” he announced. So these last few weeks I have been thinking about all the hours I’ve logged sitting beside a bathtub.

Important: Never leave your baby alone in a bath—not even for a moment. If you must get to the phone, the stove, or whatever, take baby with you.

—WebMD, Baby’s First Bath

Bath time has set the clock for our evening family life these past seventeen years. Slowly, over time, as my confidence in my parenting grew, so too did I begin to look forward to bath time. I relished the motions of moving small humans through shampoo, fresh jammies, story time, and finally bed. After my divorce, I spent some indelible years as a solo parent. On the occasional unbearable evening, I’d count down the hours…the minutes…until bath time signaled the end of a very long day.

As my children matured, I thought I’d finally be able to claim those 20 minutes, uninterrupted, for myself. I imagined I would read or even pee, alone, instead of being called one more time (still! really?) to assist a child in the bath—with a drink of cold water, reading a book, locating a bath toy, or my personal favorite: “MOM! Can you get this dog out of here for me?”

In my years as a mother, I have spent approximately 5,000 hours sitting on uncomfortable toilet lids, next to a chattering child who is in a warm bath. An early ritual of reading aloud to my children while they bathe has continued through their childhood. My kids are five years apart, and by the time my oldest was able to stay in the bath without me, I had a newborn and started the journey all over again.

Choose a time when you’re not rushed or likely to be interrupted. Some parents opt for morning baths, when their babies are alert. Others prefer to make baby baths part of a calming bedtime ritual. If you bathe your baby after a feeding, consider waiting for your baby’s tummy to settle a bit first.

—Mayo Clinic, Bath Bath Basics

This past weekend, while I gathered up the last flotsam and jetsam of the too-crappy-to-even-donate bath toys, I thought about the grief of parenting.

The thing about the last time our kids take a bath is that, among the many other lasts of parenting, we don’t actually know it is the last until it’s already happened.

I will always be a parent. But I also know that my daily work of actively caring for dependent young children will inevitably come to an end. The reality of this unthinkable scenario becomes even more concrete with every passing month as my children move through adolescence. I cannot imagine a time without children, just as one month ago I could not imagine an evening without bath time.

By reaching behind/under your baby and then holding on to his opposite arm throughout the bath, you will help to ensure that he will have your unwavering support.

—American Academy of Pediatrics, Ages & Stages

My journey as a parent began frozen in a fear of the unknown and it promises to wrap up rooted in that same feeling as I face the uncertainty of my life after raising children.

In the not so far future, I will wake up in a quiet house, and my children will be gone. That day is foreshadowed by something as simple as a boy with growing independence, who has decided he has enjoyed his very last bath of his childhood.

If mother prefers to soap the baby first, and then rinse him in the tub, she should remember that unless a baby that has been soaped is held securely…he may slip out of her hands.

—The Complete Book of Mothercraft, 1952

Kelli Kirk lived in a renovated yellow school bus as a child, traveling the country, and is now settled in a crooked old house in Seattle where she parents two teenagers and bakes for the State Fair. She may be found most days carrying out large scale vintage clothing rescue efforts at local thrift stores.

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