Before becoming a mom I thought I knew what it was I would most cherish doing— sprinkling Santa lore, fostering boundless imagination and energy and trips to the park. The reality I discovered was that I voluntarily took a back seat to the Santa stuff. I had never considered the second person, my partner, as I imagined parenting. Sean has been magnificent in what he has assumed, telling the girls with great fanfare and reverence about the work of Santa; from what the reindeer need to eat, to the distance that Santa must travel. I’ve perched in shadowed corners to listen, smiling softly knowing that I probably would’ve stopped at red velvet with black piping.

Sean has handled the lion’s share of bedtime duties since Avery arrived. I remember putting Briar to bed, reading to her as she sat precariously on my lap, the nearly 10 pounds of Ave leaving scant real estate upon which to perch. Tears slid silently down my face as I read to her, wondering all the while if Ave’s arrival would forever change out life. It did, but as I’ve learned, nothing is as I imagined.

My favorite ritual, one that began with Bri and has returned with Ave, happens after bedtime. I still give bedtime cuddles and kisses, retrieve stuffed animals and find specific pajamas, but it’s this tiny thing after bed that lives in a halo of wonder and significance for me. Ave is potty training, for the most part she is out of a diaper, but the nights still present a challenge. Each night before I go to bed I tip toe into their room, gather Ave in my arms and whisper, “Mama’s here. Wanna go in the bathroom and pee for me?”

She purses her lips, sighs and then wraps her arms around me. I walk down the hallway whispering in her ear, “At’s my girl,” and “I love you so much, big girl.” I set her on the seat in the bathroom and she leans forward, arms clasped around my legs with one hand tracing the surface of my skin. “Pee for me?” Her little body tenses and then relaxes, she murmurs a yes and then does.

She rubs her face against my legs, “M’all done, mama.” We finish up and I flip the light. Walking down the hall, cradling her head on my shoulder, I shiver. I lower her into bed, sometimes she asks me to cuddle, other times she slips immediately to sleep. The room shimmers a silvery blue from the moonlight off the snow, the whir of the humidifier is the only sound as I sit. Still as can be, I imagine a third bed, a space between Briar and Avery, just down the hall from Fin, for me.

I ache that I will not always be, that for every moment as mama, tending to my girls, there will be time that I miss. Time when I am gone. Not a sister, their mom. Avery turns, her fingers stretch, I pass her furry blue animal into her hand and she tucks him into her body. Like so much of what we do as parents, she barely registers me or this ritual, trusting that it will come each night. Her curls spread out around her and for a moment, cloaked in the silence, it is as if I belong.