“MINE lap! MINE lap!” my two-year-old screams.
“Mommy, can I sit on your lap?” my six-year-old asks politely, as my four-year-old throws caution to the wind to scramble aboard.
“No! Mine laaaap!” my toddler wails again, ineffectually pounding his little fists on his sister’s back, pulling at her clothes.
I am surrounded by loving, angry children. Swarmed by them. We rejigger; one child on each knee while the third gets to pick the book we’ll read.
I just wanted to sit down.
The advice I hear most often from well-intentioned strangers: “This time goes by so fast. Enjoy it.”
And I know – I do – that there will be a time when I will crave having all my children near, to have them viscerally want to be part of me, to claim a part of my body as their own.
But right now, in this moment, it’s just too much.
I’m an introvert. I need space not like oxygen, it’s not so desperate, but like Vitamin C. At first I’m okay without it, feel fine in fact!, but after too long without it I start to fall apart.
The past few weeks have been spaceless. The children got sick whack-a-mole-style: One goes down, rises again, then down goes the next one. Up and down. This leaves the kids not only out of school, but also clingy, understandably wanting mothering.
At first I could give it to them, wanted to give it to them. Cold cloths, Gatorade, crackers on their favorite plates.
But the sicknesses continue to stretch out, and my to-do pile mounts. Trying to juggle working from home, a budding Airbnb listing and the required IKEA assembly, keeping up with the Sisyphean sweeping and sorting and cleaning of the house. All while my two-year-old pleads, “Carry you?” and my four- and six-year-olds circle me in their six-foot orbit.
“I can’t right now, I have to cook dinner.” “I can’t right now, I have to do one thing for work.” “I can’t right now, I just can’t, I just can’t!”
I have become increasingly distracted and withdrawn, and then fed up and out of patience, culminating on Sunday when, after an hour of my youngest yelling at me for some massive transgression like not getting his milk fast enough, my rashy, uncomfortable daughter complained about having to set the table.
“Stop! Just stop! Everyone just stop and help me out without complaining for two minutes!”
The voice that came out was not my own. It was deep and came from somewhere low and ancient.
The children scurried off, seeing I was not even at the end of the rope, but had somehow flung myself off of it, miles away from where the rope ended.
My husband came in. “Are you okay?”
Words bubbled. “I’m just so tired of this family.” I spat out.
And of course, I didn’t mean it. I mean, I did. I was tired, so tired. Tired of the need and the constant-ness and the juggling and the yelling and the sickness and the complaining. But more, I was tired of being part of any family, not this family. I just. needed. space.
There is this tension as a mother between guilt and need. Specters of the unwillingly childless haunt me as I think these thoughts, and consume me when I actually say them. I worry that I will inadvertently unleash the sentiment, to be without family, too devastating to even imagine.
I imagine the mothers who work full time, who desperately want to be able to spend more time with their children. I see them pursing their lips, shaking their heads at my selfishness. They are wishing for what I have, all of it, even in its messiness. They are judging me for not appreciating it.
But the need to be alone is persistent. It is as biological as the one that got me into this situation in the first place. It is not tempered by the guilt. If anything, the guilt adds to the suffocating closeness of it. It is not just a testament to my personal failure as a mother, it is a testament to my failure as Mother.
My oldest is home today with an ear infection. He is uncomfortable, itchy in his own skin, hot. His body needs time, some quiet and rest, and he will be good as new. I do, too. So will I.