June 13, 2008
A Mother’s Space
This morning, I conducted an experiment.
8:15 a.m.: I lock myself in the bathroom.
8:15 a.m. and 4 seconds: The baby’s fat fingers appear at the bottom of the doorway. “Mama?” he calls out in alarm. He plunks his bottom on the floor just outside the door and whines.
8:17 a.m.: Three-year-old beats on door ferociously. “I weally need some toast!”
8:18 a.m.: Eleven-year-old calls through door. “I put my baseball pants in the hamper half an hour ago. Are they ready yet?”
8:21 a.m.: Five-year-old slips a crayoned princess drawing under the door and inquires, “How do you spell Happily Ever After?”
8:22 a.m.: Nine-year-old tries the doorknob and sighs loudly. “Is there anything to eat besides Cheerios and toast?”
8:23 a.m.: I rush from the bathroom and am greeted by a line of children with hands on their hips.
“Can you thread this needle?”
“Someone spilled juice on the couch.”
“Will you fix my hair in a braided ponytail like you did yesterday?”
The aim of my experiment was to prove the impossibility of a mother taking a bathroom break; I consider it a scientific success.
A child’s claim on his mother’s personal space starts early. “When this kid is born,” I remember threatening while pregnant with my first son, “I am going to kick him in the ribs and sit on his bladder.”
Of course I didn’t. And neither did I deny him my arms when this particularly clingy baby claimed them — 24 hours a day for the first two years of his life. Even when I developed a pinched sciatic nerve and limped about like a stiff-legged, frightful Frankenstein, I held him. I tapped into a hidden reserve of love and endurance in some secret part of my soul and gave that baby everything I had and then some.
It’s what a mother does. But that doesn’t mean we don’t sometimes get tired of it.
One late night not too long ago, just as I felt my body slip into the sweetness of slumber, I realized that there was something on my back. It was a foot. Three-year-old Raphael was claiming “his” space in our bed, and I was in his way.
I can sometimes sleep through a thrashing toddler beside me, but this time, when Raphael draped his arms across my face and pressed his knees into my kidneys, it was my cue to leave. I abandoned my bed and headed for his. I cleared a path through monster trucks, stuffed tigers, and board books, and fell face-first into his pillow.
But there was a price to pay for my wild night of toddler bed-hopping. I awoke early the next morning to find gum in my hair.
I locked myself in the bathroom and ignored the pounding at the door.
“I can’t even have my own space in my own bed!” I sniffled as I slathered peanut butter on my hair and hacked at it with a comb. “I can’t even have 2 minutes alone in the bathroom! It’s not fair!”
In Mulieris Dignitatem, John Paul II told us, “A woman’s dignity is closely connected with the love which she receives by the very reason of her femininity; it is likewise connected with the love which she gives in return. . . . Woman can only find herself by giving love to others.”
Fair or unfair, this is how I “find myself.” With peanut butter in my hair. As much as I would like to argue against the value of self-giving love, as much as I am tempted sometimes to rebel against it, I know that John Paul was right.
I know it when I emerge from the bathroom, freshly shampooed and smelling only faintly of a kindergartener’s lunch box. I know it as I scramble eggs for the kids, pour juice, and butter toast. I know it when at last I sit at the table, bleary-eyed, with a cup of coffee and my own breakfast plate.
Raphael asks for a piece of my toast. Daniel settles in my lap, his small mouth open and awaiting a forkful of eggs. Gabby arrives just in time to claim the last bits of egg yolk wiped up with the last crust of toast. She chats as she chews. Butterflies and princesses fill our imaginations as she gestures with graceful, girlish arms. The baby’s face is smeared with egg and the table is littered with crumbs. He wipes at his mouth with the back of a pudgy hand, sighs, and leans his head against my chest.
Alone one day, I might have clean hair and a spacious bed. Alone, I might have a proper, tidy breakfast. But today, together, we feast.