The bathroom door crashed open, revealing one of my 3-year-old daughters in all of her bed-headed glory, wearing only her underwear. There I was, brushing my teeth in all of my just-barely-squeezed-in- a-shower glory, also in my underwear. She stopped, skinny little arm outstretched against the door, and her eyes locked on my midsection. She looked, quite frankly, concerned for me.
“Mommy, why is your tummy squishy?”
“Squishy” is probably a kinder word than my post-twins-and-one-more-baby tummy really deserves. It is striped with stretch marks. It is lumpy and uneven. It is just one of the many things about me that has completely changed since I’ve become a mother.
As I thought about how to answer her question, I knew that this was one of those moments in which my words would really matter. I don’t want my children to learn body image issues from me. I may not love my squishy tummy, but it’s here because my three little girls are here. So, I’ve made peace with it, at least for now.
I laughed a little and said, “Because it had to get really, really big to make space for you and your sisters!”
“When we were tiny babies!” she exclaimed. She hugged me and ran away, carefree, thinking about love and mommies and babies. But that conversation about my squishy tummy got me thinking about how motherhood really is all about making space.
It starts with pregnancy, of course, in the most obvious of ways. Our bodies expand to make space for the baby. It doesn’t seem like much space at first, but by the end, when we’ve lost bladder control, comfortable sleep and the ability to attend to personal grooming, well, then it feels like the baby is taking up more than his or her fair share of space and just needs to be born already.
More significant, though, is the way that becoming a mother abruptly takes over space in our hearts and minds. When I was first pregnant with my twins, I had a hard time thinking about anything but my pregnancy. I daydreamed about motherhood in that foolish, romantic way that you can when you’ve never actually been a mother. As hormones pulsed through my body, dreams of baby names and nursing bras and belly bands raced around in my head. Sure, I was an educated woman with a challenging career and a busy life, but all of that sort of faded into the background when motherhood loomed before me. Before I even knew what was happening, I allowed motherhood to take up as much space as it wanted. It was all so new, so full of possibility, and I gave myself over to it completely.
And now my children are here, growing and learning and demanding, and I continue to give myself—my time, my love, my efforts, my space—to them. I make space for them in my bed when they are sick. I make space for them on the mat beside me when I try, though I really ought to know better, to do yoga when they’re awake. I make space in the yard for them to run, space for their toys, their pinecone collections, their shoes. I answer their never-ending questions and satisfy their never-ending hunger. I wipe their noses and their bums. I am always thinking about them, in one way or another, and sometimes, it gets to be too much. They take up too much of my space, too much of myself, and I don’t know if I have enough anymore.
Where is my space? Will I ever get a moment to think, to write, to pee, to breathe?
That’s when I have to take a break. I have to give all of us exactly what I think I don’t have enough of: space. I have to empty myself of all of their noise and needs, so that I can remember who I am and what I need. It doesn’t usually take long, but it is so crucial. A little quiet, a little solitude, a little time to do what I love, and then I can face it all again. And they need space, too. The intensity of the relationship between a stay-at-home-mom and her children can get to be too much for everyone. I try to find balance, but it’s never easy.
When the twins were just barely a year old, I discovered I was pregnant again. I cried. A lot. I didn’t know how it could possibly work. I already had two babies; I didn’t think I had enough love, money, energy or space in my life for another. How could I give more than I was already giving? How could I ask my two little girls to give up space for a baby when they were hardly more than babies themselves?
But then our baby girl was born. She burst into the world six weeks early and threw our lives into a whirlwind of NICU visits and pumped breast milk and too many takeout dinners. And the miracle of motherhood is that once she was here, it wasn’t hard at all to make space for that teeny little baby and her great big personality. I’m not saying that the transition from two children to three was easy. It wasn’t. It’s still challenging, in fact. But when we were finally able to bring our baby home to her sisters and her dogs and her own crib in her own room, I learned that even when I think I’m at my limit, even when I’m stressed and tired and just want to be left alone, I will keep going. I will keep giving and keep making space for my children because that’s what mothers do. It’s not glamorous or exalted or saintly; we just do it because we have to—because we brought these little creatures into the world, and they need us.
Now that she’s here, I can’t imagine our family without our fierce and funny youngest girl. Just the other morning as my husband was backing out of the driveway and heading to work, the twins were pressed up against the window, waiting to wave to him. Their little sister was toddling around, not really paying attention, and in a rare display of sisterly graciousness, they called her over.
“Come here!” one of them said. “Come wave to Daddy! We’ll make space for you!”
And I stood back and watched as a big sister put her arm around a little sister and made space for her, even if it was just for a moment.
Being a mother is hard. Creating a family is hard. But in that moment, it was clear that no matter what, we’re in this together, giving and taking and helping and yes, sometimes hurting, but we will always make space for the ones we love. That’s just what we do.
Kate Parlin is a writer and stay-at-home mom in Maine, where she lives with her husband, their gaggle of girls and two ridiculous dogs. She is a former high school English teacher who now uses her love of words to chronicle her parenting adventures—the funny, the frustrating and the infuriating—at her blog Shakespeare’s Mom. When she’s not cleaning up pee or negotiating the putting on of shoes, she can usually be found hunched over her laptop with an enormous cup of coffee.