‘Mom! Mommy! Mama!’
He has been awake for an hour, talking and singing and ‘reading’ to himself. I take a deep breath and flip on the light. He is bouncing up and down, eager to start the day.
‘Mom!’ He points a chubby, accusatory finger at a book on the floor. ‘I don’t want that book, I want this book!’ With triumph, he holds up his well-loved copy of Cowboy Small.
I had hoped that the quiet time I spent snuggled up with hot coffee and a book this morning would prepare me for the physical and emotional demands of parenting a toddler all day. But I can already feel pin-pricks beneath the surface of my skin and know it wasn’t enough.
Mustering a smile, I roll my shoulders, trying to relax. ‘You want me to read it to you, Buddy? I can go get Sissy and we can all read it together in your bed?’
His face falls, and I silently ridicule myself for being selfish this morning instead of spending some one-on-one time with my son. ‘No. I want up.’
I cross to the window and pull back the curtains to see low clouds threatening rain. Before babies, I relished days like today. They felt cozy and full of promise, begging to be filled with a good book and hot tea. But today, those rain clouds mean a day stuck indoors. Inside, there is never enough of me to go around, and my senses become overwhelmed by the noise and touch and demands of my children.
I turn to face him and kneel down to meet his gaze. His face lights up again.
‘Mommyyy! I’m going to Miss Sara’s today?’
‘No, today you get to stay home with Mom and Sissy alllll day!’ I inflect enthusiasm I do not feel, and my stomach clenches with guilt. In irony that does not escape me, I spent my morning reading about forming secure attachment to your children, the first tenant of which is Proximity.
Tentatively now, he asks, ‘I get to go to work with Dada?’
‘No, Buddy, Daddy’s busy today.’
His whole body tenses, causing me to brace myself in anticipation.
‘NOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!! I DON’T WANT TO STAY HOOOOOOOOMMMMMMMEEEEE!’
Throwing himself on the floor, he is overcome with emotion. Tears stream down his chubby cheeks as he pounds his fists on the floor. I count to ten and resist the urge to react similarly with a fit of my own. I say a silent prayer for the day ahead, and mutter ‘I’m the parent, not the child. I’m the parent, not the child.’
‘Mom I want a muffin.’ His hand yanks at the hem of my shirt. ‘I want a muffin. Mom! I want a muffinnnnnnnnnn! MOMMY! I SAID I want a MUFFIN!’
I physically recoil from his touch. My chest tightens, and I force myself to take a deep inhale. My nerves feel frayed. Exposed. Raw. I am not supposed to have this reaction to my own son. His incessant chatter shouldn’t cause such a visceral response in my body. How can my own child trigger my anxiety? Shame courses through my veins.
A therapist once described my anxiety as ‘free floating,’ and I sobbed grateful tears that someone finally named the feeling I had experienced for my entire life. For me, anxiety is physical, and I feel it in every cell in my body. A tightness in my chest, an inability to expand my lungs, a claustrophobic tenseness in my muscles. I feel like a caged animal. A prisoner. Like I drank 15 cups of espresso before an MRI. And more often than not, I have no idea what is making me feel this way. No specific worry or concern, no fear of impending doom. Just the feeling, without the specificity.
I am most often triggered by sensory overload: loud noise, excessive touch, clutter; but also by the rapid fire of my own thoughts. Sitting in silence makes my skin crawl, but I find relief from reading in silence. The sensory overload of sitting in traffic can be mitigated by an audiobook or podcast. For me, occupying my brain and avoiding sensory overwhelm when possible are ‘best case scenario,’ and I have survived that way for years. But living that way is also incredibly selfish, a fact that motherhood has forced me to face head on.
The room fills with laughter, drawing my attention away from the mountain of laundry I am folding. We have retreated to the master bedroom as rain pelts the windows. He has pulled the comforter from our bed and giggles as his sister tries to use him as a climbing gym, tickling him in the process.
‘Mom! Come lay with us!’ His eyes twinkle as he meets my gaze with a grin, his words wrapped in a blanket of joy and delight.
I am startled by how light and innocent his voice sounds. Where I have so often seen a demanding, loud, and attention-seeking toddler, I see a sweet energetic boy with his daddy’s eyes who is growing up too fast. Am I missing it? Am I too preoccupied with my own survival to truly enjoy his childhood?
I hope that my children remember their childhood with fondness, my love for them shining golden light through those memories, the way the evening sun shines through a forest and creates pockets of twinkling magic. But I worry that they will instead remember me as being sober and withdrawn, busy battling my anxiety. I fear that this illness will prevent me from providing them with the mother I know they deserve.
‘Mommy! Come lay with us! Please!’
And so I do. I lie on the soft down and wrap my arms around my babies. I breathe in their sweet smell, and feel my lungs fully expand for the first time all day. I fly my white flag, and temporarily make peace with my demons. I snuggle them closer, and close my eyes to allow this momentary calm to wash over me. In moments like these, when I am so aware of all the ways I am not a perfect mom, I am still exactly who they need me to be.