Perhaps the strangest thing about motherhood, the part no one really told you, is how it takes up your space. How it hems you in.
How you used to start a day with endless choices and opportunities, and suddenly your options are limited by a tiny human who wants to eat at certain times, or needs you to get to sleep, or bring a cup of milk, or sing a song, or watch a duplo tower come crashing down and then wants help building it up again.
How you used to end the day with a soft collapse on your pillow, and now you tentatively lay down, shoulders still tense, ear cocked for a cry or a “MoooOOOOoooommmm!” How you wake up the next day with the same crick in your neck, to the same call.
There’s just not as much space.
Not that it is the fault of the tiny house. No matter the size of the room, the baby will find a way to scuttle over and cling to your leg, to dive at your chest, to hang on your hip. The toddler will find a way to appear at your elbow with a “whatcha doing?”
There will not be as much space in your head. It will be crowded now, with shopping lists, with figuring out how to find the next size up of clothes (suddenly! right now! nothing fits! ) with the hum and ding of the washing machine, with ‘what’s for supper?’, and with more variations on a whine, niggle, whimper and cry to start a symphony. Where there was once whole unexplored mansions for consideration, space to figure out how to be a friend, or what it means to do justice and love mercy, or how to write a poem, or what Mary Oliver would say about that light falling through the window, there is now new piles of furniture and clutter about developmental milestones, and when preschool should start, and just how bad does a tantrum have to be before its considered part of a sensory processing problem, if it matters you haven’t seen the baby poop in three days.
You swore you would not become boring. You would not be one of those dull people who only speaks about their children. With one child it was easy enough. But with two, there’s just less space.
And the thing about space, is there’s only so much of it. There are limits. Always. When you’re twenty-four, you feel limitless. An ocean of possibility. A universe, waiting to be explored. When you’re thirty, you realize the materialness and creatureliness of you, and it starts catching up. There’s a kind of grief in realizing you can only do some of the things, not all of the things. You cannot be an astronaut. You cannot be an architect. You cannot be a doctor, run for government, act on Broadway. You can’t travel the world with a single backpack, writing stories for the New Yorker to pay for the next train ticket, befriending old Italian grandmothers who show you how to make pasta and mozzarella cheese. You can’t do everything.
And then there is the double grief of knowing that not only can’t you do everything, you can’t even do the two things you woke up this morning determined to do. (Okay, the seven things, let’s be honest, who ever only has two things to do). You, yourself, you take up space. It’s not just the little humans crawling over your lap while you sit at your computer to try and write this, its the brushing of your own teeth and washing of your own hair, and the sleep. The limits of knowing you used to pull an all nighter to finish a good book, and now if you don’t make your nine pm bedtime your body will fall asleep by ten anyway. It’s the grief of knowing you used to have time to discuss the latest debatable issue with your husband and four other friends over endless cups of tea, you used to have the leisure of feeling guilty about not spending enough time reading your Bible.
They say, of course, that it is a good and a beautiful thing to know your limits. To feel your own boundaries. To know your humanity. To choose, to focus, to pick a path and walk on it long enough to know it well. They say we do this as humans, with marriage, with children, with vocation. They say it is the way of godliness, to in faithfulness choose a thing, choose a person. To make space for the other, the same other, again and again. To become excellent through persistence and repetition. To be sanctified.
I think when I am forty, I will know this. I will look back and think of the scribbled mother’s day cards thanking me for “being a special mommy and it’s your day to celebrate and all the mothers and all the families” written by my three year old, and smile. I will feel an empty space near my elbow where fat squishy babies used to snuggle, sticky with naartjie juice and sandpit sand. I will have a chance to buy my clothes fair trade instead of what I can grab without trying on while buying discount toddler shoes, and I will probably feel a little sad about the empty spot in the front of my trolley where squirming toddlers used to wiggle. I will think about what has been added. Not just the things that take up space in my mind because of mothering, but the things I’ve made space for on purpose: a refined depth of knowledge about road construction, the wonder of realizing the moon is still there during the daytime, or the way a dandelion is actually a puff of seeds. I’ll know the satisfaction of jumping in puddles forgotten from my own childhood, or be struck by the strangeness of infinity.
I will see, sharply, the preciousness of the things I’ve made space for.
I suppose the invitation is to see them now.