The unbearable lightness of being three

It was so much easier when he was younger. So much easier when I could give of myself with a breast, through my motherhood made liquid for only him. It was so much easier when I could meet his needs for comfort, for inclusion, for belonging, for stimulation by tossing him on my back, and performing the mundanities of life: folding the laundry, loading the dishwasher, walking the dog. It was so much easier when all-my-attention meant cooing into that infant face, bouncing him on a leg, dropping my head just enough to inhale and kiss that so-sweet-smelling barely-there hair, tied as he was to my center, taking in the breath of me and beat of me.

Now, he needs so much less, and so much more, and I am floundering, my center lost. The mundanities that were made easy, inevitable, when he was sling-bound twice a day for naps, are now impossible, insurmountable. Inclusion is an ideal that I cannot enact without hyperventilating, my shoulders creeping up, my hands twitching to take over, take control, do it right. Conversations once held over the noise of his babbling are now shouted down with “Stop talking! Don’t talk to her! Don’t talk to him!”, as our beloved-but-not-benevolent dictator decrees communication betwixt his subjects be undetectable by his objectioning ears. All-my-attention means jumping and running and risking bruises and back injuries, finding myself unable to finish reading aloud the book he’s requested but unallowed to set it down while he tells me the same thing about it he’s told me a thousand times before, in detail overwhelming and uninteresting.

I should put down the phone, set aside the computer, get out of the chair. I should invite him to join me in all the tasks of living. I should shrug and smile and declare oopsies! when the expected occurs and a plate is dropped, a recipe mangled, a cup of flour tossed everywhere. I should hear his interruptions as innocent cries for attention, affection, movement, play. I should laugh at the chaos of life, and make a game of tidying up. I should give until he is filled up, trust that the more here-now I am with him, the less he will hang on my arm, unappeased by the dribbles I offer.

I should because this is the person I want to be, the parenting I planned on, the approach I advocate. I should because I know it is joyful, and I need more joy. I should because the more I flow, the easier it is; because mindfulness is my mission; because serenity isn’t a goal but a way. I should, I should, I should.

Should is word I wish I could ban, from myself, from parents, from everyone. Should is oppression incarnate. Should is the scourge with which we flagellate ourselves, from which we reflexively cringe, I know, I know, I know! Should is a black shawl, heavy as carpet, as dark as deep sea, an ocean of shame and fear and hatred pushing down, squeezing us into dense inflexible resentful distortions of ourselves. Should creates I-won’t, I-can’t, I-shan’t. Should leaves no room to breathe, to expand, to experiment, to fail, to succeed, to leap, and dance, and live. Should leaves only pain, anger, stuck-ness.

I should be a better parent — so I cannot be. I should not yell, not lose my temper, not decide he cannot before he even is allowed to try — so it is all I do. I should be creative, be flexible, be adaptable — so I cannot change.

I should not should on myself. And so here I am.

It’s not that I don’t want to be here-now with him; I do. At least, in abstract I do. As an idea, I do. And when I can, when my eyes meet his and we grin and he laughs and I chase him down and he chases me and we laugh, it is so very worth it. But he wants more. More playing, more running, more chase, more wrestling and then there are bruises, more throwing and then something breaks, more time and then I am late, more me and then I am done. Empty. Gone.

I want more, too. More village, more relatives, more people, more friends for him to play with, more adults for me to talk to. I want more time by myself, to run and swim and build up my endurance so I have more to give to him. I want more time alone with my lover so conversations over his insistence that we shut up aren’t necessary for us to so much as exchange information, much less try to connect. I want more space and safety and social support to toss him outside to play until he’s worn out, has a skinned knee I can kiss better, has a fascinating bug he wants to show me. I want more; how can I give to him from abundance when I acutely feel so much lack?

He is in bed with his father as I write; I do not know whether tonight will be like the last three nights, when he jumps out of bed, slams open the door, and runs out here, eyes squinting, joyfully calling “Mommy!” while my breath catches — is caught, bagged-and-tagged: “Property of the Boychick; if seen loose, capture and return at once.” I do not know whether tonight I will be able to finish my work, turn the lights off on the couch so cluttered only his frame is small enough to find space, on the table whose color I can tell only by the legs, on the floor which shares equal occupancy between the dog, drifts of hair, and the toys my child has picked up, played with, and abandoned since last we were able to clean — for I cannot pick up now, while he sleeps, for fear of waking him, nor then, while he’s awake, to spare us all the stress of his protestations — and climb at last into bed, press my nose to his hair in search of the smell I once so loved, and sleep… until he wakes me, and it is time to do it all — falling short, loving strong, eking out time for myself from the margins of my life — again. And again. And again.


Everything in here is true, but it’s not the whole truth. The whole truth is darker, lighter, more joyful, more despairing, more hopeful, more angry, and far, far more complex. Nor is there a conclusion, because this is life, and as long as I am very lucky, it simply goes on.

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29 Responses to The unbearable lightness of being three

  1. I hear you loud and clear. You tell my story. I know that dissonance between knowing, desiring and doing.

    I’d love to chat to you on Twitter. I’m following you so if you could followback that’d be great. I have info on Aussie cloth pads too.


  2. Sorry! My handle is Gogomumma

  3. What timing. This is EXACTLY how I feel. And the one person I had around to help me parent is about to move two states away. I’ve parented solo quite a bit, I made it work but I was so far from the parent, the person, I want to (or *should*) be, I don’t want to go there again (time to go back to therapy…).

    Thank you for writing this. It helped me feel a little less alone today.

  4. I’ve been reading your site for a couple of months now and really enjoy your writing. My kids are 4 and 1 now. My daughter was 3 for the first year of my son’s life and it was quite challenging at times! I can definitely relate to everything you write about here – the kind of parent I want to be and the falling short. I fully embrace attachment parenting and parenting without punishments (and rewards to the extent I am capable – kind of a praise junkie here!) philosophies. I have also been reading about Unschooling since my daughter was 18 months old and that has helped me so much!

    I hear you on wanting more “Village”. This past year after my son was born I LONGED for more support, help – I even used those words with my mom on the phone – “I want my village!” The modern world is not very supportive of the kind of parenting we are trying to do which makes it extra challenging. It is so tricky to find the balance of being kind and loving with yourself yet always seeking to do better. I’m sure you are an amazing mother though! I strive to be mindful and present every day too, and it is a huge challenge. But like you, there is nowhere else I would rather be.

    Keep up the excellent writing!

  5. You have just articulated exactly what I have been feeling with my almost-3yo lately. I know the kind of parent that I would like to be but I find it so difficult to be that parent when he is dawdling, we are late, etc etc. I don’t know what to do.

  6. Sympathy and unsolicited advice. Each stage of growth involves difficult changes, so bear up. It can get hard as the little ones exercise their new-found power. Eventually boychick will learn when his behavior is hurtful, and to control himself as well as and instead of everything else in his environment.

    I know you dislike experts, but sometimes they hit on a truth. One such is that all little people need to learn what their limits are. As they get older, old limits get routine and new powers and possible limits to explore are found. Beyond some of these limits will be dangers that need to be learned and hopefully avoided.

    But there is a bright side to the growth, children do learn self-reliance. In 20 years moments of dependency will be few, something that parents can have trouble adjusting to.

    Shoulding on oneself is an unavoidable but to be avoided vice. When you notice a should on oneself, do not think in terms of the ideal (nobody can do that) but the possible and healthy.

    You managed to finish this post, I hope that helped you. From some of the previous commentary, it did help others. If you did it for desire to do it and not because of a should, that is good.

    Love sympathy and ((((hugs))))
    if the advice feels like I’m shoulding on you, feel free to dislike it and scold me.

  7. All I’ve got is a “me too.”

  8. Ah yes, the dreaded shoulds, and the perhaps worse shouldn’ts. Culminating in the crazy-making “I shouldn’t do shoulds”. I know them well, though not with the extra weight of parenting. Definitely sounds like you need that village. Which if you only had time and energy you might be able to find, but of course you don’t have the time and energy because you don’t have the village. I wish I could help, but I too can only offer sympathy and hugs.

  9. I just read this and it helped me a bit, maybe it will help you too. Apparently most parents get their selves back when their kid turns 5. That’s another year for me, a year and a half for you, but light at the end of the tunnel….

  10. When my babies were small my Shoulds and my Guilt really hurt. They did not help me parent better. They helped me hate myself more. Oh, and I couldn’t (or didn’t) just Zen myself out of my feelings, or become One with them and thus release their power. Uh, self-actualization industry, No.

    I want more; how can I give to him from abundance when I acutely feel so much lack?

    The answer is, I think, you can’t. You are where you are. This is OK. Where you can and will proceed from here is not yet known.

    & I agree with Susan. We expect so much from our carers, especially mother-carers, and we give them so little support. And so many mothers don’t even realize how little support they have; they internalize and think they Should do better (this was me when my wee ones were little), they don’t speak up. They shouldn’t have to, we should be helping more.

    I am glad to hear this post was hard to write but that in writing it you discovered much about yourself. That’s always a good thing, right! The “easy” truths that flow from our fingertips (and keyboard) are great, but so is this.

    Thank you for posting.

    • Kelly — “The answer is, I think, you can’t. You are where you are. This is OK. Where you can and will proceed from here is not yet known.” Thank you.

  11. yes, yes, yes.
    I think I first found your blog a while ago through a message board (? maybe) when you were first starting it and re-found it one day when desperately searching for information on being a parent with bipolar disorder. thank you for sharing everything you put up here.
    I have a 3 year old as well and it is intense. That is the best word I have for it. I also want moremoremore.

  12. I read this in a rare, prolonged moment of self-time. Me drinking tea while our 5 year old playfully destroys our bedroom in self-initiated activity that she has so often before found extremely challenging to clean up. This was after greeting me [in my early morning "stolen-moment" bath after rousing from my own bad dreams] by screaming, threatening, and telling me if I ever take a bath again before she is out of bed she will run away. And there were so many more moments of connecting authentically with each other in between.

    Her father and I (who are also shouted down, especially at dinner, when our conversational tone obviously includes an adult topic) know there may be years to come when she may not be as close to us as she is now. In that case, we are already preparing ourselves for the longing we will certainly feel, for the days when she wanted most of her waking and sleeping moments to be all about our life together. And we are preparing ourselves to live without longing by experiencing these moments in the present.

    Thank you for sharing your reflections.

  13. “Should” is just a grammatical form of “shall”. It has no power except what we give it. I know a woman who likes to say, “We won’t ‘should’ on ourselves.” I love that woman.

    And, I love you!

  14. I need a village. Anyone care to start a village finding service?

  15. I just wrote a similar post on one of my homeschooling yahoogroups. You know I’m right there with ya. I am really feeling my lack of a village. It’s hard work for me to build up my village even though I know people who could possibly fill it. I like staying home. I can’t keep up with too many acquaintances. I don’t like calling people. I’m not exactly extroverted or outgoing, I hate asking for help, and I take a long time to trust people. But if you need a villager, I’m around.

  16. I can’t say that I think D as an infant was much easier overall to deal with than now… but other than that, I SO HEAR YOU. We’ve been having a really rough week, and every day, sometimes several times a day, I fail to be that mother I want to be. It helps to remind myself that kids don’t need perfect mothers, just ones who are Good Enough. That they can learn from watching us fumble and be human. It also helps to know that others are feeling and going through the same thing, and that it comes and goes and some days are easier and some are harder and to keep sight of that when it feels like a sea of tough nails.

    So, virtual hugs, from one exhausted and frustrated mom to another.

    • Marcy — Yeah, I know I’m romanticizing infancy. There was a lot less yelling, but a LOT more crying (his, but mostly mine). But things like the housework — that really was easier for us when he was younger, when he not only could be but NEEDED to be in the sling throughout the day. And the state of the house really does affect the state of my mind, so it’s not a non-issue (I can let go of the need for perfection, but I can’t stop chaos from subconsciously increasing my stress, y’know?).

      I guess for me the thing is, recently I haven’t even been feeling Good Enough. Not quite terrible, but not as far away from it as I’d like.

      Thanks for the hugs. And yes, it definitely helps to know others go through it too.

  17. It gets easier again, I can promise you that much. My 5 1/2-year-old, now, can entertain herself. But it took a LONG time to get here. A long, long time. And the cruelest bit is that you miss the days when they wouldn’t let you go for 3 minutes. So bizarre.

  18. Everyone — thank you. It means so much to me to feel heard, and to not feel alone. I was afraid of putting this post out there, but as usual, what I got back was so very worth that vulnerability.

    And today? Because I’d finally written this (it’d been on my mind for a while), and put it out in the world? Was a much better day. Not perfect — but I don’t seek perfection anyway. It was not only good enough, it was good. So thank you all for being here for me, because I owe you for today.

    • All I can say is “sing it, sister, and don’t stop.” As much as you gain comfort from us, we gain comfort from you in realizing that we, too, are not alone in our struggles. <3

  19. I feel like a hypocrite sometimes, espousing all these peaceful parenting principles and being a big fan of helping children feel respected and listened to, and then turning the TV on and letting my kids watch it in their pajamas for hours so I can get the head-space needed to make it through another few hours without yelling at them too much. Once I’ve reached that positive place and feel renewed, I jump up, full of energy and ideas and plans, as if to make up for my almost manic-depressive cycles of daily mothering.

    But I’ve stopped beating myself up about it (mostly) and have accepted that too much TV and insisting on a bit of personal space (both physical and mental) is what I need to survive this gig. I’d rather my children remember cartoon theme songs than witness my emotional breakdown because I can’t give them any more.

    Just like it is freeing to release oneself from the ‘shoulds’ of body image and appearance and gender roles, so too it is deliciously empowering to ditch the idealistic picture of parenting we hold in our heads and instead take one day, one hour, at a time.

  20. Oh, I have been there. Who am I kidding, I am still there and she is seven and in school a good part of the day.

    Should is evil.

    I will hold you in my thoughts.

  21. yup, yup, yup.

    This week has been awful, with the 2yo sick and miserable and in pain, and therefore whining, which is the one kid noise I CANNOT cope with, and yesterday I found myself shouting at her to SHUT UP and STOP WHINING, and when Daddy got home I ended up bursting into tears (which I never, ever do, not even with my most recent m/c, the day after which I had to go to a birth) because of being so exhausted on as many levels as you can imagine and so frustrated and so GUILTY because I can’t make it better with a hug and a kiss, like I can everything else.

    I have a decent amount of village. I could use more… but what I really need is a doppelganger in the closet. And to go back in time and never introduce her to Thomas. And if I’m really dreaming, for my goddamn fucking SPD to GO AWAY so I can take walks and go to parks without being in horrible pain for hours or days after.

  22. Wanted to let you know that I wrote a blog post yesterday about some of my fave blogs, and you are on it.

    Lily, aka Witch Mom

  23. I hear you, although I don’t relate personally… I’m not a baby person, and I love having a child I can talk to. I adore my baby, but my relationship with my preschooler is so much deeper and more satisfying.

    We do have a pretty good village though, one that’s been more willing as she’s got older too. So that could be part of it.

  24. This might be a good time to reinforce yourself as a separate person who needs to be taken care of as well.

    Even for kids who have been taught this from birth sometimes just saying it can help remind everyone that you are not the mythical figure of mother, you are Arwen. Arwen is only human and sometimes she needs things too.

  25. Many, many hugs my friend.

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