Breathing Room

Our friends, Brandon and Emily, just completed construction on a new, screened-in porch (a coveted item in buggy Tennessee summers) and invited us over for a “break in the porch” get-together. My husband has known Emily since high school, and their friendship easily expanded over the years to include spouses and now our four combined children. There were kickball leagues and Saturday nights spent closing down the bar in our pre-kid days, along with one epic Halloween that involved some pretty elaborate Spaceballs costumes. Brandon and Emily were the first in our group to have a baby, and they fielded many of our questions and texts when we embarked on our own parenthood journey. We’ve buoyed each other through first-time parent fumbles and seasoned parent gaffes. Meals have been delivered, drinks poured, and hand-me-downs exchanged. As our children have grown up together, so have we.

On that particular spring evening, we sat on the new porch casually sipping drinks and chatting while the kids played in the yard. No one was swaying gently to comfort a fussy baby. There were no mid-sentence sprints to stop a curious toddler from poking a toy into a light socket. We just ... talked, like four, untethered adults. Emily even told us an entire story that had our sides aching from laughter without a single interruption.

As we refilled our drinks, Emily let out a sigh and said, “Isn’t this nice? We finally made it into the sweet spot.”

The sun was just dipping behind the trees as I watched my youngest, Ellie, climb onto the trampoline with the help of Lyla, Emily’s youngest. The boys were already jumping amidst bouncing balls and laughter. They four of them had been playing, without adult intervention, for at least 45 minutes. I took a sip of my wine and smiled in agreement.

“Yes,” I answered. “It’s pretty great to finally have a little breathing room.”

***

There’s a reason we call the season of motherhood with little ones “the trenches.” It feels like you're always at war with something: a sleepless baby, a tantruming toddler, your own expectations. Someone is always touching you. There are sippy cups to fill, babies to nurse, bottoms to wipe, and it seems like someone usually has a runny nose. It’s grueling, demanding, relentless work. You are their sun and moon. Many of your days begin before dawn, and there are seasons where they never really seem to end, thanks to teething, sickness, and growth spurts. It can begin to feel suffocating, to have so much demanded of you and so little time to catch your breath.

Since becoming a mother, my life has largely been defined by the ones I care for. I work part-time from home, but those are hours squeezed into the corners of the day—my schedule is pliable, which means I can bend it to fit around my primary responsibilities: namely, keeping both children alive. Each day of the previous six years feels like it passed in a flurry of spilled milk, block towers, Daniel Tiger, and hanging on until bedtime.

Yes, the mother smother is all too real when you’re in the trenches.

The last six months have felt different though. My children are six and three now, which means we are taking gradual steps out of the physically demanding and energy depleting phase of little ones, and into the next chapter. Everyone’s potty trained and sleeping through the night. I haven’t carried a diaper bag in over a year, and the last time I left the house with the two of them, I just tucked my phone in my back pocket and grabbed my car keys. What was once an exhaustive list of feeding times, soothing methods, and nap schedules for the babysitter has become just a simple, “keep them alive and have fun.”

As for my children, they spend hours together in secretive, imaginative play, inventing a world that I’m not invited to be a part of. It’s not that they don’t need me at all—there are still arguments to settle and snacks to get, of course—but my spot is on the sidelines now.

For the first time in a long time, I’m not being run ragged by motherhood. It’s not that it’s easy now (is it ever truly easy?), but it’s become less all-consuming. I can work in one room while my children play in another. I can enjoy a conversation with a friend without constant interruption. Who knew being a mother could feel so … light? I briefly reveled in the sensation, before new questions loomed:

What do I do now that I’ve caught my breath? How do I function when I’m not viscerally needed for allthethings all day long?

My honest answer is that I don’t know. For all the exhaustion and depletion that life with littles brings, there’s something to be said for knowing your place in the world. I wasn’t expected to have a side hustle or even a hobby. I had small children. They were both my responsibility and my excuse.

Now their world is bigger than me, which means mine can be—no, should be—bigger than them. If Act 1 of my adult life was defined by pre-kid freedom and Act 2 by the exact opposite, then perhaps this third phase becomes the Balancing Act. I still get to revel in these little people who are mine to raise. They really like me right now. Friday nights consist of living room pizza picnics followed by a movie, all snuggled up on the couch together. I get to build forts and have dance parties and hear prayers before bedtime. As my friend Emily said, this is the sweet spot. I’m soaking it all up.

But there’s also room for more. There’s space for writing—real, scheduled writing that’s not just scattered thoughts thumb-typed into the Notes app on my phone during a nursing session. We can travel, explore, and adventure. I can eat my meals with two hands, while seated at the kitchen table.

Sweet spot, indeed.

Every stage of parenting has its difficulties, and this one is no different. They’re called threenagers for a reason, after all, and school life has brought new anxieties to navigate. And then, there’s also the challenge of answering the question, “what now?”

I’m not sure just yet, but figuring it out is half the fun.

***

It’s late when we get home from Brandon and Emily’s that night. The kids are visibly weary as we help with brushing teeth, putting on pajamas, and tucking into bed. I kiss Ellie and whisper goodnight, then her hand—still soft and chubby, more baby than little girl—reaches out and grabs my shirt sleeve.

“Wait, momma,” she says. “I need you to snuggle me.”

I smile as I curl my tall frame into the sliver of bedspace unoccupied by her menagerie of stuffed animals and pile of blankets. As I kiss the top of her head, she burrows further into me, fitting into the bow of my body. I am perilously close to the edge of the bed, but it doesn’t matter.

I have all the breathing room I need.