It was less than 24 hours after our first child was born. We’d had a steady stream of visitors all day; during a brief gap in the action, the nurse came in to remove my catheter and get me up out of bed for the first time since my c-section. I was steps from my goal—the bathroom—when the door to my room pushed open. My grandparents arrived to visit their great-grandson for the first time at the worst possible moment. Assuring me that they “didn’t mind” my state of dishabille, they were just settling themselves in and reaching for the baby when words bubbled out of me without thought.
“No, I’m afraid this is not a good time for us,” I said firmly. “You’re going to need to come back later.” I was hunched and hurting; my body at capacity. I could not make any more small talk or assure one more person that I was “feeling fine—just a touch sore.” I needed my room empty, save my baby and my husband. At that moment, I was very unconcerned about anyone’s hurt feelings or ruffled feathers. The nurse closed the door behind them, assuring me she’d be back in a few minutes with my pain meds.
“Sorry; I know that was probably a little rude,” I said, easing myself back into the hospital bed, pillow pressed firmly against my incision. “But I just kind of freaked out and felt like I couldn’t handle one more thing right now.”
“It’s cool, Love,” Jon said as he tucked our son into the waiting crook of my arm. “Sometimes you just need to make your world small.”
“Mom, can we play my game now?”
It was the same question he asked an hour ago. And this morning. And yesterday.
“In a minute bud, I need to finish this first.” It was the same answer I gave an hour ago. And this morning. And yesterday.
My eight-year-old, Nathan, had built his own version of Star Wars Monopoly. He taped eight pieces of paper together for the game board, then used a ruler to section off individual squares of equal size. He meticulously labeled squares and created property cards and even something called the Empire Deck. It took all of his free time for the better part of a week—a level of focus and occupation I was deeply appreciative of. I was proud of his creativity and determination and told him as much, frequently pausing to admire his progress or inquire about a game detail.
I was supportive of the game-making process, because it didn’t require anything but affirmation from me. But I really didn’t feel like I had time to play it. My work commitments were high, and my time felt like it was at a premium. I could edit two chapters of this manuscript while dinner cooked instead of playing Nathan’s game. I could get a draft of that brochure done instead of playing Nathan’s game.
So every time he asked me to play his game, I came up with an excuse. When I finish this email. When I finish dinner. If there’s time before school in the morning. Nathan never argued. He never betrayed sadness or disappointment that I put him off. He just nodded, expecting me to keep my “as soon as” promise.
Over the course of the week, Nathan’s mood deteriorated. He became argumentative, short-tempered, and moody, and I grew frustrated in response—I surely didn’t have the time for this kind of behavior. The eye-rolling and stalking off to his bedroom reached such a crescendo that I found myself googling “when does puberty start in boys?”—certain that only the dreaded hormones could be responsible for such a drastic shift in the behavior of my normally easygoing son.
By Thursday, I’d had enough. Nathan shrieked at his sister for an insignificant infraction, and I shadowed his stomping path to the bedroom and shut the door behind me.
“What’s going on, bud?” I asked. “Is something happening at school? Are you worried or upset about something? Talk to me, please.”
There was stony silence as he stared at the wall, jaw clenched and arms crossed.
“Come on, bud,” I said, working hard to keep the impatience from my tone. “I can’t help if you don’t tell me what’s going on.” His stance didn’t alter, and I’d just about made up my mind that he wasn’t going to answer and this was puberty and we were on the threshold of a hell that would consume our lives for the next 10 years when he shifted his gaze to me. His brown eyes were filled with tears.
“It’s just that you still haven’t played my game with me. Nobody has. And I worked so hard on it and it makes me sad that no one will play it with me.”
His words tumbled out quickly, one right after the other, and I watched his shoulders slump with the relief of having it all out. The force of his confession landed squarely in the pit of my stomach though, and it took a minute before I felt like I could breathe.
This was my fault. I’d made my world too small.
It’s happened before. Okay, it happens a lot. A work project becomes more complicated than I anticipated or a few extra, unexpected bills arrive in the mailbox. Whatever the catalyst, a day, week, or month becomes more challenging than I planned for and suddenly all I can hear in my head is that loud, booming voice from the closeout furniture store ads on TV: “everything must go!”
I jettison all that’s not essential. Except when this happens, I can’t differentiate between the faceless demands of the world and the very real needs of the people who matter most to me. I lock down and shut out everything and everyone.
It helps, a little, that I’m aware of it happening now. Sometimes I can catch myself before it’s too late and force myself outside—the expanse of sky, the trees that both pre-date and will outlive me, the stream that’s worn down rocks for hundreds of years—the sheer size and permanence of the physical world is enough. I don’t need my world to be small, I need perspective. I need to remember what is temporary and what will last.
But sometimes I forget to be careful and the boundaries go up. Everything must go. This time, it was my own son left on the other side of my line of demarcation.
Once, when Nathan was about four, I accidentally locked him out of the house. We’d just gotten home from preschool, and I took longer than usual to grab all the bags and his baby sister from her car seat. The door was unlocked, and I assumed Nathan had gone inside ahead of me. I walked in, locked the door behind me, and proceeded to unload bags and settle Ellie on the floor to play. I didn’t hear Nathan anywhere in the house, so I called out. No answer. I quickly checked his room and the bathroom: nothing. Realizing my mistake, I raced back to the bonus room door and there, through the glass, I could see Nathan. Sobbing.
I wrenched open the door and gathered him into my arms.
“Why did you lock me out?” he wailed. “Didn’t you know I wasn’t inside?” I rocked and shushed and felt my own tears threatening.
“I’m sorry, bud,” I just kept saying, over and over. “I thought you were inside, too. I didn’t meant to lock you out.”
“I called for you and called for you, Mom,” he whispered. “But you couldn’t hear me.”
“I know, bud. I’m so sorry you were scared. Next time, I’ll make sure I check that you’re inside with us before I lock the door.”
Back on the floor of Nathan’s room, I don’t remember exactly what I said next or his response, although I’m certain a full apology on my part played a role. Then we spent the next 30 minutes at the kitchen table playing his Star Wars Monopoly game.
As we played, I learned things that I missed by just walking by and praising his efforts from afar. Things like you can’t lose at Nathan’s game—if you run out of money, you just pay what you can until you get to pass Go again and collect $1,000.
“It’s not any fun to have to stop playing just because you don’t have any more money,” he explained. I agreed. When I asked how you know when someone wins, he shrugged sheepishly and said, “I didn’t think about that, either. I kind of forgot about winning or losing, I guess. I just wanted it to be fun to play.”
Turns out, I don’t mind a board game with no winners or losers. And while I could admire Nathan’s creativity from a distance, I couldn’t appreciate his generous commitment to fun over competition until I pulled up a chair and played in his world for a little while.
I am an introvert. A homebody. A five on the Enneagram, if you’re into that. I excel at boundary setting and the use of the word “no.” I am a pro at disengaging and withdrawing when things become too overwhelming, but only recently have I learned that’s not a skill everyone shares.
Sometimes, it’s a real gift. I’m pretty careful about making sure other people don’t take advantage of me, and my plate is rarely too full. I’m quick with advice to a friend who needs to deliver a “no” in a sticky situation. Encroaching in-laws and demanding bosses falls squarely within my wheelhouse.
But sometimes, it’s a liability. If I’m not careful, I can shrink my world without making sure the people who matter most aren’t locked out.
What I’m learning is to step outside myself before I shut down. To try and view the situation outside of the lens of expectations, obligations, and limits. To take a deep breath, then look around and ask “who really needs me in my world?” and draw my boundaries accordingly.
Keeping my world small isn’t always about everything I shut out. Sometimes, it’s about who I let in.
Words and photo by Jennifer Batchelor.