By Rebecca Martin
When they are not on me, they are around me. Normally, three points make a triangle, but my three children make circles swirling around me, each at their own pace.
Motherhood is a physical business. And not in the way I thought it would be. I expected that my middle would swell to accommodate another person, and that my body would serve someone besides me, making me eat and sleep and ache more than I ever had. I expected that the final release of a baby would begin with a surge of energy drawn from every last cell of me, but it was only after I experienced all of that that things got physical.
It began with a sweet circle of sweat on my chest from my son’s head resting below my chin. And then, of course, there was the nursing, pacing, bouncing and burping that anyone would expect to do with an infant. But along with all of that came the running whenever I heard a cry, the hauling of twice as much laundry, the soreness in my side from carrying him in the only position he would tolerate and the dent that my diaper bag carved into my shoulder. At the end of the day, I went to sleep for a few hours feeling as if I had tilled a hundred acres with a plow yoked to my back—and my sore body was not even mine anymore. Somewhere after that first child was born, I had signed over ownership.
When I was little, my friend and I would play a game where she would hold my arms down at my sides while I tried to lift them up. Then, once she let go, they would float up on their own effortlessly until they were even with my shoulders. That is what it feels like still when I drop my kids off at school and after I put them to sleep. I move without effort and can feel the air pass over my skin again. Sometimes, I have to remind my bones of their original positions, rolling my shoulder blades until they rest on my back again because when my three children are with me, they occupy me, making a perch or a pillow out of my jaw, clavicle or hip. And I cannot deny them.
“Mommy, I want to sit on your belly,” my three-year-old, James says. As he asks, he cups my jaw with his silver-dollar sized hand and looks into my eyes as if he was making a reasonable request. Then he scrambles to sit on my sternum.
I have woken gasping for breath because Johnny’s pebble-smooth toddler head had nestled on my throat, his neck straddling my wind pipe, and I did what I could to stay still and find my breath because I did not dare risk waking him, and also because it felt good to have him be part of me. It feels less good when I am trying to read a book at bedtime and my children vie for the best place on my lap, pummeling my thighs and middle. Then, once they are victorious and perched on a knee, they shift in and out of what I imagine is my spleen and scrape their boney bottoms over my femurs.
When they are not on me, they are around me. Normally, three points make a triangle, but my three children make circles swirling around me, each at their own pace. They are the hands of my clock, orbiting me, tethered to my center: Johnny, slumping into my sides, is the hour hand; James, bouncing and wagging his head, is the minute hand; and Maeve, oscillating from one imagined scene to the next is the second hand. We move like this through the grocery store, down our street, through a crowd of people. And even with the stir we cause, I can feel each shift in the air.
I open my eyes in the middle of the night and catch my breath, because in front of me, inches from the tip of my nose, Maeve is watching me, waiting for me to wake up. She can be so still that I wonder how long she has been standing there, but it can never have been that long because I can feel her enter my space even in my sleep.
During the day, they are not so still. They seize me and my attention. James asks questions with a hand on my knee or a meeting of our foreheads, his small hands clenched behind my neck. Johnny sticks his head into the back of my shirt as if he were the back end of a horse, because it’s hilarious, and also because he needs the connection. And even though it is easier to walk when no one is in the back of my shirt—or standing on my toes, or hanging off of me, or pulling me in another direction—I need that union, too.
I sometimes watch Maeve running in front of me, naked, singing for the rafters and wonder how she could be mine when she is so loose and I am so careful; but when she collapses, it is with all of her weight and it is into my middle. Every limb finds a place to rest on me. And when I touch my nose to her hair I know that she is mine and that it is the way she comes back to my body and not the way she came from it that makes it so.
Rebecca Martin is a former lawyer and political fundraiser, who is now doing the two things she always wanted to do: writing and raising a family. Her work has appeared in the New York Times Motherlode blog, Babble.com, Literary Mama, among other publications. She lives in Connecticut with her husband and three children.