Sunday -- husband's working, sitter's off. It's you, all alone with the three of them, your three young sons, running you ragged in a burning barefoot marathon on a treadmill set on High-Speed-Panic. You feel like a cartoon character, flattened out into one dimension, as you are dragged -- feet, legs, belly, chest, neck, head -- backward, through this machine that sucks you in and spits you out all day long. You may wonder aloud, Hey, how do you stop this crazy thing? Wonder all you want, no one is listening -- they're all boys, remember? You talk to yourself from a second-person stance, but you cannot help it, can you? Because when you are the mom of three small boys, who has time for me, myself, or I?
Certainly not you, not now. Right now, you have a six-year-old in a Tae Kwon Do uniform wiggling his top tooth loose with his tongue. You have a three-year-old in an inflatable Hulk costume making farting sounds. You have a six-month-old in a swollen diaper standing in the stroller and chewing on the straps of what was once your favorite and finest Italian silk bra. You have all of them all around you: the sole, freak female in the house, sitting on the potty, pleading, "Can I please, please, have some privacy, please?"
Your boys, these sons, think they have a right to your body morning, noon, and night. If you lock them out of the bathroom, they will panic, shriek, shrill, and cry -- as if you have locked them out of your very heart. They will kick the door, thrust themselves against it, and then rattle the doorknob, yelling, "Mommy, Mommy, Mom!"
You tell them you hear them. You tell them, "I'm sorry, I can't right now," and the two older ones reply, "I'm sorry, I can't right now." And when you ask them, "Are you mocking me?" they yell (so loud the baby yelps), "Are you mocking me? Are you mocking me? Are you mocking me?" So you do what you must -- and quickly. You wipe and wash. You apply peach-blossom lip gloss to ward off that pale post-partum menstrual look you have when you are passing clots the size of your liver, and when coffee and Advil and an occasional free-floating handstand cannot keep your cheeks rosy and glowing and girlish looking all day long. You open the door, check on the tooth, you zip up the Hulk, you give the baby a big peach-blossom kiss on the nog, and off you go, out of the bathroom and into the hall.
Each one grabs hold of the sides of the stroller, which is moving so slowly and awkwardly across the sticky carpet that you accidentally bang the baby's head on the door heading into the bedroom and he cries. He's got a big welt near your lipstick kiss. You tear off your sleep shirt and then your nursing bra and hand it to him, and he is immediately contented, calmed, chewing on Mommy's all-night-long-night-sweats smell. You then undress entirely because you refuse to be a mom who is still wearing pajamas in the yard in the bright morning suburban California sun. They close in around you and gawk and gasp and gape as you slip off your night drawers. There you are -- naked, nude, undone. And there they are -- staring at your dicklessness. You try to change the scenery by swiftly slipping into your rather stylish and mentally uplifting boy-short undies and matching halter bra, and saying, "Isn't this a pretty color?" But no amount of pastel can distract them from the fact that you are clearly, physically, not one of them.
You are certain the baby is eyeing this new halter bra and thinking, "Why has she kept that one from me?" The other two remain in pure boyhood shock, with their hands down their pants and that ten-thousand-mile-away stare you've seen thousands of times on boys and grown men alike. "Do you have to go to the bathroom?" you ask, and they quickly remove their hands from their pants. Sure, they see you like this nearly every day, but today they ask you, "What is that?"
So you must come up with an answer, a word, a name. "It's a ki-ki," you say, and it actually sounds logical because "ki-ki" rhymes with "pee-pee." Then you immediately regret this coinage for such a significant item of future personal exchange. Because you know that you have dreams of taking them all to Hawaii one day, and you already dread sitting in a restaurant and hearing the commentary when they read the menu and the list of things that begin with "kiki" -- kiki burgers, kiki dogs, kiki pie. "Ki-ki?" they say, and you say nothing because what more is there to say? Enough has already been seen, revealed, in you, the first female vision they have ever laid eyes on.
And now your own questions begin: Are my breasts big enough? Are my thighs thick enough? Surely my waist is narrow enough? Am I, in total, womanly enough to be the standard bearer of sexuality for all their long lives ahead of them? Thankfully, your self-conscious and overly psychological questions become completely inane when they both scream and squeeze their penises and say, "A ki-ki, ew, ew, I don't want one of those!" And then, and only then, will they leave you. They will charge out of the house and onto the grassy front yard for a quick Hulk/Tae Kwon Do wrestling match, while loudly informing the entire neighborhood -- jogging by, walking dogs, trimming lawns -- "Mommy has a ki-ki! Mommy has a ki-ki! Mommy has a ki-ki!"
Look at them, united. The world makes sense to them now: They have a pee-pee and you have a ki-ki. Now it's a game -- boys versus girl. They charge back into the house. They both push the baby in the stroller, and the baby drops your nursing bra and its frayed elastic strap gets caught in the stroller wheels and you don't even try to save it because it's served you long enough and well enough through these three sons. The boys forge on, pushing the baby into the bedroom they all share, and the Hulk shuts the door. You stand there for a moment, noticing all the crayon marks and snot stains, and are about to get some Clorox to clean it all up when the Tae Kwon Do Master opens the door and puts up a sign that reads No Grils and No Moms and then slams the door shut. Sure, you feel a little hurt, but you get over it. You must. These boys, they will break your heart if you let them. These boys, your sons, they will love you one instant and hate you the next. Why? Because you're their mom, the love of their life and the bane of their existence. And if you're going to stand there and wipe tears from your eyes because they've locked you out, well, then you're missing out on some serious self-serving quiet time.
So you head to the kitchen, where else? You make coffee. You think, Hmm, this is actually quite pleasant to be a girl, locked out. You even read an article that has been sitting on the kitchen counter since before the baby was born. You read it backward, last sentence to first sentence, because you are certain you will be interrupted any second and you'd hate to miss the ending. This doesn't seem odd to you. When you finish reading the article, you think, My God, I have accomplished more than I could have ever hoped for on a Sunday, home alone, with the boys. You pour another cup of coffee.
But then, suddenly, you stop. It occurs to you that it is a bit too peaceful in the house. You put the coffee down and ask yourself, Do you dare interrupt? Do you dare peek in? This is typical mother-of-three-sons behavior -- you are constantly second-guessing decisions you have yet to even make. You reason, Why bother them? No one's crying. Surely if there was a problem, you would be the first to know, right? But then you remember, oh do you remember, that you are the responsible one here -- remember?
You run to their room, kick the door open, and see the cost of your quiet time. The Tae Kwon Do Master is standing on a folding-chair, about to add his final touch -- a ghoulish Halloween mask that leaks blood-colored goop -- onto a pile of boy treasures stacked as high as your head: Battlebots, Power Rangers, Curious George, Hot Wheels, Peter Pan and his sword, a battery-operated fire engine, a gyrating dump truck, an entire Mutant Ninja Training Academy attached to an entire Alien Space Lab, soccer trophies, Tae Kwon Do trophies, a chipped ukulele, a rusty harmonica, several glow-in-the-dark dinosaur bones, a singular hand-painted ceramic tarantula, and a very buff and extremely naked G.I. Joe seated in his Jeep. When the boys see that you see what they have done, The Tae Kwon Do Master smiles sheepishly and hands you the Halloween mask. The Hulk says, "Look, Mommy, is that cool?" And the baby leans his big head so thrillingly far out of the stroller that the stroller appears about to tip when the Hulk announces, "Mom, Mommy, Mom, I have to make a boom!" You tell the Hulk to go ahead, make a boom, and he says, "Please, please, please, Mom, Mommy, Mom, help me!" And before you can tell the Master to clean up his chromosomal-XY mess, he declares, "Mommy, I have to make a boom, too!"
So now they are in a hair-pulling, foot-tripping, butt-kicking race to the toilet, and there seems to be blood involved. Is it yours? You pull down your pants. You check. No, it's theirs or, actually, it's the Master's, you discern after you pry them apart, and Hulk falls and hits his head on the side of the porcelain tub, and the baby spits up a shred of your bra, and the Master is now sobbing, blood drooling out of his mouth, "Mommy, Mama, Mom, he knocked my tooth out!" The Hulk stops and immediately enters into a litany of apologies. "Saw-ree, saw-ree, saw-ree," the Hulk says, and he allows his big brother to sit on the potty before him, and you think, Well, there is some brotherly love here after all. And the Hulk patiently waits his turn, sitting on the Winnie the Poo step stool and pointing at the baby, who has that red-faced What is happening to me, Mom? look that signals his poop is also on its way.
It's a pooping party, and you're the star. You are the star who is needed right now because this is a crucial moment in these boys' daily psycho-emotional lives. After boys poop, they hate to flush it down. They want to study their accomplishment. They need Mom to approve of it too, Mom to admire it, Mom to wave it good-bye, bye-bye boom, as it swirls down the whirlpool pot. And after it is all gone, they are terrified to wash it off their hands. They want to keep it with them all day long -- just like men who will keep the after-sex musk on them all day as a kind of secret they share with their bodies, themselves. With boys, you have to bribe them into washing their hands after using the potty. And when you start doling out the treats, it starts another fight. Who got a nickel, a penny, a dime? You watch the baby watching the escalation of yet another fight, surely thinking that this behavior is something to aspire to one day, you cannot help but ask yourself, My God, does any of this really surprise you?
Because admit it. You had three big football-playing brothers and a Super Bowl coach for a father, didn't you? You even named your three boys after football players your father once coached. You grew up in a cauldron of testosterone and even thought that someday you would make a fine NFL quarterback, if only given the chance. And if anyone ever even mentioned the notion of you giving birth to kids, you said, "Boys! Give me boys!" Come on, you wanted three boys. You said it yourself: "I think three boys would be fun." You said, "Better boys than girls. Boys are easy." You thought you'd seen it all -- on the field and off. Shin bones broken in half; limp arms dangling from separated shoulders; skulls cracked on sprinkler heads; collarbones snapped; barfing head concussions; bodies hurled through sliding-glass doors, off of tall stucco walls, and, once, down a cliff. Hadn't you seen every catastrophic boy scenario ever played out on the face of the planet?
Apparently not, because now you get to see it all over again in a more intimate version with your very own sons. See the "na-na na-na-na" fights, the "you can't catch me" fights, and the never-ending "it's mine" fights. See them fight over rocks, shells, and straws. Fights over who can pee fastest, longest, sloppiest. Fights over washrags, snot rags, and dust rags. And then there are the fights over Mom: who can kiss Mom the most, who can pick Mom more flowers, who can hug Mom the hardest, who can draw Mom the greatest crayon drawing. Who can tell Mom the most, "You're the best mommy in the whole world." Those fights no one wins, except maybe you, drenched in hand-torn flowers, crayon colorings and purple Popsicle-lipped kisses. Still, so many, too many fights, and you wonder, My God, how did this gender ever become world leaders? So many fights, you think, My God, I must be doing something wrong. So many fights you find yourself -- in parks, grocery stores, and school parking lots -- frantically searching out and stopping other haggard, lean mothers of three sons to ask them, "Please tell, do yours fight?" And you are actually happy to hear painful stories about bones breaking, noses bleeding, teeth falling out. So, as you regard this hormonal freak show that has become your daily life, you remind yourself, This is normal; this is natural. Because, for a girl, anything normal or natural is good, Mother Nature-y and organic, and thus somehow not in need of immediate repair. And for that, you thank God.
You thank God a lot. Thank God you have healthy sons. Thank God you can swear like a lineman, yell like a lineman, and have the pain threshold of a lineman too. Because this last baby boy -- whom you have now strolled out onto the back patio along with his brothers to watch the swimming poolnoodle fight in the driveway -- he weighed ten pounds, eight ounces at birth. No C-section, no drugs, not a single stitch. The hitch? For forty days and forty nights, you could not take a single step without your hands gripped as tightly as possible on a squeaky old-folks walker. That's right. A walker. You walked with a walker and listened to the crunching of your own cartilage with every single step because the big boy baby had actually refigured the shape of your entire pelvic skeletal structure. And your sons, what did they do? They looked at you with mouths open, eyebrows arched -- complete compassion -- before asking you, as you slow-motioned yourself from one chair to the next, "Mom, Mommy, Mom, do you want to wrestle now?" And so, several months later, you sure as hell thank God that you can now walk and sneeze and laugh and run without having to reach down between your legs nearly every second to wonder, Holy Jesus, did my ki-ki just fall out?
So you need to "put it all in perspective," as your mom tells you when you give her a 911 dinnertime call. Mom is so wise. She's eighty-one, fit, and clinically deaf. She's always said she went deaf from doing too many high-dives as a kid. But now you know the truth. You know she went deaf as a survival mechanism while raising three sons. When you call her, you can barely hear her because the boys are having a high-pitched shrieking contest in the driveway and the baby is practicing his laugh track. When you tell her that you feel like you are running barefoot on a treadmill set on High-Speed-Panic, she says, "Are you having your period? They're boys. What do you expect?" Then she says, "Wooden spoons. Why do you think I gave you those three wooden spoons for Christmas? How do you think I raised your brothers? They survived, didn't they?"
Back to your brothers, fine grown men with children of their own. Sure, they used to call your mom "a dog," "the maid," and a "stupid, selfish mother," but they all grew up, grew out of it, and love her today, don't they? And when she now tells them, "I love you," they reply, "It's your job." And don't you know that somewhere in the subtext of "it's your job" is a whole lot of love?
So, please, please, try to have a little fun, will you? It's a strapped-in, hang-on, long haul of a rollercoaster ride, and there's no need to shout or panic or cry. When it's all over, you'll be shaking, weak-kneed, and winded, and you'll say, "Hey, that wasn't so bad. Let's do that again!" But by then it will be too late.
Game over. Tilt. Time to go to bed. And you'll be oh, so very, very sad.
You can feel it coming on every night. After the bathroom-flooding baths, the pillow fights, and the jumping on beds. After the reading of the Little Engine That Could and the singing of the "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Fart" song. After the sun has gone down and the mill you have been frantically treading on seems finally to slow down. After they have said their prayers and thanked God for everybody and everything. When the day is nearly done, and the house smells like a kennel, and there is spit-up in your hair, you cannot help feeling, not relieved nor necessarily accomplished, but sort of sad.
Tucked in their space-ship sheets, in the glow of their lava lamp-lit room, they still need you. The Hulk clutches his Peter Pan sword; the Master, his stuffed basset hound; and the baby, you. The Hulk twirls a strand of your hair and asks, "Mom, Mommy, Mom, even when we're mad at each other we love each other, right?" The Master puts his tooth under his pillow and asks, "Mama, can I kiss you?" The baby buries his head into your neck. You peek under the bed for monsters. You check the guardrails. You turn on every light in the room. You try to remove all the fears these little boys feel as the night grows darker. You give them their last "don't leave me, don't let me go, Mommy" hug. You pet their heads, tell them, "I love you, see you in the morning."
Soon they will be asleep. Then the tooth fairy will come. In time, they will be men. Someday "you" will become "I" again. And one day, when you tell them that you love them, they will tell you, "It's your job, Mom," and you will thank them.
For now, you wipe the sweat from their brows. You give them one last kiss. One last long hug.
"Sweet dreams," you whisper. "Hold on tight. Tomorrow's another ride."
Excerpted from "Because I Said So: 33 Mothers Write About Children, Sex, Men, Aging, Faith, Race & Themselves," edited by Kate Moses and Camille Peri, former editors of Salon's Mothers Who Think. Copyright (c) 2005 by HarperCollins. Published by arrangement with HarperCollins Publishers.