Bathroom door locked? Or unlocked? I’m convinced that single choice is as indicative of what kind of mother a woman is as her choice to breast or bottle feed. For most of my years as a mother I willingly allowed myself to be completely and immediately available to my children at all times and so I adopted the unlocked door policy. Whether it was for a bath or for “going” I left the door unlatched, basically inviting my toddlers, and even children up to the age of six, into what should have been my private domain. If my youngest was a baby, they often shared the space with me, nestled in a baby seat, sometimes crying inconsolably. And, yes, I am embarrassed to admit, I have even nursed a baby while sitting on the porcelain throne. When you live with IBS (irritable bowel syndrome) from the age of 26 on, there is no avoiding those embarrassing and otherwise painful bathroom moments.
During those early days of parenting, it felt like I had no choice. It was either be alone in the bathroom with a locked door and listen to screaming and pounding from the other side, or allow an open and easy access to mommy at all times, and I chose the latter, hoping to avoid some of the melee. For some reason, my husband never had to make that kind of choice; no one ever bothered him in the bathroom. But if I so much as relaxed in a bubbly hot bathtub, a gleeful toddler would come running, stripping off their clothes on the way to the bathroom.
The unlocked door syndrome eventually led to a sense of entitlement in my children, which spilled over into other areas; in the kitchen as I cooked, while children congregated and clamored for a drink, at the door when I attempted an escape for a lone walk that was prevented by a child clinging to me and crying, and even to the bedroom where my husband’s place next to me was usurped by a nursing child. This was the only mother I knew how to be; one who immersed herself completely into mothering.
How did I become the militant baby-wearing, extended breastfeeding, sleep-sharing, attachment style mother that would refuse to be away from her children? I was a college student when I had my first two children. While I occasionally lay down with them for naps, they had both slept in a crib at night and weaned on their own before their first birthdays.
Our third baby, however, was a mother’s nightmare. Literally. By day, his temperament and personality were nearly beatific. He was an extremely happy baby, always smiling. His whole body shook with laughter at his sibling’s antics. He rarely even cried. For the first few months I’d thought I’d hit the perfect baby jackpot.
Then when he started teething around four months of age sweet little baby Michael transformed into a night monster. I could expect him to sleep for maybe two hours tops after his evening feeding, and then the night-time Olympics would begin. Michael tossed and turned, crying out as if in pain, then screaming inconsolably until I lifted him out of his crib and started rocking. Rocking in a rocking chair or dancing around the room were the only things that worked to calm him. I tried everything else; Tylenol for teething pain, shorter naps during the day, even bringing him into bed with me but he’d arch his back stiffly and scream unless I resumed the rocking or pacing. I rocked him so much I actually broke a rocking chair. I was his nocturnal dance partner. I became a human pacifier. I rubbed his little tummy and took him for car rides in the middle of the night. There were many times I’d just give up on sleep and the pair of us could be found at a  24-hour restaurant, me sipping coffee and studying for a college exam and him smiling happily, eating butter toast and sliding ice cubes back and forth across the shiny tray of the highchair.
If he slept well one night I’d frantically try to re-create the events of the day before in the vain hope it would ensure another night of sleep. Had we gone to the park? I’d take him to the park again. If he’d worn his fuzzy blue pajamas, I’d dress him in them again. Had he eaten a jar of sweet potatoes for supper?  I’d shovel a jar of the orange stuff into his little bird mouth. Good sleep usually eluded me until 5:00 in the morning when my husband got up early for work and took over, feeding Michael soggy cornflakes from his bowl while I passed out for a couple of hours in the bedroom in the deepest sleep I’d ever experienced before or since.
Doctors just shook their heads and looked at me in disbelief when I toted this healthy, happy baby to their office with my complaints. Yet, the nightmare lasted for a good twelve months. Michael had started sleeping better during my next pregnancy, waking only once a night by the time his sister Rachel was born. Throughout all this, Michael’s daytime angelic temperament had remained. At 23 months he’d pop his own pacifier into Rachel’s mouth if she cried, and sat in silence at the foot of the bed while she napped, waiting for her to wake up.
After Rachel was born I didn’t even bother with a crib, she started out sleeping in our bed. Cribs were history for our subsequent four children who nursed throughout the night in our bed well past their second birthdays. By the time baby number five had arrived I’d begun home schooling, too, ensuring long days caring for children without the break most mothers got from their children.
Gradually and almost imperceptibly, I had morphed into the die-hard attachment-style parent that puts her children first, the woman who didn’t bat an eye when her husband moved out of her bed and onto a mattress on the floor to make room for children.
But by then I’d lost more than a good relationship with my husband; I’d lost myself.
It was only after my husband David was diagnosed with cancer in the summer of 2006 that I began reclaiming both. During the 11 days he spent in the hospital after an invasive surgery to remove the cancer, I visited him daily, taking a leap in faith that my children could survive without me. They did more than survive; they thrived under the watchful care of aunts who cared about them. I became David’s caregiver during his months of chemotherapy and radiation. During that period I fell in love with him all over again.
On the day my caregiving ended and David returned to work, I hugged him goodbye and then went into the bathroom, where I took a good long look in the mirror and promptly burst into tears. Who is that old, tired woman staring back at me, I wondered. Married at 19, a mother at 20, I’d spent most of my adult life mothering eight children, then caring for a husband with cancer. I’d been taking care of others for so many years; I’d forgotten how to take care of myself.
That was over three years ago. The wake-up call in front of the mirror began what would become an odyssey of reclaiming my own self-hood. Gradually, I began taking back some of my rightful privacy and re-training my children to respect that. I walk with my sister four mornings a week and lift weights at home the other mornings. While before I practically lived in old sweatshirts or loose nursing tops and sweatpants, now I search for comfortable and flattering clothing for my changing shape. I go out to a restaurant occasionally and spend time writing while a waitress refills my coffee cup. I get up at 6:00 a.m. to ensure some time alone. My husband and I schedule regular dates, even if too many of them include a doctor’s appointment or CT scan. And, yes, I lock the bathroom door.
It is easy now to say I wish I could have been a different sort of mother, that if I could do it all over again, I’d take steps not to lose myself or nearly lose my marriage in the process of parenting.
But I’m not entirely sure I would have done it all differently. I’d still have nursed and rocked my babies, snuggled with them in bed, and would have continued using the backpack or sling, if only because it was easier. Where would I have drawn the line then? There is a subtle distinction between “mothering” and “smothering.” It was I who ended up feeling suffocated.
Perhaps it would have been enough to simply close and lock the bathroom door.

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