I couldn’t run out the door, no matter how badly my body and my mind were screaming for a break, for fresh air or a shot of tequila.
It was the morning of December 25th and the sun bled through the living room blinds. I sat on the couch holding my diaper-clad toddler, watching him catch a few minutes of sleep, waiting anxiously for him to awake again in agony. We both reeked of vomit. I'd been catching it in bowls and in my hands for hours. By 1 am I'd already changed the crib sheets and my shirt three times, used every paper towel and dishrag in the house. The bathroom, where my husband and I had started throwing the vomit-soaked items after the laundry basket was full, looked like a Christmas-themed pajama nightmare.
Under the glow of our perfect Douglas Fir, tears streamed down my cheeks and onto my sleeping son's shoulder. I massaged them gently into his back, pretending I was lending my despair to his hydration and healing. Really, I felt helpless. I was overcome with anxiety at his desperate state, but also with anger. I was filled with it knowing that on my family's favorite holiday, we wouldn't be exchanging gifts and eating turkey. This year, I wouldn't get to see my children brim with joy, or visit with the family members who only come home once a year. I'd be a landing pad for puke instead. And as sorry as I felt for my poor, helpless little boy, I was also infuriated that this was our Christmas.
I'd caught an hour of sleep (maybe) and the dark circles and heavy bags under my eyes, the ones I inherited from my father and his father that really stood out on days like these, showed it. For weeks, I'd imagined spending Christmas Eve putting finishing touches on my daughter's miniature stable for her horses and my son's car table—the ones I'd bought for cheap and spent a month painting in the garage during naptime. Instead I threw some cookies on a plate for Santa and sat up all night with an inconsolable toddler, praying for a few moments just to close my eyes. And being royally pissed off at Christmas and the entire world.
After the first morning rounds of cleanup, I dialed my mother's house and choked back tears as I relayed the news. "We can't come. The baby has a tummy bug. It's awful," I told her. But the saddest one of all wasn't my mother, or the little girl who sat snuggled on the couch watching holiday films, a little girl who would battle her own tummy bug a few days later. It was me, a 31-year-old woman with apparently no ability of her own to adapt. I'd spent the whole month making everything perfect—gifts, tree, sugar cookies—just in time for it to all fall apart. I'd stressed over money, time, gifts and holiday commitments on top of working and caring for the kids, and none of it even mattered. The throwing up would last for seven straight days between two kids, and there would be no time to be merry.
After a few days of being perpetually drenched in my son's stomach acid, having missed every holiday obligation we'd been planning for, I couldn't avoid the feeling that all I wanted to do was get away. I wanted to leave my house for a jog around the block, or maybe a marathon, and I don't even really like to run all that much. My mother and older sister are the runners in the family. But I wanted to run, and run fast, just to hear the sound of my own breath and get out from under the massive disappointment of my failed holiday expectations. I wanted to run and not turn back until the puking was long over. I wanted to get away from the hardness of it all, sleep for more than twenty minutes and be free from how badly they needed me. I could practically hear the sound of my feet smacking the pavement. Of course I wouldn't desert my children in their most helpless and vulnerable state; I needed to be with them. But feeling that huge, claustrophobic weight of being ever so needed made me imagine my feet moving faster than I've ever even tried to propel them.
Motherhood, in all its inescapable moments, has sometimes made me feel that way, made me crave running far and fast just when I'm needed the most. It's made me understand why my mother took it up over thirty years ago, just after both her daughters were born and old enough to be left with a babysitter so she could pound her feet on the pavement for half an hour each day. She almost never missed it. Even when there was three feet of snow on the ground, she found a path and tried not to slip and fall. Later, she won races. Her medals still hang behind the bar in the basement of her home, a bar that mostly goes unused, except at the holidays. I'm more of a yogi or a gym rat. For years, most of my runs happened on the treadmill, if they happened at all. But in moments like these, when I was covered in small bodies and could barely move, I understood the urge to just run out the front door and keep going.
In reality, a hurricane couldn't have moved me out from underneath my sick baby. By the third day his ribs stuck out where his fat little belly once was. His body was weak and pathetic. He didn't babble or smile, just sat and stared. I lay him between my bare breasts so he could listen to my heart, soaked in a warm bath with him, washing off the smell of sickness from his cheeks and hair. I wrapped him in blankets and checked on him thirty times a night, unable to rest even when he could. I was one wet diaper away from racing him to the ER, just before he began to keep down small sips of water. Then, a day later, it was my daughter's turn, and it was every bit as brutal. And I did it all again, the soothing, holding, running around the house looking for another clean rag, the praying for sleep.
In the hazy days of our winter break, when we didn't leave the house for a week, I felt like the worst possible version of myself—my most depleted, anxious and self-loathing. I couldn't run out the door, no matter how badly my body and my mind were screaming for a break, for fresh air or a shot of tequila. Instead, I settled for a shower and telling myself this isn't forever. Because that's what motherhood is: settling for water down your back when you really want the world to stop turning.
Come New Year's Day, everyone was rosy-cheeked and keeping down crackers and toast. And as is my tradition at the start of the new year, I laced up my shoes and went running along with everyone and their New Year's resolutions, alongside the mothers escaping tummy bugs, teething, teenage years. Family members flew back home and a few weeks later we took down our tree. And I hated myself just a tiny bit for how I'd grieved over our cancelled Christmas and fantasized about not being needed, even for a moment. But being a mother doesn't make me immune to crushing disappointment, or wanting to run for my life.
Through it all, the urgency and the chaos of holding a family together, I have to remind myself that the space to be briefly untethered is small, but it's there. Holidays will come again, and soon. Motherhood, in all its incessantness, flies by in hurry, from one year to the next. One of these days, I'm going to have to learn to keep up. Until then, I'll keep my running shoes close, and hold my babies closer.