It has been a puzzle of a morning.
My son has progressed a level in swimming – a good thing. The only slot available for the new class coincides with his afternoon nap – a bad thing. Do we dare shift his nap back? Should we look for another swim school? Or should we stop the lessons?
My 31/2-year-old daughter drinks three bottles of milk a day, too much by most paediatricians’ standards. We need a plan to wean her.
We have just bought a house and must carve out time to relook our savings plans. There are groceries to do, meals to plan and bills to be paid.
I am prioritising this mental to-do list as I sit in front of the dressing room table at 8am on a Thursday, applying make-up so I can look half-alive at work, with my son at my feet.
The two-year-old clambers onto my lap and grabs my lipstick. I now look like Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight.
My work e-mail box needs taming. I have a separate to-do list for work. The items on this list must be ticked off before noon – when I have to shuttle my daughter back from school.
My son pokes at a toy digger on the floor. I have a few minutes to indulge in the bad habit of browsing my Facebook feed. I see photos posted by carefree friends on a weekend getaway in Hong Kong. I see the smiling faces at a wedding I wasn’t invited to. A mummy friend pulls out of our playgroup date. Her son is sick.
I try to go to the bathroom. My son clings onto my leg. I go anyway.
At this point, it dawns on me that I’ve never been so lonely in my life. Most of the pieces of the morning are in place, but it appears that one is missing.
You need some balance, say my well-meaning family and friends, and learn to compartmentalise like so-and-so.
So I try – is this the missing piece?
Instead of rushing home to see the children and put them to bed, I make an appointment with a friend to watch a movie. Daddy agrees to take over child rearing as well as bedtime duties that night.
When I reach home, the children are already asleep. In the morning, they ask for daddy. Daddy is at work I tell them, mummy is here. They bawl. My head (and heart) hurts.
Last week, while I was out on a grocery run at FairPrice with the children – my son in my arms, my daughter screaming that she wanted to be carried too, neither willing to get into the cart – I spot another mother about to lose her mind.
I felt the urge to ask this stranger: “Are you overwhelmed trying to keep it all together? Do you sometimes feel like running away and leaving it all behind? Will you judge me if I tell you that I once fed my children Coco Pops cereal for lunch to avoid a food battle? Do you want to hang out some time to, maybe, cry together?”
But I don’t. I begin to give her a smile instead, to show her that I understand. But then my son makes a beeline for a shelf stacked with glass bottles. I run after him.
Motherhood is lonely. Plain and simple. This is the missing part of the puzzle.
I am grateful that I have friends who care about me and I wish I could spend time with them without glancing at the clock every few minutes and feeling as if I have abandoned my offspring.
Yes, at this stage of my life, I am finding it extraordinarily hard to maintain friendships.
One thing I am well aware of, however, is that I have chosen this situation.
I am lucky enough to be able to afford a helper and could very easily ask her to put the children to bed every night, read to them and change their soiled diapers.
Grandma, I am sure, would not mind pitching in more on weekends. And on Friday nights, I could sneak out of the house to hang out with friends after the children have gone to bed. I would be zoned out on Saturday, but, hey, something has got to give.
I could, if I wanted to, spend much less time with my children.
But I am keenly aware that this bed-wetting, piggy-backing, lap-reading phase will soon pass, and that every single moment is a precious one to savour.
It is a time when my little ones need me and truly enjoy being around me.
A time of unadulterated joy and passion for the everyday – when funny faces draw shrieks of laughter, when the neighbour mowing the lawn is the most interesting thing ever, when they want yet another kiss or cuddle in bed, when they hug and just won’t let go.
They are awed by the simplest of things and thrilled by the mundane. (Really, cardboard boxes and toothpaste tubes shouldn’t bring this much joy, but they do.)
It may be that I am living much of my life now for my kids, but what an amazing experience it is.
The puzzle, it seems, was complete all along. It just needed rearranging.
A version of this article first appeared on The Straits Times.