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The Hardest Thing I’ve Had to Say to My Child

Photograph by Twenty20

Caught up in a moment of affection, my 4-year-old son grabbed me from behind and began tickling me.

"Yikes!" I leapt up, caught off guard but laughing. He kept going, giggling while I tried to tamp down the sudden red-hot rage taking over.

"OK, OK..."

Still more giggles, more tickling.

"PLEASE, STOP! Mommy needs some space now."

It's a simple, effective statement, but one that fills me with shame and guilt every time. Here's a little boy who has grown up being smothered by kisses, cuddles and tickles, and now his pregnant mother can't stand being touched.

Most of my physical symptoms of pregnancy can be hidden from him, whether it's unpleasant morning sickness or waves of emotional anxiety. But just at a time when my son is learning to express his own emotions using everything we taught him—big smooches, cheek squeezes, bear hugs—I find myself recoiling from anything that can be interpreted as aggressive contact.

There are no conversations about moms suddenly needing a barrier from their own children.

The Internet is filled with stories of pregnant women's newfound squeamishness in the context of their partners, and the confusion and regret that accompanies this visceral reaction against physical affection. But there are no conversations about moms suddenly needing a barrier from their own children.

That's not to say I don't still love snuggling and kissing my little boy (and staring at him from an inch away while he sleeps), but anything that feels like I don't have control over sets off a self-preservation instinct. It's more than just an instinctive covering of my belly; as he clambers and climbs around me on the couch, or laughingly flails his legs (and when did they get so long?) as I try to tuck him into bed, my whole self goes into protective mode.

I tell myself that I'm teaching him necessary facts about physical boundaries. He knows now to ask permission before tickling anyone, even his best friends, and to immediately stop when they say so. He's becoming more aware of when his antics are crossing from playful to overzealous.

But that doesn't change how hard it is to keep telling a little person that mom needs her space—whether it's a few inches of leeway or a precious block of time to be completely alone. (I have fantasies of climbing into an escape pod for a 24-hour nap.) Still, getting those moments aren't as much an option as a necessity right now, and my hope is that ultimately, they make me a better mother the rest of the time.

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