"You need privacy...with me."

Posted on October 12, 2013 by Katherine Ruch


One of the sanctifying aspects of a large family for me is the constant infringement on my physical space.  I should not still expect personal space after growing up as I did.  My teenage life was spent riding the public buses in Sao Paulo, Brazil (the second largest city in the world), which were filled 100 percent beyond capacity with people hanging out of the door and the bus listing to one side.  I would be at the right height to have my head thrust into an available armpit, as all the people standing in the aisles had their arms straight up, in surrender to the thieves of privacy and human decency. 

Body odor mixed with cheap cologne will always throw me back decades into the undesired confinement of a lurching city bus.  Sometimes the bus would stop quickly, and my feet would lift off the floor, and I would be suspended among working bodies, my feet fluttering away in desperation for a landing place.  Groping hands often took advantage of these undesired intimate moments. 

The noise pollution in a city of our size is something few can imagine.  Trucks barreling down the road;  Gas trucks playing lines from classical music over and over to identify the kind of gas for sale; political ads shouted out on megaphones attached to cars;  salespeople shouting; the knife-sharpening man clapping his clapper together; doorbells ringing incessantly;  pressure cookers hissing; cement drills and picks clanging away on sidewalks and construction. Noise goes on all night.

At home, my mother welcomed in strays from all walks so that people slept in the laundry room, on the couch and wherever was available. We often had large groups for dinner, and every holiday was an opportunity to share our home and our family.

Why did we live in such a place?  Because that is where the people were.  If we wanted to reach the people, we had to endure what comes with people.


One would think such life preparation would make me easy with six children in a relatively small house.  But I still find my patience exhausted, and my expectation for space only expanded.  When I sit on the couch to read to my children, I imagine a cosy read with a living book, maybe everyone sipping a hot drink under hand knitted throws.  Instead I must endure ten minutes of arguing over seats--those who need to read along over my shoulder up against those who don't like feet touching them and squabbling with the ones who never get to be right next to me.  Then there is the settling in, then the heavy leaning against my side, and someone lying behind me on the top edge of the sofa.  The baby comes up and decides that nursing right now would be the cosiest conclusion to this happy scene, and once settled in, kicks the child on one side while pinching the face of the one on the other. How I am tempted to give up, though I know this is worth making happen.


Mealtime is another assault on physical and air space.  The volume at the table is deafening.  All my children are storytellers and expand on one another's stories, with hilarious theatrical imitations; children call for food; someone spills a glass of water;  younger ones need to be coaxed to eat vegetables. Recently, my two year old kept calling, "please pass the butter...please pass the butter..."over and over.  Finally, unattended, he stood up on his seat, took his glass of water and held it over his brother's head, saying, "Ellison, look in my eyes.  If you don't pass the butter, I pour this on your head." So much for a civil and polite meal.

How many meals have I had a baby nursing while I try to lean over an extended body to get some meager bites in my mouth, in between serving up more food and trying to follow one line of conversation to its conclusion.  At least the boys are not playing soccer or football in the hall.  We have them "contained" at the table. The baby may get up and begin playing loudly by the table, though, and I am dreaming of bed time and quiet.


But my bedtime once again makes me available to waking children, and my bed can be filled with wanderers at any point during the night.  I won't even mention the child that always wanted his hand in my armpit, or the child that cuddled with her hand down my shirt.

The car is another chance for sanctification.  The arguing over seats, the screaming infant, the discussion over music or audio books, the distribution of snacks, the child asking a question over and over, the rowdy game between two
children that involves hilarious laughter and poking and tickling--all contribute to a cacophony of insanity.  I'll never forget one of my most amiable children, fairly tolerant of noise and confusion, bursting out in the middle of a 4,500 mile road trip, "Get me out of this stinking wreck!"  All grew quiet in shock that one of our most stable would come so near the edge.  The situation must be quite dire in the back seat.

How many times I want to yell, "Get me out of this stinking wreck!" I do not know what I expected of life with people, especially children, but I now know that people and relationships are messy.  I can choose to engage, or I can become a control fanatic.  True, children must be taught to sit still, be quiet, and we do need times away from the fray, but if we want to engage life, we must engage noise, smells, and disruptions.

I have found the best anecdote for me is humor.  How many times my husband and I look at each other from opposite ends of the table and stifle laughter. Two times I have found hidden toys in my blouse that I, so completely compromised in my sense of personal space, was completely unaware of.  One time a child I was holding at church must have inserted a toy in a "safe place." When I patted my chest in a gesture of compassion for someone, I felt a sharp presence--only a matchbox car. Another time I participated in an evening of pre-marital counseling for a couple and while saying goodbye made a similar discovery of a Playmobil character tucked asleep in my bra.  I was humorously horrified.

How am I sanctified through this infringement on my space?  I am reminded daily that my life is not my own.  My issues with control are constantly challenged and brought into submission to the greater virtue of flexibility and presence in the moment.  Jesus made it clear that children are good for us.  We have much to learn from them, and when we let them into our lives, we find that people are more important than our things, and our time, and our plans, and even our sense of individuality.

My oldest daughter at age three, followed me into the bathroom one day and as she closed the door behind her said, "You need privacy...with me."  Such is the privacy I have had for years...with someone who feels my privacy is actually to be shared.  And because of this, I have learned to give up what I hold tightly and open the door and let in someone who might even take too much.  In return, my life is rich in textures, voices, confidences, the touch of little hands, and story.  I hold onto life a little more loosely and let it unfold as it will.  This is the cost of relationship, of family.

Sometimes I feel I am on that bus groping for a sure footing, trying to stake out my piece of ground.  But now I at least know that I am going somewhere and that the destination of a life rich in people and a heart that has room for people is worth the crowded bus ride.