Do not disturb!
Finding sanctuary at home

Where do you go to find moments of peace and quiet in your own home to escape the daily helter-skelter of family life?


With women more likely than men to experience frustrations at home, three writers, who are all mothers with different family set-ups, share their attempts at living in a house full of people where everyone wants space for themselves. With varying degrees of success…

Beasts in my bathroom

Victoria Milligan is a writer, motivational and TEDx speaker. She lives in London, England, with her three children, two dogs and a cat. Her escape is to the one room in the house with a lock…

I dash in from the rain, having practically thrown my son onto the last bus he can catch before he gets a ‘late detention’. I am bursting for a pee. I run upstairs to one of my favourite rooms in the house – my sanctuary, my bathroom… only to find it is occupied. By Mabel, the cat. She is perched precariously with her back legs on the loo seat and her head down the pan. Hang on a minute, is she actually drinking the loo water? Gosh I’m glad I flushed it this morning. This is a whole new level up from sitting on the edge of the basin to watch the tap drip.

I am a sole parent and live in a slightly crazy and chaotic house with my two girls, my son, said cat, and two dogs – ‘The Lock Down Dog’, a two-year-old completely bonkers flat-coated retriever called Bibi, and Frank the very cute miniature long-haired dachshund. Mabel is rarely brave enough to go downstairs as Bibi still goes crazy whenever she sees her.

Only last night, after an exhausting day, I had retreated into my supposed sanctuary, lit some candles, put on a ‘relaxing playlist’, filled the bath and thrown in some lavender and magnesium soothing salts. With impeccable timing, with one leg just in the water, I hear, ‘BIBI!!!’…‘SOMEONE GET THE DOG’…’SAVE THE CAT’…‘QUICK, MUM, HELP!!!’. All three kids and two dogs are thundering around the house chasing after the poor cat. I burst out of the bathroom before everyone else bursts in.

Over the years, there has rarely been respect for my place of peace. Surely my bathroom can be the one room that I can retreat to with no one needing me or asking me things. Is it too much to ask to have a pee in private without someone shouting, ‘Muuuum, how long do I cook the chicken for?’ ‘Muuuum, did you wash my trainers?’ ‘Muuuum I’m so late, can you run me to the station?’

“There is something very disconcerting about having several pairs of eyes watching intently as you wash.”

It is the place that I always keep tidy, the one place where everything is ordered, MY things are organised, from MY makeup to MY skincare which is displayed in order of how they are used, from serums through to creams, and MY perfumes are arranged from floral day time through to more evening musky smells.

So when my two girls come in, now 21 and 20, to ‘borrow’ a mascara or face cream, why do they have to rummage through every single drawer, box, cupboard? And why do they have to commandeer my towels and dressing gown too? Does it cross their minds that I may possibly need a towel when I come out of the shower, dripping wet? No, it seems not.

Left: Victoria with her daughters Amber and Olivia, Right: Bibi makes herself at home

I expected it when they were little, they were always barging into the bathroom to ask for everything from an opinion on a Disney princess outfit, or to smear some of my much-loved makeup all over their little faces. As they got older, I thought they would have more respect for my privacy, but obviously not.

It is not just them, the animals wait for me patiently while I am in the shower or the bath, staring through the shower door – although I am grateful that my water-loving dog doesn’t actually try to get in with me. But there is something very disconcerting about having several pairs of eyes watching intently as you wash.

There is only one thing to do. Find another place of refuge. Perhaps in the children’s bathroom – after all they are never in it, they are always in mine.

Always ‘on’

Davina O’Donoghue, a market research agency board director, lives in Dublin, Ireland with her husband and three daughters. The youngest, Purdy, has Down’s syndrome and is a 10-year old bundle of endless energy…

Small, red-headed, with beautiful, elven features – and completely and utterly nuts. Our third child, Purdy. The net effect of Purdy’s extra chromosome appears to be the lack of an off switch. Or any sense of danger. She has ricocheted like an entertaining, stray bullet through her first 10 years. I am not taking bets on whether we all make it through the next ten.

There is no love like it, but there is no respite either. Not really. Ask any family with a child with additional needs: there is no let up. People around you get a snapshot of  the job at hand – and it doesn’t look too bad. What they don’t see is a whole family marking a child like a basketball player. Someone always, always has to be ‘on’ her.

Even in the dead of night. Because when she wakes – which she does many, many times – she goes on manoeuvres, emptying baking cupboards, letting the dogs out, expressing herself on her drum kit.

We have strategies. We know when she feels seen, safe and included, she lets us get on. We find ways for her to entertain herself nearby or engage in what we are doing. She bowls the laundry overarm into the basket to ‘help’, while I sort. The cupboard under the stairs, transformed with lava lamps and fairy lights, is a win. That is her sanctuary.

But the real ‘time off’ part looks very different for all of us. We regularly reach the end of our tethers and have become adept at being kind to each other. We recognise the signs, see the fuse burning down and try to clear the decks for whoever is on the brink.

My darling husband benefits from the additional super-power that is gifted to many (but of course not all) dads – he can be in the room and screen it out. In our kitchen is a frayed, tobacco-coloured club chair with wonky springs, where he sits with a magazine. It is a signal to all that he is done. Nothing is going to penetrate. I’m always amazed by his discipline of shutting down in order to recharge, all within striking distance of the mayhem.

“There is no love like it, but there is no respite either.”

Left: Purdy ‘helping’ with the laundry, Right: Entertainment with big sister Georgia

The older girls are bonded in an extraordinary way because of Purdy. They huddle together to laugh and chat in the eldest’s bedroom – a shared destination of great importance to both. Sadly, I know deep down this is in part avoidance of the chaos Purdy brings. But duvets, pillows, mood lighting, all feature – designed by their own hand – as they seek sanctuary under the blankets. As long as the door is shut, they are feeling some ‘normal’.

The torturous nocturnal antics, sustained over 10 years, define my needs when it comes to sanctuary. I need sleep. Probably there aren’t enough hours left in my lifetime to catch up on all that I have lost. There are days when I can truly feel my cells degenerating. There is no obvious place for me to escape the constant comings and goings when this happens.

Crawling onto the sofa bed in the cold, dark space of the playroom on the ground floor is my best bet. If I sneak upstairs I am followed. If I lie in my own bed, I can hear just enough to worry, but not enough to know what’s being managed. There is something about the size of this sofa bed, the particular mattress topper, the weight of the chunky knit blanket that anchors me, allows a little child-like trust, and just for a short while I don’t have to ‘adult’.

Then there are the times when Purdy deigns to sleep and we light a fire in the garden, drawing out our teenagers. We get to really listen to them, to hear them and marvel at them…until the dog catches her tail in a flame. Stupidoodle!

And more frequently than we might notice, when all our batteries are over 50 per cent, we step into Purdy’s world by raiding the costume box and whacking Alexa up to a million decibels. We do dress up in costume outfits much more than any normal family.

Would I change anything? No. Not about our lives, our loves, our children. But would I like a comfortable, soundproofed, subterranean bunker full of oil burners and million thread count sheets? Yes. I would.

We can’t hear you

As well as a mother to five children, Dr. Traci Baxley Ed.D, who lives in Florida in the US, is a professor, consultant, parenting coach, speaker and creator of Social Justice Parenting™. Despite her career credentials, trying to disengage her teenagers from their headphones is a battle many parents will be familiar with.


I pulled into the driveway, popped the trunk of my car open, and headed into the house. “Hey everyone, please help get the groceries.” I wait for the rush of my five children hurrying out to help. Nothing. A bit louder this time, “Hey everyone, there’s a lot of groceries in the trunk.” I waited. I looked around and every bedroom door remained closed. As I peeked in each room, everyone was in their personal spaces wearing earphones, unplugged from the world around them – which included me. My initial emotions were anger and frustration. Those feelings quickly turned into sadness and loneliness. I was standing in the middle of my house, and no one even knew I was home.

As a mother who thrives on teachable moments, this was a perfect opportunity to create dialogue and action around finding balance with space to centre ourselves (which is needed in our large family) and the need for feeding the soul with family connections.

As each child emerged from their cocoon, I did what any adventurous mom would do; I stole their headphones. Needless to say, they were not thrilled. I asked them to spend some time with me putting away the groceries and starting dinner; they could have their headphones back when family dinner-time was over. After a few eye-rolls and grumbles, they agreed.

As promised, after dinner I handed them an envelope and asked my oldest child to read it aloud: ‘The Hunt for Headphones now begins. Work together to see where this ends. First, everyone takes a SPIN under the tree. Once you are TANGLED & TWISTED you will receive your next clue from me.’

When they arrived in the backyard, the board game Twister was set up and waiting. Before long, they were laughing, connecting (and competing, of course) and enjoying being in the moment with each other. After several clues to activities, games and dessert we sat down to discuss what this reset meant for each of us.

“As I peeked in each room, everyone was in their own personal spaces wearing earphones, unplugged from the world around them – which included me.”

The family together celebrating Christmas and on holiday in New Orleans

Although our responses were different in some ways, we all agreed that “dragging” them away from their headphones was needed and a reminder that although we do all need our own space, connection to others is essential to our wellbeing. Social connection lowers anxiety and depression and helps us regulate emotions, all of which my family has experienced.

After our discussion, the kids could get their headphones and go back to their rooms or watch a movie together. Three of my five children watched the movie; one remained in the same space but wanted his headphones for white noise while reading, and one needed alone time.

It’s essential to know your family’s needs. Some of us need more centering alone time, while others crave community and connection. Make space for conversations about how to support each family member in finding that balance and how, as a family, to honour everyone’s needs. Being intentional in creating safe spaces in our homes for centering and connecting is necessary for raising children who can self-advocate, self-regulate and show compassion to others.

And when all else fails, give yourself permission to be a fun-loving, treasure hunt-making headphone smuggler.




Dr Traci Baxley is author of Social Justice Parenting: How to Raise Compassionate, Anti-Racist, Justice-minded Kids in an Unjust World. 

Illustrations: Becky Barnicoat