Tickle My Back, Mama


“Will you tickle my back, Mama?”

I breathe in a deep sigh and try not to let it out so loudly that he notices. It’s already 45 minutes past bedtime, I still haven’t cleaned up from dinner, there is a load of towels in the washer growing mildew, I have to come up with a grocery list to order before midnight, and my husband hasn’t completed a sentence since he got home without being interrupted by some child needing some thing. I so do not have time to tickle anyone’s backs, and of course, if I do one, the others will hear and want me to do theirs as well.


“Just for a second, hon. Then Mommy has work to do, okay?”

Bedtime has always been a struggle for me. I used to read blogs and hear stories and see friends’ Instagram posts about those precious moments of quiet baths, stories, and snuggles with their little ones before bed. It seemed so easy in the books — use this infant massage technique to calm your baby, and watch her drift right to sleep! Be sure to choose a quiet book to read before bed to help your toddler settle down! Watch this adorable video of a 4-year-old praying so gingerly as she has heard her parents do each night!

In our house, there was none of that.

Bedtime was always rushing, chasing, yelling, spanking, crying, moving, exhausting. Three of my four children get hyper when they are tired, so nighttime is a lot less quiet cuddles and a lot more exasperated, empty threats to [fill in the blank] if so-and-so gets out of bed one.more.time, I swear I am not kidding this time!

Generally speaking, for the nine years I have been a mom, I have not enjoyed bedtime. At all.

One day a few years back, I was slowly-but-surely losing my mind as I tried to get three toddlers to take naps at the same time in the same room, and my 2-year-old asked me to tickle his back “like Minnie (their grandmother) does.” No doubt the first thought to run through my head was Sweet Brown yammering, “Ain’t nobody got time for that!” However, seeing that I was desperate and my sanity was on the line, I took a chance and conceded, “Okay, sure, but you have to lay still, do you understand me??” His face lit up even as his little eyes closed and he nuzzled his face – still stained with ketchup from our dinosaur chicken lunch – deep into the pillow. “Yes, mama,” he whispered.

I quietly hummed a song as I slowly ran my fingertips across his bare back in long, gentle strokes. I felt his tiny body melt in relaxation as I got to the chorus, his breathing becoming more shallow as he drifted off to sleep in those few brief moments. That tender touch from mama was all it took to quiet his body to rest — repeated 3x over, of course, because now everybody was in on the secret.

My sweet little experiment did not always produce identical results; sometimes the two-minute song got stretched into four minutes as I paused at the end of each line to remind a sibling to sit still and be quiet and wait his turn. Many times they would all get out of their beds 35 times each even after all that singing and tickling. Sometimes I only sang the chorus for 30 seconds and quickly moved on, and sometimes I just said, “Not tonight, baby. Mommy is very tired tonight.”

But I try to say yes whenever I can, just so they will remember that Mama always has just the right touch.

Tonight was supposed to be a chorus-only night: Mama has lots of work to do. As I ran my fingers slowly up my son’s back, I was suddenly struck by how long it took to get from one end to the other. When did his back get so big? I kept singing as my fingers gently drifted along his shoulders and down his arms, up his neck and around his ears. How many verses is that? I had to sing through the whole song three times to get around his whole body.

His back is not the same as that 2-year-old who trepidatiously requested a nap time favor those years ago. He will turn seven this month, more interested in Power Rangers and Pokemon than Super Why and Curious George. His back is lean and muscular from scaling the monkey bars at recess and wrestling his little brother, who is actually quite a bit stronger than him (but don’t tell him I know that). His hair is shaggy on top like the school friends he wants to imitate, not the Mom’s-home-special buzz I gave him for years when we couldn’t afford Super Cuts. He smells like his daddy, because he insisted I buy his own “man soap” like the one resting in my shower, now that he is so grown.

My song is interrupted a few times, not by a fidgeting baby across the room, but rather by his popcorn memory wanting to tell me every little thing that pops into his mind. I want to hear every word that he says, while he still deems me worthy to hear his every thought, but he is one who gets hyper when he’s tired, so I remind him to settle down and take deep breaths as I continue my song. I’m on the fourth time through now; I just don’t want to stop. He doesn’t ask for tickles as often as he used to — when will be the last time? Will I know it may be the last, at least enough to cherish it? I don’t want to miss these moments with him, quietly breathing together in the dark, closing out another day we will never get back. 

Finally I sing the last chorus and gently place his blanket over his shoulders. As I stand, out of the darkness I hear another voice from his brother, “Mama, will you tickle my back too?”

“Yes, baby. Of course I will.”

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Mary Beth Unthank
Knoxville born and bred, my love for this area is deep and true! I'm a working-turned-stay-at-home mom to 4 kiddos from elementary to high school. My husband and I live in Knoxville where we both lead nonprofit organizations and are trying to become Love in our community. I love watching my kids learn something new, cooking for other people (but not for myself), and telling myself I'm a #fitmom when I go to the gym like once a month. I'm a bottle-feeding, disposable diapering, public-schooling (other than the time I homeschooled for a minute) mom with the stereotypical chill attitude of moms with large(r) broods. I love meeting new people, but I talk way too much and laugh when I'm uncomfortable. If you don't mind long stories and bad jokes, we are sure to be friends! Follow my family adventures on my blog Unthank You Very Much


  1. So sweet! Never know when the last “anything” will be so this is awesome reminder to cherish life’s moments, especially the tender ones.


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