I rarely turn my child away, but I really want to sometimes.
I feel like I am confessing a great sin when I admit: I am not a good night mother. At the end of a work-at-home day as a mostly full-time writer and editor, and the constant tiny demands of the household, my patience and coping skills splinter apart at night.
Night is the time when I need to pause the full-bore level of mommy performance, to loosen the tether between my son and me just a little, for his hands to stop their grasping, to turn down the talking, to enter the silence of my own mind. Every call that follows me down the hall after I leave him (after the bedtime ritual of reading books and singing songs and talking about our day) feels like prickly Velcro at the back of a sweater.
Over the six years of his life my husband and I have been seduced, out of sheer exhaustion, into strategies that help our son fall asleep, enlisting our assistance, ranging from patting him to tickling him, to sitting on the bottom bunk of his bed. Eventually, these strategies always stop working, taking longer and longer, and we are forced to let him self-soothe, which often involves tears (for all involved).
Cue the guilt, which rumbles through me like painful indigestion. Double up the guilt after I read a recent article on Huffington Post about a mother who never turns away her children at night because now that she has one last little one, she knows how fast it goes. Envy burned me at her patience, at her ability to roll with the flow of her children.
And yet, I rarely turn my child away either, but I want to. More times than I can count I’ve awakened from that strange seam between dreams and waking with a small scream of surprise to find my own version of Children of the Corn standing beside my bed staring at me with forlorn eyes—my towheaded son awakened by anything ranging from the urge to pee to a dream about “skeletons.”
More times than I can count I have gathered him into my bed, stuffed earplugs into my ears to drown out the grinding of his teeth, and settled in. Just as many times I’ve walked him back to his bed and tickled him until the tickling failed and then grumpiness turned to chastising and frustrated exclamations of, “If you don’t go to sleep, I’m going to be Cranky Mommy tomorrow.”
The tensions of motherhood confound me. For the first two years I was always on, too fresh and unschooled in parenting to ever let a single night cry go unheeded. A two year gauntlet, traumatic to us two adults who had spent 12 years in the relative bliss of weekend sleeping in. Before our son, sleep was a given, or if insomnia struck, I didn’t fret. And then we had a baby.
The first time my infant son slept more than two hours in a row (a whopping five hours), I lay awake the entire night and into the morning, heart racing, body sweating, mind running in panicked circles. I need to sleep. I’m so tired. What if he wakes? Why can’t I sleep?
By 6am, when my husband rolled toward me, I released an anguished cry, beyond words.
“What’s wrong?” he soothed.
“I haven’t slept all night,” I wailed.
He hugged and shushed me and took the baby when he woke another hour later, leaving me to roll fitfully in bed for another hour until my swollen breasts made rising a necessity.
I had not gone without sleep since college, a decade behind me, when greeting the dawn came with the glee only teens can muster, of getting away with something, stealing the night.
I believed this to be an isolated incident, my body beleaguered by constant sleep interruption and nursing hormones. It was, however, only the beginning.
At first, my symptoms were unequivocally centered in the body—racing heart and elevated body temperature that led to night sweats. My body and mind would “flip on” like a switch. I’ve had people suggest it sounds like a panic attack, but panic didn’t land with sharp talons until several hours had passed. I dragged my body around like a vehicle too cumbersome to navigate, baby attached, careening between hysterical emotions and lethargy. Suddenly, other things began to drop away: appetite, energy to write, interest in talking to other people. Getting off the couch or into clothes seemed excessive luxuries.
It took me more than a year to recover my equilibrium. And though my son is 6 years old and has slept through the night since age 2, I have a kind of PTSD from those rough early months. Our only cat sleeps in the garage. I use ear plugs and an eye mask without fail in hotels or anywhere other than my own bed, as well as melatonin and Benadryl if I sense insomnia.
But the bigger picture is one I think about all the time, as I listen to my friends and read the laments of other mothers online: modern parenting happens in a vacuum to the detriment of many of us. The parenting is on many of us, alone. I don’t believe this is how childrearing is meant to work. There should be aunts and sisters, cousins and mothers, other women who have been down these roads before at hand to help.
In lieu of that, sometimes, no matter how bad I feel in the moment, surviving the night means letting my son soothe himself to sleep so that I can, at least, be a good enough mother by day.
Jordan Rosenfeld is author of the writing guides Make a Scene, Write Free, and the novels Forged in Grace, and Night Oracle. Her essays have appeared or are forthcoming in: Brain, Child, Modern Loss, Role Reboot, The Rumpus, the St. Petersburg Times, San Francisco Chronicle and more.