One of my goals for 2015 is to write more. Last year I kept my hand in writing with very sporadic blog posts, equally sporadic personal journal entries, novel writing, and Bible study notes, my ongoing Catholic Digest health column, some speech writing, and a fashion writing freelance project, but I didn’t write nearly as much as I would have liked. There are several reasons for my sparse writing. Firstly, life just keeps getting busier as my littles grow older. Secondly, I was delusional in thinking that the end of medical residency would mean cush hours for my hard-working husband. He works harder and longer than ever. This past weekend he worked what most people work in one week (40-plus hours in three days). During the week, he worked the five to midnight shift, which basically means I’m a single parent and in charge of the evening sports schlepping and managing the bedtime chaos. And I haven’t been managing it all that well, I’m afraid, especially last night when I absolutely lost it after two out of four children became desperately thirsty after I turned the lights off and was prepared to get them to drift off to Dreamland.
“You are NOT thirsty!” I screeched.
“I am! My throat hurts!”
“You had all that time [while I was getting another little one to bed] to get a drink,” I pointed out.
“I was coloring, and I wasn’t thirsty then.”
Of course you weren’t thirsty then. Or hungry. Or cold. You were probably so ready for bed you would have peacefully drifted off to sleep with nary a complaint then.
“Well,” I said. “It’s either me or a cup of water,” I patiently clarified.
Perplexed look from dehydrated child.
“You get a drink of water, and I leave you to go to sleep on your own.”
“Noooooooo!!!!” Horrible wailing ensued. Never mind the fact that I should probably leave a 5-year-old to fall asleep on her own every night. I am a bedtime wimp. Inconsistency is my trademark because the truth is, sometimes I like nothing more than to cuddle up next to a warm body and fall asleep beside a child. It reminds me of those co-sleeping, baby days. It’s wonderful. Sometimes. But there are other nights when I have four kids who are cranky and tired and all want Mommy to give them their full attention, but Mommy is desperate for alone time or just needs to fold heaps of laundry or shoot off a few emails or try to do that meditation lesson from Bible study. All I usually contemplate during contemplative prayer is when is someone going to interrupt me? Oh, wait. Here it comes. The dog barks at the cat, which wakes up the toddler who always wakes up with a voracious appetite. “I want breakfast, Mommy!” he demands with no, “Good morning!” whatsoever. What was I meditating on again? Ah, yes. Jesus feeding His sheep. I know all about that.
But back to bedtime (or lack thereof). If I believed reincarnation was a real thing, I would want to come back as a Wicker child at bedtime. Ahhhh...the cuddling, the magical stories read, the backrubs topped off with a prayer and a “God bless you,” and the one more cup of water request usually satisfied because these littles won’t be little for long (thank God, I said to myself last night), and then a little more cuddling. So much cuddling, in fact, that Mom can no longer fight Mr. Sandman and finds herself succumbing to a peaceful sleep next to the warm, little body curled up to her. Yet another reason very little writing happens. My 3-year-old’s bedtime name should be changed to Ambien. Well, I am in the midst of a lovely reverie (what dreams may come!) next to Ambien when Crazy, Older Kid storms in just to check on me. I wake up startled and remember that there are still three more kids to put down. “Put down” seems like the appropriate phrase at this point. I am ready to take drastic action because I am drunk with sleepiness and just am ready to write, read a good book, or do a few relaxing stretches, and go to bed. But more kids want stories read or another vespertine tête-à-tête. (One child always asks big, important questions as I’m tucking her in because she knows I have a soft spot for ponderous thoughts and soul searching.) These children will not be ignored. And I am also a sucker who hasn’t learned to ignore them. So the bedtime routine drags on and on and on…until I fall asleep once again, this time wedged in the middle of a pile of sugar and spice and everything nice, except when a sister annoys another sister and all you-know-what breaks loose, and I think, “There’s no curl on the head, but it’s true that when she was good, she was very, very good, but when she was bad, she was horrid.” Mr. Hyde looks like an angel now. They always do when they’re sleeping.
I am nearing the end of the epic bedtime grind when my 10-year-old asks, “Can you cuddle with me for just a bit?”
And I almost say, “No way, Jose.” But then I remember her name is Madeline, and she’s more than halfway to the point when she will leave me and I won’t have the option to cuddle beside her, so how can I say no? And when I’m next to her and she tells me she loves me, I realize I didn’t even want to say no. The writing can wait.
A dear friend of mine is on the cusp of welcoming her third baby into her arms. I can’t wait to get my hands on her little guy, especially since I won’t be in charge of feeding him throughout the night. I know she has some sleepless nights ahead of her. Although I still wake up to pee at least once and a child occasionally needs me in the middle of the night, I am no longer drunk with exhaustion upon awakening each morning. Usually, when I don’t get enough sleep now, it’s because I’ve foolishly shortchanged myself. I can no longer blame unsleeping children. We also have really just embraced the family bed. I just recently stopped sleeping with Thomas, but my husband and I usually end up with two or three kiddos wedged between us. This is just what works for us.
My first “baby” turns 10 in a few months. This was the baby who I thought would never sleep through the night. She still doesn’t need as much sleep as her siblings. She frequently stays up way too late with her nose in a book. She remains a night owl and is quite good at stalling the bedtime routine, but once she’s out, she’s out. I can tuck her in, plant a soft kiss on her forehead, and say good-night, and she actually stays put in her bed and goes to sleep on her own. Once upon a time I thought this would be impossible.
But as I wrote in this essay – which is eight-ish years-old now – it’s important for us to remind our exhausted or frustrated or burned out selves that “this too shall pass.” You won’t always emanate Eau du Breastmilk. You will sleep for more than three fragmented hours. Repeat after me: This too shall pass.
My little boy is very challenging right now, but I know he won’t always be hurling toys at his sister. I know now, too, that his physical outbursts aren’t red flags that he’s going to lead a life of delinquency. He is a normal, active, almost 3-year-old boy going through a very normal, albeit exhausting, stage. Despite the tantrums and unprovoked attacks, I’m trying to soak his littleness up – not so much the hair-pulling or screeching – but the sweetness of his age like how he calls me “Mama” and holds my hand and says, “Carry me! Carry me!” when he’s tired or needs to feel safe or loved. He won’t always need these arms of mine so much, and there are moments when the idea of not being needed so much feels like a big relief. But looking at my big girl and how she just keeps getting taller and needing me less and less is a reminder of how brief this hands-on mothering period really is.
Anyway, this post is dedicated to my friend on the eve of postpartum fatigue, any new parents out there, anyone who has given birth to an insomniac, and to my beautiful, oldest daughter.
If I were to write a bedtime story right now, it might go something like this:
In the great green room, there was a telephone, a deflated birthday balloon from a party two weeks ago, and a frustrated mom whose brain has turned to mush and is snarling, “Hush.”
Goodnight blasted moon. Goodnight messy room. Goodnight everybody…except for this squirming, little insomniac. Goodnight stars. Goodnight air. Goodnight noises everywhere. (Will all the airplanes please stop flying so my child’s supersonic hearing won’t pick up the slightest humming of their engines?)
As my due date draws closer, I’m starting to panic. Not because I’m afraid of pushing out another baby, although it would be nice to be a panda. During a recent visit to the zoo, Madeline and I learned that the Giant Panda gives birth to a baby about 1/900th of its size. So this 200-pound bear has to squeeze out a cub about the size of a stick of butter. I bet she doesn’t have to worry about getting any hemorrhoids.
Nor am I worried about a floppy head, pulsating soft spot, crusty umbilical cord stump or changing a half-dozen mustardy-poopy diapers a day.
What I am worried about is transforming into a walking, sleep-deprived “mombie” or worse a terrible, short-fused parent who yells more than laughs. When I was pregnant with Madeline, I expected sleepless nights. Restful sleep and newborns generally don’t go hand-in-hand. With this baby, I’ve once again braced myself for nighttime nursing and an alarm clock that doesn’t stop buzzing (or should I say wailing?) just because you feel like you’ve been run over by a Mack truck. What I didn’t prepare myself for was an energetic 2-year-old whose baby days are behind her but who still insists on waking up every couple of hours.
Although Madeline has never been what you’d call a good sleeper, we’d made tremendous progress. We’d established a relaxing bedtime routine and she was sleeping nearly 12 blissful hours most nights and taking a nap. Life was good.
Then, about three weeks ago, something happened and she’s decided that being in the horizontal position is akin to the apocalypse. To Madeline, bedtime certainly is an end, if not the end of the world, the end to fun, the end to interacting with the people she loves the most, and the end to a secure, well-lit kingdom where killer bumblebees (her latest nightmare subject) don’t menacingly buzz nearby.
Her boycott against sleep began subtly. First, she became a professional staller during our once peaceful bedtime routine. “One more book, peaaaaaaassssss.” “Use potty, peaaaaasssss.” “Thirsty. Go get water, peaaaaaaaaas. Just one more itty-bitty sip.” “Ma-Ma [she refers to herself in third person as “Ma-Ma] scared, Mommy. Turn light on, peeaaasssss. Stay with me, peaaaaaassss.”
And so on.
This was frustrating but manageable. But when it came time to try to transition her to a big-girl bed, we discovered just how tenacious our little girl was. I made a big deal over the move, bought a comforter, decorated the bed with some throw pillows and showed off her big-girl roost to the grandparents. She resisted falling asleep the first night we curled up in her new bed, but when she did finally drift off to the Land of Nod, she stayed there for a good ten hours.
“Wow. That was easy,” I remember thinking.
Foolish, foolish woman!
Madeline knows that a big-girl bed has no boundaries – at least physical ones. So she pays frequent homage to Mommy and Daddy’s bed, which I wouldn’t mind so much if it also didn’t take me 2.8 hours to get her to sleep and if she didn’t like waking me up in the middle of my slumber to carry on a little tête-à-tête.
In fact, the first time she crawled into our bed Dave and I were happy to have our sweet angel wedged between us. We’ve never been against co-sleeping. We slept with our little one nearly every night that first year; yet, Madeline is fidgety and didn’t sleep well beside us. We definitely didn’t sleep too well either.
The night started out peacefully enough. I woke up when she threw her arm across my face, but I rolled over too tired to really care. This isn’t so bad, I thought. She feels so warm and cozy next to me.
My feelings of tranquility abruptly dissipated when half of Madeline’s foot ended up in my butt and her face was burrowing into Dave’s abs. We looked like a big “H,” and like that co-sleeping meme pointed out, “H” most definitely is for hell when you’re not sleeping. All nightlong she squirmed and sometimes even woke up enough to try to strike up a conversation. Meanwhile, I tried to ignore the baby’s nightly kung-fu fighting routine in my womb. I slept far less than 40 winks – maybe two, at most.
This was not going to work.
Time for Plan B, so I set up a cozy pallet beside our bed. “Madeline, see this bed on the floor. If you wake up and want to be near Mommy and Daddy, you can come here and sleep.”
She nodded and amazingly, this worked the next night. I woke up to pee after feeling my little yogi do a headstand on my bladder and discovered Madeline sprawled across the pallet sleeping soundly.
Woo-hoo! Two points for Mommy!
That was the last time I scored. Madeline definitely has the upper hand. Our little jack-in-the-box pops out of bed constantly. At first I tried the gentle but firm approach of immediately putting her back to bed after each rising. “Madeline, it’s bedtime. I love you.”
I’d read that it might take a few nights of doing this 20 or so times each. On the first night I lost count at 67. Even though I’m a stickler for consistency, I finally gave in and toted my stupid and cheap body pillow (should have splurged on the expensive one) that’s supposed to help my stupid third-trimester-preggo-bod sleep better (at this point, I think I’d need a heavy dose of valium) into her room and plopped next to her. She groped for my hand in the dark, found it, and held it close. The sweet gesture helped melt some of my frustrations, but when she fidgeted for another hour or so, I was ready to scream or cry – I’m not sure which.
Every night it’s been something new, but I’m determined to overcome these bedtime battles. After combing the Internet and reading a great book on gently solving sleep problems of toddlers and preschoolers, I’m currently putting together a sleep plan and am hoping we’ll be able to solve some of our shut-eye (or lack thereof) issues before I’ve got two nocturnal babes on my hands.
And yet, every time I finally get her to sleep – whether it’s at bedtime or 3 a.m. – I can’t help but stay awake a little bit longer to watch her doze. Maybe I just want to cherish the rare moment, though I suspect it’s something more. Sleep is my obsession right now. I’ll do anything to get her comatose. Yet, before I know it Madeline won’t need me at night. One day I’ll sneak in and stare at her sleeping form and I hope I’ll see the baby again – the one I thought would never give me a moment’s rest.
Our bedtime routine has become Dickensian for me. It is the best and the worst of times. The worst because I’m exhausted and will do anything I can to get my kids comatose. But it’s the best, too. It’s this long ritual that connects me to my children. The sun is setting and so, too,
All these phases we go through – even the bleary-eyed wakeful ones – are only blips in our history together. So the next time Madeline tugs on my hand in the wee morning or asks for the twentieth cup of water, I need to remind myself, “This too shall pass…and one day I’m going to miss it.”
Nothing like a little Yoda speak to get you feeling hopeful.
And maybe if I add a pinch of magic dust, I’ll really be closer to a good night’s sleep.