It’s 3 AM and the four fingers of my daughter’s tiny right had are stretched across my lips. They are not resting. The appendages wiggle and move constantly. Grabbing a lip here, poking through and stabbing my teeth there. They seem to be everywhere at once, constantly reassuring her that I still there, every orifice. The slight sting of an untrimmed nail scratches my chin. A thumb is wedged up my nostril. I smell the dried wheat field scent of Cheerios. Her sweat-drenched head lifts off my chest. The ringlets of her curls have left their imprint on my skin. The cold traces the loops and swirls for a second, and is interrupted almost instantly by the return smack of her skull to my breast bone.
And so it has been for several nights now.And before that, at least once a week for the past month. Her limp limbs and and breathy exhalations portray a deep sleep. But as soon as she lain in her crib, I can countdown from five (four…three…two…one) and before I have reached her night light to turn it off, I can hear the uncoordinated sound of her thrashing and turning, struggling to stand in a fog of sleepiness. Before she can bend one knee and find a handhold for lifting herself, she lets out a wail. It is as loud and penetrating as it has ever been, and I cannot form a single coherent thought when she does it.
This is why I have never bragged about my daughter being a good sleeper. The stories of all the moms who had come before me warned of what I have come so hard to know: none of this lasts. The good, nor the bad. Though she may have slept through the night beginning at 7 weeks 2 days–a day so precise in my memory, I can even tell you that it was a Tuesday–I knew that at any moment it could change.
I have had a year (almost exactly a year) of reliable sleep-filled nights. And now, that reliability has faded. I go to bed each night timid and afraid. Will I sleep two hours? Or four? What do I have to do tomorrow? Why did I stay up so late reading that book? That was an hour I could have been sleeping? Will I have enough time to stop at Starbucks before my morning appointment? Can I afford to waste money on Starbucks? Is she teething? Is it shots? Am I feeding her enough? If I were a better mother, I’d know the answer to this…
I hear a whimper from down the hall. My heart is fighting my lungs for space. They’re not moving. My husband’s elbow is touching me. I feel hot. The anxiety is crushing me. The interior dialogue worsens.
I’m a horrible mother. I’m inadequate. I’m ungrateful. Don’t I know how many women have children who have never slept through the night? And they get up and go to work the next day? Or they raise them alone, without help? A few hours of lost or crappy sleep is nothing. At least I have a child. My only child. She’s only going to be thirteen months old once, and I should appreciate it for what it is. A transition. She’s growing. She’s learning. And this is your only chance! You’re not going top have another one!
And then I am laying on a stretcher and people in scrubs of all colors are running along side of me. And one of them looks panicked. He is asking me about allergies. And I think I am talking to him. I’m telling him about the spots I see. I’m shouting out my blood type. I’m hearing the panic. The operating room looks nothing like they do on television….
I climb out of bed. My husband sighs in his sleep, but doesn’t awaken. I tip toe into my daughter’s room. She is in the depths of sleep, her body as limp as a rice sack. It’s a risk to pick her up. But I have to hold her, smell her neck, rub my nose in her shampooed hair.
I am here. It is now.
I lay her down and rub my belly. It’s always aching. The cause varies.
Her door shut softly behind me, I take myself to the couch. I grab the laptop, preparing myself for the distraction of internet surfing. Five, four, three two, one…
The faint rustling in the crib. And then, she wails.