My 2-year-old wakes in the middle of the night, caught in the grips of a nightmare, her sobs reverberating through the house. I slip out of bed and rush to her before my husband wakes up — there’s only four hours before he must be on his way to work. Besides, I’m already awake.
I ease open her bedroom door, careful to be quiet. She’s sitting up on her lower bunk sobbing, taking in harsh gulps of air. Her 4-year-old brother is still asleep on his top bunk, an enviable skill my husband and I already foresee being the bane of our morning routines when he’s a teenager.
Full, heavy tears rain down my daughter’s face, and she reaches for me. I pull her from her blankets and tangled sheets and onto my lap in our rocking chair, and the slow rhythm calms her until the only sound within the room is the whir of the fan and our breaths.
When she’s drowsy again, I lift her up high — her legs dangle farther now than they used to — and set her gently back in bed, covers tucked tightly around her to ward off further scares. Then I head back to my own bed and check the time. It’s 2 a.m.
Two in the morning is when my own fear often strikes, shaking me from slumber with terror-filled regularity. There’s so much that can go wrong when you are raising tiny people. Human beings are so fragile. In the middle of the night, my mind catalogues all the ways my children could be lost, and my heart clutches at the knowledge that life is unpredictable and hard and sad, and any of those awful possibilities could come true.
I’ve been a vivid dreamer all my life. Bank heists, tsunamis, car chases to Johnny Cash soundtracks, and stomping, slashing dinosaurs have all competed for space within the span of a single night’s dreams, and I often wake up exhausted. But parenting has awakened terrors of a different sort.
Each night, there’s a different fear. Some are mundane. A moment when my toddler daughter might have strayed too close to the road, but didn’t. A time when a fall from the couch might have been worse, but wasn’t. Other possibilities, like bullets ricocheting through classrooms, have become all too commonplace, and it’s entirely rational now to fear them.
Perhaps these fears are as natural as my daughter’s night terrors, an evolutionary reaction as we both learn to navigate this phase of our lives and make sense of the world and the dangers within it.
I know these thoughts strike other mothers, too — the green glow of the ‘active’ button flashes next to smiling Facebook photos, signaling who else is awake and online in the dark, eerie hours of the early morning.
“Oh, hello, fellow 2 a.m. insomniac,” I message to one friend in our group text thread one night, when her light glows green.
She replies with laughing emoji, caught. “Hello, dear red-eyed friend. I tripped and fell down the Google rabbit hole.” I send coffee emoji as Facebook lets both of us know that a third friend is also awake and reading these messages. It’s 2:49 a.m.
In the bright, bracing sunlight, I’m a calm, relaxed parent. I don’t hover. My children are confident and comfortable in themselves. We let them climb too high, run far ahead and wait in the car. By the glow of the moon, however, my fears loom large. My illusion of control over all of our lives is gone, and I know the fact that my children are healthy and happy is the result of happenstance.
Anything can go wrong, the darkness reminds me, knowledge that the cheerful sun seems to conceal.
The next night, I’m awake again, one fear or another having clawed its way from my subconscious. I pick up my phone again — to check the time, to check if anyone else is awake, to head down a meandering Internet path myself, or simply to bask in its glow, which comforts me against what lies out there in the dark.
When my daughter cries, I swing my legs out of bed. I can protect her from these terrors, tonight. I lay a hand on her back, reassuring her — and myself — that everything will be okay.
Her sobs subside, and she falls back asleep, whatever nightmares she faced vanquished for now. I return to my own room to calm my own fears, and slide back beneath the sheets beside my husband.
Three more hours ’til daylight.