We are not awake at this time. Lie: We are awake at this time and an hour earlier we were awake and an hour and a half from now, we will also be awake. We try to convince ourselves otherwise. It is a very lifelike dream. In the lonely electric hum of the night, our 23-month-old daughter wrestles us from slumber and insists upon our presence. We are tired. Understatement: We are exhausted.
This lack of sleep hinders my functioning less than one might imagine. I get through my days with coffee, sugar and the ability to be present enough to keep my daughter out of danger. But this new-found level of exhaustion wears on us differently. This fractured sleep situation is like shrapnel; all the little metal pieces splinter our psyche, our soul, our bodies, and destroy us slowly and painfully. My husband is cranky. I am cranky. We are cranky. We argue over the best way to clean the sink drains. We don’t have much time for pleasantries. We spend copious hours and efforts on getting our otherwise obedient and docile daughter into dreamland. It is lovely there, we say. You will feel better. Sleep sweet plum, we croon. Desperate. Wishing we could will it into being.
I was a child of nightmares. I am now an adult of nightmares. My dreams of Freddy Kruger and aliens morphed into frights about zombies and now have evolved into terrifying nightmares of my daughter navigating a world of shootings, chemical warfare and everything melting down. My whole life, nights have been soaked in great rivulets of sweat, and in fear. I do not recall a single night unbroken, without waking at least once, but usually more often. Having a daughter who sleeps fitfully is not much different for me, at least in the cadence of my nights. But psychologically I am fraying. We are fraying.
My husband and I settle into bed — too late — because it took hours to convince our daughter that sleep was where she should be. And then we wanted — no, needed — time for ourselves. To reconnect. To relax. To breathe. Simple things that seem unimportant given the scope of life, but that make up life in their quotidian nature: Check the Internet, eat chocolate chips, write thank-you notes, text birthday wishes, fold laundry.
A two a.m. prehistoric yowl from our daughter wakes us. We had not been sleeping long. Had I fallen asleep at all? I know my husband did, his snores rattle the bed. I feel the vibration even after he gets up to create a bed on the floor of my toddler’s room. His cacophonous snores are an irritating indication of sleep and yet, when they are not there, I miss them. They are a ghost limb, intangible but I crave them.
She is unable to get herself to back sleep. Always. In regards to sleep training, mistakes were made, we understand, but who really knows what the right answer could have been. And in the fickle hours of night, we all make decisions based on necessity.
You must sleep train right away. Let them cry. Oh, heavens no! Don’t let them cry. Don’t let them cry that young. Child abuse! Wait six months. Wait a year. Sleep with them. Don’t give in. They’re little dictators. Spoiled. Crazy. All these things, we are told. They are all untrue and they are all true.
It’s nap time, and I am on my own. My husband is at work and it is just me and my daughter and her baby dolls. It’s relax time, I say. This terminology has come about because a child sleep consultant told us, in an 11th-hour call, that initially it’s not so important to get our child to sleep as it is to set the routine. So I close the curtains, turn on the sound machine. My daughter burrows into her toddler bed. I lay on the floor beside her bed. Nigh, nigh Mama. She means it earnestly, I’m sure, but it seems like a cruel joke. Because then she doesn’t stop saying it. Nigh, nigh Mama. Nigh, nigh Mama. Nigh, nigh Mama. Nigh, nigh Mama. Nigh, nigh Mama. Nigh, nigh Mama. Nigh, nigh Mama. Nigh, nigh Mama. Nigh, nigh Mama. Nigh, nigh Mama.
She starts clanking her dolls along the bed rails, like she’s a little prisoner with a metal cup. I’ll take your dolls if you don’t stop, I threaten. Okay Mama, she responds and hands over all her dolls. First tiny baby No. 1, then No. 2. Then Big Baby. Then Elmo. Then the Cabbage Patch doll named Brooke Elizabeth. Then the giant carrot from Ikea. The rest cascade down, an array of small arms and legs assaulting my body. Her response isn’t what I expect. So I hug in all her dolls, like they will keep me warm. If I leave the room, my daughter will wail and scream and cry and concerned neighbors will wring their hands. So I lay beside her, stare at the side of the mattress, watch her legs flail. This hyperactivity, as many parents know, means the child is overtired. Just. Close. Your. Eyes. I wish. I say it aloud. Okay Mama, she chirps. But she doesn’t. In her thrashing, her blanket begins to fall off the bed. It’s monochromatic and covered in pandas. They glare at me, a Greek chorus singing of parental failure.
This routine repeats every day. At night, it is much the same. I leave that for my husband most of the time, but nap time is my special Sisyphean chore.
What is most incredible — although perhaps not, given the sleep deprivation — is that while I am trying to get my daughter to nap, in the shadow of her bed, I eventually doze off. When I wake, two minutes or 20 minutes later, she is asleep. I never have witnessed that elusive moment. I don’t know how it happens. Does she swing around wildly, only to fall down and then stop moving? Or does she nestle into her blanket and stuffed animals, her breath slowing with each exhalation until sleep descends? Does she try to emulate my pathetic hibernation? The whole process, from her getting into bed to me leaving the room, takes about an hour. I stumble downstairs and try to remember the great to-do list.
About two hours later she wakes in an eddy of screams and cries. I remember those from my own childhood. I gather her in, nurse her, try to comfort her. The heft of her so real in my arms; she is heavier when she holds onto her fears.
For me, it is not the child-parent relationship that is so harmed as it is the spousal relationship. My husband and I are an excellent fit. We are weathering parenthood rather well, I’d say. But we are two puzzle pieces in different rooms when we are succumbing to this kind of exhaustion. An image in fragments. I want my daughter to figure out the sleep thing. We will certainly try to help, though it seems we’ve done a poor job of it so far. But I hope she can sleep, not only for her, but for us. For my partner. I want two a.m. trysts to be filled with snuggles or sex or looking at a once-in-a-lifetime astronomic phenomenon that will fly by our city only at that wee hour. I will even happily weather the assault of my husband’s snoring. I don’t want nights to be filled with the voices of my daughter’s fears, or my own.
My husband and I are ghosts. We haunt the daytime. Our spectral bodies move through a haze brought on by this child who barely sleeps. Well, she does sleep. In fits and starts and screams and — when we’re lucky — in sweet pouts and barely audible breaths. Those are the moments when you look down at that sleeping baby and say this.
Jennifer Fliss is a writer based in Seattle. Her essays and other freelance writing projects have appeared or are forthcoming with Ravishly, The Establishment, Scary Mommy, The Kitchn, Brain Child Magazine, and elsewhere. Find her at jenniferflisscreative.com.
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