There was never a child so lovely but his mother was glad to get him to sleep.
Ralph Waldo Emerson
I remember my first day of motherhood.
The nurses wrapped my baby boy in a pale blue receiving blanket and placed him in my arms. Hours passed as I counted his fingers and toes, and traced the curve of his eyebrow with my fingertip. I was content simply to look at him. I did not want to sleep that first night. I wanted to stare forever at his perfect face.
Everyone – nurses, family, friends – urged me to rest during my brief hospital stay. I understood the reasoning, but I was too excited for sleep. I woke hourly, just to look at him, to marvel at the sweep of his lashes and to smooth the downy hair on his head. How could I close my eyes when a miracle lay in a bassinet only inches from my bed?
I went home exhausted, ready at last to rest. But my baby’s hungry cries made for another sleepless night, followed by another and then another, an endless march of midnight watches. In those days, I managed to get by on my reduced allowance of shut eye thanks to the restorative powers of my youth. I had only one child, and thus only one sleep schedule to navigate around. But fourteen years later, when my third child was born, regular, uninterrupted sleep had become an epic quest for me, the holy grail of parenting. I sought it desperately, but never expected to find it.
At first, my sleep was hijacked by nighttime feedings and diaper changes. Later it was stolen by nightmares and bed wetting. Sometimes it was illness. Every parent can attest to the frustrating, but indisputable fact that fever and croup always arrive at 2 a.m. Worst of all were the nights when the needs of all three kids combined to form the perfect scenario for sleep deprivation. I would stay up to greet a teenager after a night out with friends, wake up hours later to feed an infant, and rise again in the faint light of dawn to soothe a kindergartner’s nightmares away. Often I stumbled through the next day fueled by coffee, sugar, and willpower.
I didn’t suffer alone. Over the years, my husband Brian and I took it in turns to respond to the late night demands of our children. He was the most skilled at halting our son’s nosebleeds (which would often inexplicably start in the middle of the night), but it was usually Mom they wanted when they were sick or hungry. The truth was, more often than not, we BOTH ended up awake. (It’s hard to sleep when a toddler’s shrieking wails are reverberating in your skull.) In the end, it came down to basic math: they outnumbered us, 3 -2. We didn’t stand a chance.
Sleep became a currency that devalued every other commodity. If you had offered me a suitcase of hundred dollar bills vs. a year of sleeping for 6 uninterrupted hours every night, I would have declined the cash and slept happily. I would skip showering twice a week for the opportunity to sleep fifteen extra minutes in the morning. I began to cat nap through life, never deeply asleep, but able to nod off at a moment’s notice.
I survived. And slowly, life changed. My oldest grew up and left home. My middle child outgrew his bad dreams and late night nose bloods, and my youngest long ago transitioned out of babyhood, ending 3:00 am feedings forever. Barring extreme illness, everyone sleeps through the night now.
Except for me.
Thankfully, I do sleep far more than I did when I had much younger children to care for. But my sleep is light, the result of two decades of late night summons. If anyone visits the kitchen for a glass of water, the running faucet wakes me instantly. A cough, a sneeze, the blowing of a nose – any one of these can rouse me from the deepest slumber. My radar is always on.
There are nights when, for no reason at all, I wake up, seized with the desire to check on my sleeping kids. I tip toe from room to room, seeking assurance that everyone is where they should be. They always are (where else would they be?), yet for some reason, I feel better after a moment spent hovering in the hallway, listening to their soft exhales in the quiet of the night.
I realize I will never again sleep as soundly as I once did, not until my children grow up and start families of their own. Then I will sleep, I promise myself, and how wonderful it will be. Deep sleep, refreshing sleep, I’ll snooze for uninterrupted hours, completely oblivious to the cares of the world around me…until the day when my grandchildren come to visit.