A mother’s relationship with sleep is peculiar.
She is awake throughout the nights of her pregnancy, prepping her child’s nursery or rearranging the kitchen cabinets. Then, when her baby is born, she spends her nights feeding or rocking him for hours on end until the soft glow of the sunrise creeps through the window cracks. Eventually, just when it seems that the dream of sleep is nothing more than a distant memory of her past, her baby begins sleeping through the night.
At this moment, there is a glimmer of hope that a full-night’s sleep is possible! (Or, at least, a good five-hour stretch.) But then, something happens. Instead of finally resting for the first time in months, she is awake, tossing and turning throughout the night. She checks the baby monitor and sees that her little one is sleeping soundly. She rolls over to her partner. He is also sleeping well. She even looks at the bottom of the bed, only to find that the family dog is also fast asleep.
She lays her head back down and wonders, Why am I awake? Why can I not sleep? At the end of these thoughts, she begins to rise from the bed and tiptoe through the house. She comes to the baby’s room and opens the door slowly and softly. She wanders over to the cradle, and longingly stares at her child, secretly hoping that they will wake and require her comfort.
After a few minutes or so, she eventually leaves and retraces her steps back to her own bed and climbs in. As she lays in bed, she realizes that she misses her child.
You see, this is something about motherhood that no one explains to new mothers. Everyone asks, How is the baby sleeping? Does he sleep through the night? But no one asks, Are you sleeping through the night?
The first few times my child slept through the night, I was honestly sad. Sleeping through the night signified a milestone in my child’s development. Although a small achievement, it was his first step towards some form of independence. He no longer required my presence to sleep, and learned how to comfort himself to a degree. And while this milestone is celebrated by many parents, and should be, it should also be stated that it is a melancholy moment in a mother’s life.
We wait and wait and wait for the night our children finally sleep through the night. Then, when they finally do sleep through the night, we wake in a panic, worrying why they have not yet cried. Even on a smaller daily scale, we wait and wait and wait for 7:00 PM and the freedom of bedtime! Then, when our babies are fast asleep dreaming of whatever babies dream of, we miss them.
This entire situation exemplifies a larger tug-of-war taking place in a mother’s heart: the desire and admiration of her former independent self, and her new-found and powerful role as a mother. Both of these characters playing tug-of-war are important and neither can be left behind, and ultimately she cannot choose which one to abandon. Somehow, both of these women create her being in its entirety.
Are sleepless nights an attribute of motherhood? Before my son was born, my church bookclub (which is comprised mostly of women) threw me a small surprise baby shower. While we ate cake, each woman in the book club gave one piece of advice each. One of our members, an 80-year-old mother of six, advised me to “catch up on [my] sleep now!” She was smiling the entire time. She then told me, while still smiling but now staring off into the distance, “Yeah… it goes by fast.”
At the time I figured that her advice was hyperbole; that within six or seven months I’d be sleeping just as soundly as my baby. Now I wonder if even she, at 80 years old, sleeps through the night, or if she, too, spends her nights lying awake thinking of her children.
I guess I will not know the answer to that question until my life is over. Now that I have carried and nurtured a child in my body, and I continue to care for that child day and night, I am a mother for the rest of my life. Parenthood is not something that ever goes away. Rather, it becomes a marker of a person; a tattoo upon their being.
T.S. Elliot should have been a woman when he said, “I have measured out my life with coffee spoons,” because I’m sure that’s how I’ll measure mine.