Motherhood at 4:00 AM

If there’s a difference between God and man, it must have something to do with patience. God would not get angry at his 18-month-old child for waking up in the middle of the night and refusing to go back to sleep. Then again, God invented 18-month-old children. And so, perhaps God is rather cruel. God also invented teeth. Teeth that must pierce through solid flesh at that very same age when emotions are new and the world is overwhelming and neither emotions nor the world can help the other feel manageable. God is a psychopath.

I should not have worn mascara today. I should have known better.

My child has the sweetest face, the sweetest disposition, and a strong will. She has a zest for life. We have worked hard from early on to teach her that, however much she loves to be awake, sleep is important. Over time she has—reluctantly at first—gotten very good at sleeping through the night. Every once in a while things happen. A nightmare, or a cold, or a tooth, or sometimes all three. And I should not have worn mascara today.

I’m very grateful that I am generally a happy person. I don’t suffer from depression, but I do dabble in anxiety. I have two reliable triggers. The first is the phone—making and receiving phone calls. I’ve gotten better at it, but it’s still instantly panic-inducing. The second is being awake in the middle of the night. I am not good at this. The wee small hours of the morning take me to a dark place. I don’t know how I survived having a newborn, except that I just did. Something worked. I don’t know if it was hormones, or some other kind of biological imperative that made it palatable to live with interrupted sleep for over a year, but I would wake up at whatever hour, nurse the baby and go back to bed. I was tired, but it was fine. It sucked, but did not trigger anxiety. It was actually kind of peaceful sometimes, to be awake with her when the world was quiet. As soon as Zelda started sleeping through the night, well, I got used to it. A mom could get used to this sleeping through the night thing. In fact, the year and a half of poor sleep (two years if I count what pregnancy did to me), has made me very greedy with my sleep. Now when we have a bad night, it’s so hard to get up, so hard in fact that it is the number one thing that gives me pause about having a second child. Not finances, or logistics, or pregnancy. Sleep. It’s like having been tortured and then choosing to go back to your torture chamber. I survived, but I can’t go back to that. Now that the hormones, and whatever other biological magic that made unreliable sleep okay, now that that has worn off, I can’t stomach it again. So when my child woke up screaming at 4:00 in the morning after I’d only had a fitful and measly three hours of sleep, I made a rapid descent to a dark place.

Why the fuck did I wear mascara today?

The only thing worse than feeling anxious in the middle of the night is blaming your baby for it. And the only thing worse than blaming your baby for being anxious in the middle of the night is the guilt you feel for blaming your baby for being anxious in the middle of the night. And that’s where it stops. There is not much worse than that crushing guilt. My sweet angel-faced baby, to whom I directed white hot rage for waking me up in the middle of a sleep cycle, how dare she? How dare she call out mommy from her crib. How dare she need me in the night?

If there is a difference between God and man, God would go to his baby’s crib and hold her, however long it took until she drifted back to sleep. All night, if that’s what was necessary. God would not let her cry with pain in her gums and nightmares in her head, and just cross his fingers that she’ll get over it and go back to sleep. God would not bitterly go into her room, pick her up with stiff arms, rock her for four minutes, and then put her back in her crib to figure it out. God would not then send in his husband to do what he was too angry to do. God would not weep into his pillow, for reasons he could not even articulate except to say that the middle of the night was too dark. And God would not be stupid enough to wear mascara the next day.

No, she did not go back to sleep. She had a luxurious, long morning of crying and play from 4:00 am until 7:45 when we left to take her to daycare. She instantly fell asleep on the 20-minute car ride. God would not begrudge his child that nap. God would not expect his baby to understand why Mommy was mad when his baby had a grasp on language that totaled perhaps 40 words, mostly animals. My face flushed as I sat in my anger, baby asleep in the back seat. I turned off the heater in the car. I didn’t deserve warmth. I pulled up to her school. Now the overtired child would be their problem for the day. God would not be giddy to drop his child off at daycare.

And as I left the building, Zelda happy and safe in her teacher’s arms, I waited for it to hit me. I knew it was coming, like a wave. It would topple me as soon as I left her. There it was…

I hated myself.

I hated myself for being angry.

I hated myself for not being able to control that anger.

I hated myself for paying other people to raise my child.

I hated myself, because what if something I had done that morning sent a message to my child that she couldn’t count on me when she was upset. What if the way that I had looked at her signaled that I was not a safe place for her feelings. She asked me to pick her up as I made her breakfast. “Uppatio,” she said, reaching for me. Her word for up. And I let her reach. I stood there like a dead ice queen, and made her oatmeal, and let her reach. And then I let her go find her dad, who picked her up and held her close. What if she remembers that for the rest of her life? I take for granted that she has been a baby and memories for her are temporary, but one day soon a memory will stick. And what if that was the one?

I am clearly not God. I am deeply flawed, but I will focus on one thing. My child shows me how I could be better. Every time she challenges me, she shows me where I could stand to grow. And so God is present in her face. And in our relationship. And in my very imperfect attempt at motherhood.

Thank you, God, for inventing coffee. Thank you for inventing husbands like mine, who get up at 4:00 in the morning when I can’t, to entertain a grumpy teething toddler for three hours and then go to work for a full day like I have to do. Thank you, God, for my sweet child, and for all of her big feelings. Thank you for the way she reaches for me, and leans in to kiss me. Thank you for her giggles, and for the way her little bum rocks back and forth when she dances. For the way she tilts her head when she’s trying to understand something. For the way she needs me right now. Thank you for this guilt, which is unbearable, but reminds me that I’m not a psychopath — like you might be.

And I am so sorry. I will try to be better. Please wipe the stiffness of my arms and my stoic expression from my child’s memory. Please, I beg you.

Thank you, God, for waterproof mascara that prevents raccoon eyes like I have now. Please remind me to buy some the next time I’m at the store.

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2 thoughts on “Motherhood at 4:00 AM

  1. Very touching. Very real. I get it. With all that we have pressing on us daily ….. please be gentle with yourself. We are amazing humans, and, as Moms, we have to treat ourselves well, and treat ourselves right, so we can learn and move on. We can then better be the parents and role models we want to be. What an amazing woman and mother you are. It’s ok to have your thoughts and feelings.

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