Our last little baby doesn’t sleep. She is now nearly eleven months old and I am too old for this. She falls asleep easily, she is happy and content, she naps beautifully, she is ahead of the curve in her development in every way and she is apparently unable to sleep longer than two hours at a time. She simply wakes up constantly. And so I am awake every two hours at least, some nights it’s as often as every thirty minutes. For nearly a year of my life, I have not slept.
I have deployed every tool in my toolbox. After all, I am the mother of four: there are few things I haven’t tried and there are few dogmatic ideologies left intact. I have had everything from great sleepers to not-so-great sleepers. But this is a whole other category of sleeplessness, never before experienced by me. Since nothing has worked and she is happy and healthy – if alarmingly awake in the wee sma’s of the morning – there is nothing much left to do so we, well, we endure.
But that word doesn’t quite sum up what that time has become for me. I am trying to fix this, absolutely but I also have to accept that this is her right now and this is what it will be for however long it would be, so I have searched for grace here in this, too.
Because I cannot fix it. I am out of ideas. I have had to find a way to function in my life without much sleep. I feel okay most days: some days, I feel not-okay but even that is okay. I am not alone, I have support, we have found our ways to deal with this. It seems a small thing from the outside, even a rite of passage: “The baby won’t sleep” – we’ve all been there. And now it feels like this entire year has been one very long day broken up by naps.
I think that when we are faced with something we cannot fix or control – however small or however big – it can break us wide open and we discover who we were underneath the comfort trappings of answers or affluence or health or even sleep or whatever it is that we’ve lost. And then when the underneath of us is out in the fresh air, I think it’s an opportunity to heal it, to strengthen it, to make beautiful even the reckoning.
Some nights, I trudge through these rituals: the fuzzy “already?” waking up to her cry, the patting of her bum, the nursing in the rocking chair, the “will-she-go-back-to-sleep-or-won’t-she?” of pausing before rising to do either one, the tip-toeing out of a dark room, the gentle closing of a door only to hear her stir and rise and weep again while I softly bang my head against the door frame. I am no super mum by any stretch; there are plenty of nights when I am comatose and automatic, nights when I am frustrated.
But then here it is: hiding in plain sight, an altar. I’m standing sentry and holding vigil for her. It feels like I have become the answer because I have no answers and so I am free to simply show up both during the night for the baby and even as I am now during the day. It feels like a holy act to lift one crying and cold baby up out of her darkness and hold her to my body, to still the cries of at least one soul.
I cannot save the world, I know that by now. My idealism of my youth has become the pragmatism of my do-what-works stage of life. But I still believe that every small thing matters and that everything in our lives, everything we do can be a testimony to the goodness and freedom and welcome of our God. And so maybe I can’t save the world – it isn’t mine to save anyway – and maybe my life is smaller than the world tells me is acceptable, but this is my place, no one else has this spot. I’m powerless but I’m redeeming it: there are many nights I pray in these hours standing in the gap for every mother who isn’t safe and every child who isn’t being held.
Last night, I rocked Maggie back to sleep. I held her upright against me, her left ear pressed just below the hollow in my throat, the curve of her small head fitting just underneath my chin, her hands were tucked in, her legs wrapped around my soft stomach, and we rocked together. I rubbed her back with the palm of my right hand, my left arm wrapped underneath her little diapered bum, holding her close to me, I felt her breathing slow. And even in the difficulties, even in the exhaustion, even in knowing that I have to rise and shine for every one else in the house in just a few short hours and how my work has suffered, even knowing I can’t do this forever and knowing that I’ll finagle for a tandem nap while everyone is at school, even here in this moment, I admit it: I delight in her and in this rickety glider that creaks on the ease back motion. Look here: her hair is like dandelion fluff and it moves with my breath, isn’t she a miracle?
I am tired. I would be glad if she would sleep. If heaven is an actual place, I hope that it’s a dark quiet room with a big king bed and I hope no one bothers me for the first millennium while I sleep off motherhood.
And at the same time, I wouldn’t be anywhere else. I wouldn’t make her scream in her bed alone and I wouldn’t trade even the hard parts, the demanding parts, because this place of parenting as simultaneous power and powerlessness is my altar. It’s where I learned about prayer as breath and work and presence. This is where I learned the holy work of waiting in the darkness, that the Holy Spirit is bright and alive in this moment not some far off moment, that our God is a mother and a father who comes to us out of the darkness and the cold to lift us up over and over and over again until we finally surrender to rest.