A Toddler’s Guide To 2AM

It was pitch black outside. Moe had started screaming at midnight and had not stopped for two hours, unless she was nursing… on the right side… while I sat up. For some reason it was unacceptable for me to lie down and nurse. And half of me was becoming painfully full. And so I went to her every few minutes to hold her, nurse her, comfort her, rock her, and make sure she was sound asleep again. I would lay her back down, hold my breath while tiptoeing out of the room, close the door, and rush back to my bed. I would get myself all tucked in, warm and cozy, roll over to my favorite sleeping side, and… more screaming.

Finally, Pete threw back the covers and whisper-yelled, “I’m putting her in the basement while she figures this out!” He marched downstairs, set up the Pack-n-Play, and came back up to collect the restless baby. I started to physically shake, probably from a combination of exhaustion and adrenaline. I threw back the covers and whisper-yelled back, “You are not taking my baby!” After a passionate, irrational, and brief discussion, I shut him in our room, went to Moe’s crib, and began another round of nursing. After I got her sleeping, I lay guard outside the door of her room.

Everything about being awake at two o’clock in the morning is unbearable. Everything.

I don’t love it when Moe cries. Crying means I am not doing my job as her mom. Crying means there is something that needs to be fixed as quickly as possible. If I could just do the right things, she will know that she is safe and will sleep twelve straight, uninterrupted hours. That’s how it works, right?

After school the next day, my oldest, James, climbed into the car and immediately fell apart. The entire ride home he cried, emoting with every limb: kicking the seat, flailing, and sobbing about an incident at school. I was exhausted from the whole not-sleeping thing and other normal mommy circumstances, so all I could do was ignore him completely and drive home.

On that drive, out of pure fatigue, I daydreamed about what I would do if I had the energy to do anything. I imagined myself being pulled into James’s whirlwind of emotion, stepping into it and helping him navigate his way through. I imagined getting mad at him for carrying on about something I thought was selfish. I imagined stopping the car, jumping into the back seat, holding him and crying with him. I imagined turning the car around, going back to school, and having some words with the 8-year-olds who ruined my son’s day.

I didn’t do any of these things. I was too tired. And then, while I was busy not doing anything because I was too tired, he stopped crying. After ten minutes of kicking, screaming, sobbing, demanding that I fix it, that I give him candy, that I let him watch a movie, that I say or do something to make him stop hurting — he stopped. I hadn’t done anything except listen and drive, and he stopped. He stopped crying all by himself. I sat there stunned as he lept out of the car and joyfully ran into the backyard to play with his sister.

Maybe I am not as powerful as I thought.

Maybe the kids are overcoming their own struggles while I have convinced myself that I am doing it for them. Maybe hurting isn’t bad, maybe crying isn’t bad. Maybe I have a different power, a different responsibility: to listen.

I have spent a week — as best as I can — listening instead of rescuing, affirming instead of distracting. “That is so hard. This is hard. You are mad. You want me to pick you up. You are frustrated. You are sad.” I reassure them I am there with them. “I will hold you. I am here. I am listening. I hear you.” I am slowly being released from the responsibility of three tiny humans’ emotions. I am learning to simply listen and observe and be their anchor. I feel closer to my kids as my respect for their individuality grows. And they all stop crying. Without my intervention, they stop crying. They all are able to purge the yuckiness and move on from the pain. They are powerful beings.

After a week of operating like this, I ended up sobbing in my closet this morning. Moe had been crying almost non-stop for the better part of an hour and I was empty. Pete asked if he could hold me and I laid my head on his shoulder, letting out all the exhaustion from my week of listening. Pete didn’t try to fix it or shield me from it.

As I let out my tears, I realized that I need exactly what the kids need: someone to stand with me while my emotions do their work.

Tonight, while I nursed Moe before bed, I put my hand over her heart. May you have hope and peace while you sleep tonight. Getting sleep is so important for your body and for the balance of our family. May you feel confident as you rest in your bed all night.

(Thank you to Janet Lansbury, Eileen Henry and Patty Wipfler for your wonderful writings that support and inspire me!)