Sunday, December 12, 2010

Weekly Column: Midnight Realizations

The darkest, quietest part of the night was shattered by bright, piercing screams: my toddler was crying. 
If it had been the first time she’d cried that night, I would have jumped out of bed, propelled by startled adrenaline.  Even if had been the second time, I would have rushed to her side. 
But this was the seventh time.  I lay still in bed, staring at shadows and trying to gather the will to comfort her.  My eyes burned with unobtainable sleep.  Why wasn’t she resting easily?
I’d comforted her every way I knew how, short of bringing her into my own bed, and I was lost.  She had two lovey blankies and two plush lambs.  I’d felt her head for fever, and asked if she was hurting anywhere.  She’d blown her stuffy nose and had sips of water.  I’d held and rocked her, whispering cheerful nonsense in her ear.  Her pajamas weren’t bunching and her nighttime pull-up wasn’t messy.  The conclusion I kept coming back to was this: there was nothing wrong.
But no matter how often I proclaimed it to be true, my two-year-old disagreed.  Something was wrong; I just didn’t know what that something was. 
As I lay in bed – thinking and avoiding – her cries became ragged sobs: she needed her mama, even if her mama didn’t know how to solve the problem. 
I stumbled down the hall.  Her bedroom was dark and cool, and when I reached her side, she fell into my arms.  Groggily, I went through my checklist, finding nothing out of the ordinary.  On my chest, she was already breathing quietly again.  Not asleep, just calm, finally, in the comfort of her mama’s nearness. 
“What’s wrong?” I whispered.  “Does something hurt?  Are you sick?  Is your nose stuffy?”
She held me tighter in response, squeaking out a whisper of her own: “I can’t see.”  Her voice was tiny in the darkness.  Also tiny, I thought, was the importance of her being able to see.  She’d mentioned this once or twice before – whether on the second trip or the fourth, I couldn’t remember: it all blurred together – but it didn’t matter. 
“I know you can’t see, baby – it’s nighttime.”  I tried not to be exasperated.  “It’s dark at nighttime, okay?  You don’t need to see.”
Again, her voice sounded fragile and small against my body.  “But it scares me, mama.”
Ah: a possible sleep offender I hadn’t considered.  Isn’t she too young to be afraid of the dark, I wondered?  She’s only a baby, after all.  But…wasn’t it around this age that her big sister began to have nightmares and dark-fears?  I just didn’t consider her to be a baby then because her newborn sister had taken up that designation in my head. 
I stepped across the room and flicked on the closet light.  An unobtrusive sliver of light knifed into the room, alleviating the darkness, and my little girl peered about warily.  She looked to the foot of the bed…to the rocking chair…to the toys in the corner.  She let go of me with a sigh, laid herself back down, hugged her blankie to her chest, and closed her eyes.  I rearranged her blankets, and backed silently out of the room. 
The light remained, and she slept soundly for the rest of the night.
If I hadn’t discounted her statement with logical answers, I might have heard her underlying fears sooner.  Our long night was a hard-won reminder that not only is it practical to listen to my kids – and to take them seriously – it’s also critical. 
Especially where my sleep is concerned.


  1. Poor kiddo. And poor mama. SEVEN times in one night? That's horrid. I let my daughters sleep with a lamp on in their room--not even a nightlight, an actual lamp--even though my mom tells me it's going to ruin their eyes. Because I'm a softie and I remember being scared of the dark when i was kid.

  2. Isn't it incredible how important it is to try and understand them, even when they don't make sense! I've had so many nights like this, when my patience is tried the hardest. It's hard to be understanding when you are soooo tired! Great post!

  3. Yep, that pretty much sums it up...except Penelope moved quickly from a general fear of the darkness into a more specific fear that monsters were going to push back her picture frames--which would reveal all these strange, secret tunnels--and then sneak into her room. I'm not so sure how to soothe her out of that one, but it SOUNDS scary so I'm all sympathy. We tried imaginary monster spray, but so far the results have been mixed.

    I think we're just entering the tricky sleep years. Good luck!

  4. So glad you figured out the problem. I hate not knowing how to help my babies! My girls sleep with night lights, but Millie still has weird fears sometimes. One night she told me that something was grabbing her legs under her blankets. Yikes. Even though I knew it wasn't true, it totally freaked me out, so I can imagine how terrifying it was to a 3 year old!


Hmm...And how did that make you FEEL?