I walk a beat the hours of 11PM to 5AM every night. I’ve been doing this for almost ten years now with some sporadic time off but for the most part I’m on duty seven days a week, 365 days a year.
I get no rest – not until all are sleeping well, no break, just patrol. I sleep with two baby monitors by my bed and socks on the floor that I can slip into quickly when I get summoned at all hours of the early morning. I doze with open ears to cries of pain or coughing or distress. Mother’s with teenagers out until curfew sleep with the same posture.
Peering into the mirror this morning, the reflection that gazes back at me mirrors the dull, sallow skin highlighted with dark circles and pronounced laugh lines. Where the heck did that expression come from? I’m certainly not laughing. No amount of water intake can undo the damage that years of too little sleep can cause. My body craves sleep but my job demands my time.
I was at our neighborhood park recently with my children. It was a beautiful spring Saturday morning. I was pushing Caroline, just turned two, on the swing and another bright eyed mother approached me with her own daughter about the same age. She began pushing her daughter in the nearby swing and struck up a conversation with me, as mothers are want to do. Any conversation beyond ‘You need to go to the potty?’ or ‘More milk, PLEASE’ can be soul saving on some of these sleep starved mornings.
“You look tired” she told me with a sympathetic, shy smile.
Good heavens! When did it become proper park etiquette to comment on a complete stranger’s haggard complexion?
I nodded my assent and took note of her tidy coif, clothing free of snot or other unexplained goo, and made up face.
“Is this your only child?” I say.
She smiles again and says yes with a pride that would be contagious if I weren’t so weary and ticked off that she noticed and commented out loud on how weary I look.
“And you?” she asks.
“Oh no”, I said “I’ve got this one, that one” pointing at Sabrina standing by a cluster of trees looking for ants “and those two over there” I nodded at Danielle and Travis over at the rock trail looking to add some new and interesting ones to their collections.
“Wow! You’ve got your hands full!” she remarks incredulously. I hear that A LOT.
I figure by my estimation I have not had a consistent eight hours of sleep for going on three years now. How did I arrive at this figure? Sabrina was born in March of 2005 and that last month of pregnancy, sleep is elusive and uncomfortable at best. She started sleeping through the night when she was about three months old but was an early teether, getting her bottom two just shy of four months so sleep was wrecked by a teething, cranky baby. Then, when Sabrina was only five months old, I found out I was going to have another baby. Woohoo. Colds, illness, teething can all be tough on the first year of a baby’s life but usually that is all and there is an end it sight. Just as I was getting through that first year, I was pregnant again, not sleeping well and we had Caroline. Caroline was also another early teether – she had ten teeth by her first birthday and sinus issues (similar to her brother’s) making sleep during her first two years inconsistent at best. And with four children in a house including two babies, there is the usual runny nose, ear infection, or random virus from school to contend with. Happily, with Caroline turning two and no allergies in sight, save the occasional ear infection, we are sleeping better.
Except for last night, when Sabrina woke up coughing, barking, and trying to catch her breath. She will occasionally (at least two times a year) have a reactive airways outbreak due to allergies (she’s the one with the chronic allergies and runny nose) so we had to break out the nebulizer for a 2AM breathing treatment. And, as always, it is up again at dawn as the house awakens and the coffee beeps my morning alarm.
I am thankful to not be a single mother, like my dear friend Melanie who was recently widowed after losing her husband to pancreatic cancer. She walks her beat alone, with her two daughters ages ten and eight. I complain about being the primary care giver after hours but at least I have back up. I’ve long since given up the resentment at my husband for having to be the one to sleep closest to the door or having any rest shattered by crying children because I have come to realize that, for the most part, children that wake at night want their mothers. We provide the unconditional hugs, kisses, glasses of water, and extra stories when sleep will not come due to a particularly bad dream. We cozy into bed until dream land has become the new destination. I am tired but I am also very good at what I do. I have angels sleeping in my alcoves and I get to kiss them and watch them dream.
So for now, on days after a triple witching of night time angst, I look at it as excuse to indulge in an extra cup of coffee and perhaps a chance to purchase some really expensive make up that I don’t need. I wear my mask proudly, knowing I do my job as only I can do in service to my family.