Quinlan, like many four-year-olds, is afraid of the dark. Every night, she cries–and the cries, they are so loud–until I finally end up lying down beside her, after countless trips into her room to tell her, honest, it’s all okay. I lie there in my jeans, on top of her covers, running through my mental to-do list of what I still have to conquer before my own collapse into bed. My eyes burn after another long day of thisthisthis, and I wrap her in my arms, this sobbing child, shaking and shuddering, until she finally falls asleep on my shoulder, one hand on my chest, the other against her mouth. Her hair is a tangle of curls spread out over the both of us like sea foam on a stormy ocean, and I have to tenuously plan my escape, lest one of those knotted strands wrap itself in my earring or under my arm, waking her and starting the routine all over again. In my heart, I understand that this is just a normal part of childhood, and it will pass, but I hate that she’s frightened and wish she could find some peace at bedtime. In my head, I’m frustrated and a little angry because seriously? Her sister’s in the bunk bed above her and she’s got two night lights going PLUS the light from the open bathroom in the hall. It’s Times Square up in there, but to her the room might as well be a cave full of bats. And at this point, I wouldn’t mind being in a cave full of bats, because after eight p.m. I’m so exhausted and cranky I’d probably step through guano just to find some nook where I can sit and just…be.
David’s been traveling for two weeks, and in his wake I’m juggling the oldest, who’s afraid of rain and leaps into our bed at the first sound of thunder (in, like, Ohio), and the youngest, who’s sick and permanently attached during the day to my ankles, and, of course, Quinlan, who isn’t quite so mighty once the darkness falls. Tonight, at the end of this two weeks, I gave up and countered Quinn with a slightly…different approach: I made her a deal. I told her that she could cry all she wants tomorrow at bedtime, as long as she doesn’t cry tonight (I know. I’m horrible). She looked at me, with that slightly accusing look she gets sometimes when her feelings are hurt (HORRIBLE). And then she pulled her thumb out of her mouth and said, “Well. I might cry a little.” And I said nope, not allowed. If she wanted to make the deal, she could cry as much as she wants tomorrow night, as long as she didn’t cry tonight. The poor girl had circles that were practically red under her eyes from the lack of sleep. Normally she responds well to black-and-white scenarios, and I was scrambling for anything–anything–that would give her a full night’s rest.
She agreed to the terms.
And tonight, we read books and said prayers and rubbed backs, and I told the girls all about the dream I planned to have (this time it was about a family of penguins who liked to play with fish rather then eat them.). And then Quinn told me all about her dream (butterflies, with maybe some dolphins and horses thrown in for good measure), and that was that. She was giggling, and happy when I left the room, yet I still counted the seconds until the wail fell down the stairs like a the sirens of a thousand fire trucks.
It was quiet.
About five minutes later, I heard the thump thump thump of her feet down the stairs, and then Quinlan was curling up on the couch beside me, one hand clutching a heart pillow, the other thumb-first in her mouth. She didn’t say anything, just curled into me. Her eyes had that bulgy wet look people get when they’re trying not to cry. She was trying. She was doing it, and she curled into me with those eyes intent on not crying and draped herself over me like she does, and when I finally told her it was time to go upstairs, she asked me to walk her up and that was that. I was proud of her. I was proud of myself, for the tough love that worked and the restful sleep I’d ensured. I went downstairs to catch up on some emails.
And then I thought. And then I realized that I know my four-year-old daughter better than that. And so I went back upstairs and saw her curled on her side, on the bottom of her sister’s bunk bed, fast asleep, thumb still in her mouth. And sure enough, her cheek was wet, as was the pillow beneath her head. Too afraid to let me hear. Too afraid to get “in trouble,” to break the deal, she had cried herself to sleep in silence.
I wiped her skin until it was dry, and wrapped my arms around her, wishing I could wake her to tell her that I was sorry, that I never wanted her to cry alone, that I wanted to be the type of mom she could always come to, not the one who essentially told her daughter that she didn’t want to be bothered.
Here’s the deal: I haven’t slept in two weeks, just pity-ate a Blizzard I found in the bottom of the freezer, and have been noticing lately that Quinn seems to feel like she’s getting lost–middle child! what a shock!–in the middle. Abandoning my child to Quiet Cry instead of come to me doesn’t exactly make me feel like I’m, uh, addressing the problem. My heart hurts, my brain’s jumbled, and I’m so tired of trying so hard to make sure everyone is taken care of. Things slip though the cracks. People slip through the cracks.
We were chatting at bed, again, the other night–right before another episode of sobs-and-hugs, and I told the girls, lightly, that I must be the luckiest mom in the world. I wondered aloud: what made me so special that God would give me the most amazing kids to know and raise? How did I get so lucky? I feel it, every day, that love and the happiness. It’s always there, even when the bones are so tired they can’t settle down at night, when my head’s so frazzled it can’t get clear, when I look at all my responsibilities and I see so many slipping because I’m just trying to stay on top of the my tiniest three.
I feel like I used to be funnier. And more empathetic. More efficient. More…interesting. I was sure as hell a lot better about responding to emails. And I know you’re going to tell me that this, too, shall pass, that this is what parenthood is like, that I’m being too hard on myself (I hope?). I know all that. Normally I feel like I’m doing a pretty okay job of this stuff. But. I’m the luckiest mom in the world.
I just want my kids to feel as lucky to be stuck with me.