Dear Lily June,
These days, well-meaning coworkers and colleagues, mostly seasoned veteran mothers, lean across my desk and inquire, genuinely concerned, “How are you doing lately?” I only ever have one honest answer: Tired. I’m so very tired. And Lily, though I love you with a force more powerful than REM cycles and more lasting than the deep dreams of the comatose, I am so tired of being tired.
These other mothers nod, knowingly, and offer adages like “It gets better” or “All this, too, shall pass.” But they never dare say when. If all this too shall really pass, then, Lily, my little love, now would be good.
Two nights of your life, thus far, have been the hardest of mine: your first night at home and last night, the night after you got your first shots. It’s a toss-up which one has been scarier, and I don’t have enough distance from either (or enough sleep after) to make that critical comparison. During both, my fears were driven by the unknown of what could happen to you when kept in your parents’ care alone. (What might we, your well-intentioned but inexperienced caretakers, get wrong? How might we inadvertently harm you?) There’s a special brand of panic that belongs to new parents alone, and it, if nothing else, seems to explain why the life expectancy of those who have children shrinks. Our hearts have simply, for reasons good and bad, skipped too many beats.
In the first few weeks, the sleep-deprivation led to strange side-effects all around. At the time, I was breastfeeding, and you needed to eat at least once every couple of hours. In between your nips at my nipples, my brain would shut off for seconds at a time, succumbing to what are called “micro-sleeps.” These are the short flashes of unconsciousness that drive truckers to jack-knife their vehicles, and when my body would jolt back to a waking state, I would be acutely aware of the guilt I felt for my momentary inattention.
I think that guilt is what inspired the horrific hallucinations. One night, I woke only to find that your skull had shriveled to the size and shape of a dry pine cone because I’d slept through hours and hours (maybe days?!) of feeding you. (I hadn’t actually, of course, gone full-on Rip Van Winkle, but the fear driving the dream was that if I fell asleep, I would fall so deeply it would last long enough to starve you.)
On another nocturnal adventure, I had actually fallen unconscious with you on top of me in the bed. You looked so peaceful sinking into the huge cotton comforter that I guess it relaxed me. When I woke, though, you were nowhere to be found. At first, I patted the folds of the blanket thinking you’d slipped into an unseen pocket of fabric. When I still couldn’t find you (or even hear your breathing), I eventually ripped the entire comforter off the bed and me, only to hear you shriek. Of course, the shriek was coming from the other room, where you were safely awake and alive in the arms of your father. In the split-second of this waking nightmare being both terrifyingly real and horrifically untrue, I screamed, but only until I shot into the next room and covered your safe, breathing body in kisses of paranoia and misplaced grief.
Pardon my French, Lily, but this is the kind of shit no one tells you when you embark on having kids. As your loving mother, I vow to tell you like it is: Those first few weeks will drive you nuts, in the worst (albeit most worthwhile) of ways.
Let me rewind, though. Even those early weeks with their waking nightmares couldn’t compare to your first night.
That first night was harder on me than on your father, by far. All the family help that had rushed to our side in the hospital was gone. The nurses and doctors with their late-night checks and early morning pointers were gone. And eventually all my sanity? Gone.
Though I was breastfeeding, one well-meaning but pushy nurse had given you formula in the hospital to help calm you for the car ride home. (You hated your car seat and still do, for the most part, whenever the car’s not regularly moving. I hated sitting in a car that day, too; no one prepared me for how the potholes and bumps on the ride home would jar my incision site, causing pain to radiate through me like candelight in a jack-o-lantern, inside and outside.) Anyway, the formula had made you seem like you’d be so peacefully zen–like you’d spend your whole first day home asleep.
Your father rushed you up the stairs to our second-floor apartment, then came back to usher me up. Each step caused a pain that seemed to go through the skin to the nearest bone. And then you started to cry for the first time in your new home. I turned to your dad and said, preternaturally calm at the time, “This is going to be the hardest night of our lives.”
I couldn’t know how right I was.
From then on, you would keep on crying for hours, from the early afternoon into the wee ones. You would look up at me with the fear I felt, and I swear your face read with shock, “You don’t know how to take care of me.” I would set you on my c-section scar, which would shoot pain through me like a fresh blast of fire, and I would nurse you, rocking you, singing to you cooingly, lovingly, desperately, panicked and pained, stressed and strained, wanting with every fiber to meet your every need, to meet any need, just one, dear Lily, just let me do one thing right, I’d internally plead.
We even made you a bottle of the formula the hospital sent home for supplementation only. I gave you ounce upon ounce to ease your troubled tummy or your broken heart (or mine). Eventually, you must have stopped crying because you’re not still crying at this minute (I hope). But in the hollows of my memory, there’s a ghoulish echo of those first wailings and weepings, as heartbreaking and soul-shattering to me now as your first cry in the hospital after you were born was enchanting and spell-binding.
Last night, by far, was harder on your father. Half dazed from a long day at work and drugged with the antidepressant I’m re-beginning, I could barely hold my eyes open, though they would spring wide each time he announced your fever had gone up another tenth of a degree. We were told to remain calm until your temperature reached 102, and you peaked at 101.8. The numbers were too close for comfort.
It worked like this back and forth; your fever would ease, and I would catch another cat nap. Your fever would swell, and the panic in the household would be palpable. Your temperature at one point dropped long enough for me to drop my tired bones onto the mattress for “real” sleep (i.e. two hours, tops), but it didn’t stop me from tucking myself under the covers with guilt for my bedfellow.
Your father held you, rocked you, hushed you as I had done on your first night home (proof, my dear, that we both wholeheartedly love you), and was finally able to bathe you, feed you, and put you down in the bassinet. But he’d been the vigilant temperature taker all day, sending me emails at work about each rise and fall, and when he fell for the day, he fell hard. I still could barely peel myself from sleep when you began a brutal babbling that meant you were up, and up for the night. I held you from 1 AM until 6, when I had to get ready for work.
And oh, little Lucy, to hold you and know you were hurting! The whole thing has been heart-wrenching. I keep flashing on the memory of when the nurse stuck you with the needles for your vaccinations; you looked up with such pained surprise, it was only because you are still preverbal that you didn’t mouth to me, “Et tu, Brute?”
Today, your temperature has risen a bit, but has mostly stayed safe. But last night, with you sleeping on my chest, burning like a furnace and breathing hard like the chugging of a train, I felt like a warrior mother, trying and trying to pry my eyelids open, over and over, forever and ever, amen. Some part of my heart will always be awake with you in that moment, gripped in anxiety that you won’t be okay and simultaneously luxuriating in the sweetness of your softness burrowing into me, needing me as your mommy to keep you safe.
As the first weeks brought the waking nightmares, this is the other end of the sleep-deprived coin: the living dream of a daughter who wants to be in my arms. I know that dream won’t last forever and eventually we’ll both wake. All this, too, shall pass, Lily. Until then, I will be so very, very tired.