99 Problems

Published on February 16th, 2017 | by Charlotte O'Brien


The Art of Three A.M.

I wake abruptly from a deep sleep and before I can consider why, a small figure materializes beside me.

“Mommy, I’m wet,” it says. My four-year-old is holding towards me a tutu and a winter sweater, presumably as a replacement for her wet pajamas.

“You wet the bed?” I say.

“Yes,” she says. “I’m wet.” My husband rises next to me and sits on the edge of our bed, his head hung with half-sleep, readying himself for action. I begin to peel wet pajama’s from my four-year-old’s body and remember the teenager.

“Ami,” I say. “Where is Ami? She isn’t home yet.”

My husband picks up his cell and begins texting. I strip the four-year-old and assessing the inappropriate clothing she’s selected, rise to find her new clothes.

“Get into mommy’s bed,” I tell her. “I’m going to find you clean pjs.”

My husband lumbers through the dark towards her bedroom. On nights such as this, it’s a team effort and we work around each other efficiently—a well-oiled parenting machine—acting out our roles: he, the bed stripper and me, the child-manager. We’ve been dancing this two-step since our teenager was little. If there’s a vomiting child in the house, he cleans the vomit while I bathe and comfort the child. If it sounds like he got the raw end of this deal, I should add that I am also charged with holding the bucket, or the vomiting child’s hair from their face as they do so. In the realm of three a.m. parenting, I think it’s fair to say we are equal partners in this often smelly, messy, bleary-eyed, biohazardous, is-this-really-what-we-signed-up-for? burden.

When I return to the bedroom, my younger child is sitting up in bed nestled among my white pillows holding a marker. Upon closer inspection, I find she has completely colored the back of her hand and her palm—all the way to her wrist—in green pen.

“What did you do?” I cry. “Why would you do that?”

By David Van Horn / Creative Commons License

No matter how many times I have been through this routine, I never come to terms with the fact that I am awake when I should be asleep and fervently cling to the idea that I might get to go back to sleep at any moment. At the first signs of even the smallest set-back, and in a matter of seconds, I go from handling it like a pro to coming completely unglued.

My four-year-old doesn’t answer me. She and I both know my question is rhetorical. Since she was able to hold a drawing utensil, she has been avidly coloring-in her extremities. When she was two I came home from work to find that she’d colored in her wrist with a black sharpie. We’d been reading Ian Falconer’s book Olivia Saves the Circus, and this had become a recent favorite. All was revealed that evening when I got to the illustration of “Olivia the Tattooed Lady,” and my child sheepishly handed me the Sharpie she had stashed under her pillow. More recently I noticed that the soles of her feet yellow and when I asked her why this was so, she told me it was because her feet were happy.

Looking now at her green hand, I mentally tally my parenting score. I completely failed to put away the markers, leaving my child unattended with them, and my white bedding is no longer white. On the other, who would ever suspect their child might seize a five-minute window of opportunity at this dark hour to attempt to transform themselves into a Ninja Turtle?

I remember I made a point of purchasing washable markers so it’s not quite the disaster it could be. My husband returns to our bedroom.

“We’ve got a problem,” I say and hold her arm aloft by the wrist.

Without pause, or any outward expression of surprise, my husband picks her up and carries her to the bathroom. Unlike me, it takes a lot to faze my husband—even at three in the morning. I follow the two of them to the bathroom because we are, after all, a team. He stands our daughter on the step-stool at the bathroom sink and rinses her hand, which is covered, front to back and finger-tip to wrist, in green ink.

“You don’t draw on your body,” I tell her as the sink fills up with green water.

“It’s not my body, it’s my hand,” she replies. Just then, she wobbles precariously on the stool. My husband reaches out to steady her.

“I’m O.K. Mommy,” she says. “I nearly falled, but I’m O.K. now.”

It’s true what they say—that parenting a human under the age of five is much like handling a tiny drunk.

“Come on,” I tell her and usher her towards my bedroom. My husband and I opted for a King-sized bed for moments like these. Hypothetically, there is enough room for everyone.

“Look,” says my four-year-old, pointing to the furry lump at the end of our bed. “The dog is asleep.”

“Yes,” I say. “Everyone is asleep except us.” Then I remember the teenager.

“Ami,” I say. “Where is she?”

“She texted me,” my husband says. “She’s home.”

“She texted you from her bedroom?”

“Yes,” he says. “We were asleep when he came in.”

“Oh,” I say, relieved that the next crisis has already been averted.

My four-year-old snuggles down next to me, her face inches from mine, her feet dug into my thigh, her small arm slung around my neck, and her hand, which is no longer green, pressed against my face. I lay with her like this, not daring to move, until I hear her breathing grow slow and heavy. It’s moments like these, at three a.m., when I realize I couldn’t be happier.

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About the Author

Charlotte O’Brien is a San Francisco Bay Area writer with essays and interviews most recently published in The Rumpus, Mutha Magazine, and The Manifest-Station. She graduated from Pacific University’s MFA program in 2013. Charlotte lives with her teenager, her five year old, and a scruffy dog. She is currently writing a memoir about living in America as an undocumented immigrant. You can find out more about her at www.charlotteobrien.org.

2 Responses to The Art of Three A.M.

  1. Leslie says:

    Lovely story.

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