Published on January 21st, 2019 | by Christina Yovovich2
The Guarantee of Sleep
At five, he still comes to our bed most nights. There are nights he sleeps through in his own bed, times when he does this as often as four or five nights a week, but the slightest upheaval or change in daily life means he starts coming to our bed every night for weeks. The start of school. The end of school. Dad on a business trip. He has a cold.
Most nights, he calls for me. At midnight, one, or two in the morning, his panicked voice will ring out. “Mommy! Mommy! I need you right now!” His father will sleepily get up and walk to his room, and then they both stumble back to the big bed, where my son hands me his water bottle. I put it on the nightstand next to my CPAP, which hums breath in and out all night, and he climbs up beside me, curls up. I spread his weighted blanket over him and we both fall back asleep.
After this, sleep is sound. It used to be I could not sleep while being touched. If my son rolled against me in the night, or reached out with a hand, I would startle awake, throw him off me, and then slowly fall back into sleep. Five years in, and he’s retrained me. Some nights he rolls against me, some he nestles his feet into my side, some he reaches out with a small warm hand. And I wake, softly, take note that he needs me tonight, and then drift back to sleep.
Sleep was my biggest fear when I was pregnant. I am bipolar, and sleep is essential to my hard-won stability. I was afraid of being an unstable mother taking out mood swings on my unsleeping baby. I slept my way through pregnancy. I went to bed at nine, woke at five, napped around ten and then again around three. I felt like I was storing up sleep in the cellar of my mind against the long winter of infanthood ahead.
But, relief, at first my son seemed like a good sleeper. He slept through the night, 9-5, for the first time at six weeks. And then he did it again and again. He mostly slept through the night from six weeks to six months. I spent that time feeling relieved, giving smug sleep advice to tired mothers at my nursing support group.
Then he started getting teeth. He kept getting teeth from six months into his second year, and he wasn’t a good sleeper through any of it. Then he stopped getting teeth and he still wasn’t a good sleeper. The second he turned one, I started bringing him to our bed at his first wake up, and he’d sleep the rest of the night between us. At five, he still does.
If someone had told me, back when first contemplating a child, that I would have a bad sleeper, I probably would have backed out. Embraced the child-free life, with its long, uninterrupted sleep-filled nights. I would have been too afraid of my own brain and the ways it could make me uncontrollable. I would have been afraid of being the kind of parent whose child grows up and writes essays and poems about them and their screaming, unstable ways.
But having a bad sleeper isn’t my biggest fear anymore. I go to bed early. I sleep until he wakes. Then I sleep with him beside me, perhaps nestling his feet into my side. I stay stable enough. Sometimes more, sometimes less, and when it is less, the trigger is generally not sleep, but some other large worry which threatens to overwhelm me. When my son and husband both got the flu. When my son started biting other children at preschool. When I brought my son in for testing at Child Find to see what special education services he might qualify for thanks to his sensory processing issues. All of these challenged my hard-won stability, though none tipped me all the way off the edge.
Why the semi-reliable stability, even through stress and interrupted sleep? A lot of luck, likely. The luck to be able to afford a good doctor, who talks to me as well as prescribing me medicine. The luck to have a husband who provides a stable emotional and financial base from which to work. The luck to have a child who is a bad sleeper, but not the kind I’ve read about who gets four or five hours of sleep a night tops. My son gets nine or ten hours, with interruptions. And then there is the simple fact that I have made stability a guiding goal in my life. I want to be stable more than I want to be anything else, so I live my life with that as the guiding principle. I even gave up writing for a year because the pressure to write felt like too much when I was first dealing with the realities of my son’s challenges.
My son’s biggest fear is of the night. The dark. Waking and calling for me and having nobody answer. He recently asked me, as I was lying beside him in his small bed, if I would stay with him all night. No, I said. After he fell asleep I would go downstairs and have some tea. No, he said. Will you stay in the house with me all night? He is afraid of being left alone. He is also afraid of death, and has been since he was old enough to form sentences. My husband remembers him climbing up on his lap and saying, “I don’t want you to die, Daddy.” My husband’s first thought was, what a long sentence! The longest yet!
Another early long sentence from my son is responsible for my CPAP. My husband had complained of my snoring for years, but I brushed him off. But my son, he started waking me in the night, his little angry voice saying, “Mommy! Wake up! You sound like a monster!” The he’d imitate my snoring. So I finally went to the right sort of doctor. A home sleep study later, and we discovered that I had really bad sleep apnea; many times an hour, my body was deprived of oxygen. The doctor who went over the results with me looked alarmed enough that I felt rather alarmed myself. Sleep is supposed to heal my bipolar brain, but what kind of healing could happen when I was suffocating multiple times a night?
When the CPAP came, it quieted my snores, made my sleep deeper. My son no longer shook me awake and told me I sounded like a monster, though he did once tell me I looked like an elephant (and I do, with that long tube hanging off my nose). Sleep became safe again, not a series of dangerously held breaths.
That is the thing about fears. We don’t always know the right thing to be afraid of. My son is safe alone in his room at night. Nothing is going to harm him. But he worries. And I thought I was safe in my bed at night, getting the sleep my bipolar brain needed. But I wasn’t. We muddle along with our fears, some rightly so, some off the mark. We try to manage them so they don’t take over.
My biggest fear has changed. Now it, too, is death — my husband or I leaving our son alone. One of us not being there in the long nights, or days. I never remember fearing my own death before I had a child. I didn’t want to die soon, sure, but I didn’t mind dying eventually. Now, I would like to live forever, to be there for my growing child until he outgrows coming to my big bed, until he outgrows being a child, until he has children of his own calling for him in the night. I would like a guarantee I will be there for all of that.
There are no guarantees. But I’ve started doing a guided meditation with my son at night as he falls asleep, to quiet his fears. I tell him to imagine his guardian star over his head, watching over him and keeping him safe. I tell him to imagine its light filling his whole body with peace, and his heart with love for all living things. Then I have him imagine he walks until he comes to a large tree, which is his worry tree, and he tells it his worries so it can hold them for him all night long. Sometimes he says he’s afraid of the dark. Sometimes he says he doesn’t want to die. The tree takes his worries, and then he enters a garden full of flowers, and a stream with golden fish and hungry ducks, and I leave him there, to wander in his dreams. He falls asleep easier, thanks to the guardian star and the worry tree and the hungry ducks. But, most nights, I can still expect he will join us in our bed. I will cover him with his heavy blanket, and we will all sleep together