Published on April 18th, 2023 | by Teresa Douglas


The Nighttime Arms Race

I tilt my face up into the bright bathroom light, willing myself to stay awake. It’s eleven in the evening, and every movement feels like walking through deep water. I spent the day working and cajoling the kids through online school; the undertow of my exhaustion threatens to pull me into sleep where I stand. But I miss alone time with my spouse, so hopefully, all those warnings about bright light disrupting my circadian rhythms are true. Wakefulness is what I’m after. Tonight, I’ll gladly exchange sleep for sex with my husband.

The kids’ bedroom door opens, and my eleven-year-old daughter stumbles into the bathroom, eyes closed. She moans, “Too bright.”

I want to press my forehead against the cold sink in frustration. Instead, I flip off the switch. Light from the hallway bathes us both in sleepy shadows. She collapses against my shoulder, her sleep-tousled hair tickling my neck.

“Why aren’t you asleep?” As if I didn’t know.

“I was just falling asleep, and then I had to go to the bathroom.”

“Well, unless you’re willing to pee with me in here, you’re going to have to wait until I take off my makeup because you’re interrupting me getting ready for bed.”

“I’ll wait.”

We perform this skit every night. Every. Night. And tonight, I’m extra bitter about it. I waited longer than usual to start my evening routine so I wouldn’t fall asleep before the kids did. Neither my husband nor I want a sleepy tween knocking on the door, asking about the noises coming out of the bedroom. It throws cold water all over the mood. And at some point, she’ll stop believing that Dad is telling Mom a funny joke.

On paper, staying up later should solve the problem. The child gets up every night at ten because she has to go to the bathroom. Therefore, if I want the kids to fall asleep before the adult festivities start, I should go upstairs at ten-thirty.

Only, my perfect solution didn’t work. Last night I went up at ten-thirty, and just as I started washing my face, she stumbled in. Before she left the bathroom, I heard my husband snoring in our bedroom.

So tonight, we are trying to stay up a little later, but this time my husband is sitting on the couch, reading while he waits.

And here’s our kid again. Is her subconscious moving her bathroom break on purpose? Is this some Darwinian urge to keep her parents from creating more sibling competition? 

I want to yell at her for malicious lingering.

Before March 2020, my husband and I could sidestep the whole issue. He was a Ph.D. student. I worked from home. We had sex while the kids were at school.

It was my coffee break with benefits.

Then COVID closed the schools, putting us back in the arms race between parental energy reserves and our child’s nefarious bladder. Neither can hold out indefinitely. It’s mutually assured destruction.

We immigrated to Canada six years ago. There are no grandparents or aunts nearby, ready to take the kids so I can talk — or do anything else — with my husband for any length of time. I grew up surrounded by cousins, grandparents, aunts and uncles. This tiny bubble existence isn’t what I wanted for my kids or for me, and I ache for that alternate reality like it’s a phantom limb.

It’s almost as if the kid and I share a mystic connection. She was born a little after ten in the evening. Maybe some part of her wants to reconnect with me every night. Mother and child, forever reenacting our physically separate but emotionally intertwined lives.

Which is cute and lovely when she’s at school all day. But when these bathroom greetings come after ten hours of breaking up sibling arguments, fielding schoolwork questions and food requests, all I want to say is, “I love you more than life, but you aren’t allowed to use the bathroom after nine pm. Wear a diaper!”

The kid looks at herself in the mirror and says, “I look so tired. I’m so pale.” And I don’t even know what to say at this point. There should be a rule that when I run out of the ability to parent with kindness and empathy, my children sleep until I can make more.

I don’t think these interruptions will ever end. Someday, my daughter will grow up and move out, and probably only call me on the nights her father and I are trying to be romantic, and I’ll have to take the call because I never see her.

I’m basically doomed to spend my retirement in a sexless marriage.

My husband walks up the stairs and sticks his head into the bathroom. He looks at our daughter and then meets my eyes for a long moment. I smile, trying to look both wide awake and alluring, even though I have black mascara dripping down my face and a child plastered to my side.  “I’ll be out very soon,” I say, trying to convey my actual message, which is ‘Don’t fall asleep!’

I don’t know if he receives the meta-message because he turns and walks into our bedroom.

And now I need to finish in the next five minutes. If this were a movie, this is the point where James Bond thinks he’s stopped the bad guys, only to find out that they have a second explosive device that’s going to blow up London unless he can find it in time. Except in my case, if I don’t get there in time, there will be no fireworks.

I turn to my daughter and say, “You should be asleep. Please just pee while I wash my face!”

She hugs me. “Promise not to look, and I’ll go to the bathroom and go to bed.”

“I promise.” I turn the light back on, lock the bathroom door, and wipe off black mascara and red lipstick while she does what she needs to do.

When she was two, I would carry my warm sleepy kid into the bathroom to pee at ten o’clock so she wouldn’t have an accident overnight. I can still feel the toddler weight of her in my arms. Nostalgia flutters down on me like snow, cooling the hot coal of my frustration.

The kid inserts herself between me and the sink to wash her hands. “I’m going to hurt tomorrow when my alarm goes off.”

I give her a one-armed hug and kiss the top of her head. “You sure are. Now go to bed and stay there. I love you.”

“I love you too.”

I nudge her gently toward her door in the blessed, snore-free silence. I splash cold water on my face and look at the bright bathroom light as I wait to hear the click of her door closing. Then I bolt to my bedroom.

Because tonight, James Bond finds the bomb.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

About the Author

Teresa Douglas is a Mexican American woman living in Canada. She has an MFA in Fiction from Sarah Lawrence College. Her work has appeared in Tiny Beans, Flashflood Journal, Epoch press, and (Mac)ro(mic). She is the editor of Latinx Lit Audio Mag.

Leave a Reply

Any comments left on this article will be sent directly to its author. We do not at this time publicly display comments. (If you want to write a public post about this article, we encourage you to do so on social media). We love comments, feedback and critique but mean or snarky comments will not be shared and will be deleted.  

Your email address will not be published.

Back to Top ↑
  • Subscribe to Mutha

    Enter your email address to subscribe to MUTHA and receive notifications of new articles by email.

    Email Frequency