Sleep

Published on December 19th, 2023 | by Megan Vos

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There’s Nothing to Fix

Over the past three years, my eight year old has slept through the night a total of maybe twenty times. Her night waking has lasted over a third of her life – way too long to even remotely be considered “a phase.” But when I talk about it, that’s what I say. “We’re in a bad sleep phase,” as if the solution is just one fix or one growth spurt away.

We have gone through many iterations of “fixing” during these past few years. We moved her furniture around and bought her a weighted blanket. We made dream catchers. She slept on a camping pad and sleeping bag on our floor (if you’ve ever had the experience of listening to someone roll around in a sleeping bag on top of a sleeping pad, you know there’s lots of rustling). My partner and I have taken turns sleeping on her floor and taken turns moving to the couch in the middle of the night so she can sleep in our bed. We’ve walked her back to bed over and over for hours. You name it; we tried it. Nothing helped.

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

During the height of the pandemic, my therapist and I explored my belief that it is my job to fix things, both for myself and for the people around me. My dad left when I was eleven, and we maintained a cordial, if distant, relationship for the next thirty years until I ended our relationship last year. From my dad, I learned that I needed to be good in order for him to accept me. That if I could only be a little more easygoing, our relationship would have been better. Even though I knew intellectually that his rejection was not my fault, I internalized the belief that there was something about me that needed to be fixed. For years, my go-to fix was to restrict food or try a new diet masked as a “lifestyle change.” This fix distracted me from my feelings and came complete with rules. I wholeheartedly bought into the heady promise that becoming smaller would not only heal what was broken inside me, but would also make my life measurably better. My life, too, could be a series of before and after photos.

When the world feels overwhelming, it’s easy for me to convince myself that if my daughters will only let me brush and braid their hair, things will look a little brighter, or that if I can just adjust our schedule a bit, everything will be fine. Opening my Google calendar when I’m overwhelmed is like a dopamine hit, an invitation, a seduction. I stare at it with complete focus, shifting appointments and arranging carpools. With nearly twelve years of parenting behind me, I have fixed countless botched meals, minor injuries, and schedule mix-ups. I’ve been able to fix our lives with a quick email, or a text, or by signing up for summer camp the instant it opens. But during the pandemic, when life was largely unfixable, my belief that my worth is tied to my ability to fix was challenged again and again.

When my therapist offered me the mantra, “There is nothing to fix,” it felt like a permission slip, an acknowledgment that the well-being of my family did not depend on me controlling every aspect of our lives. That the size of my body did not reflect a moral success or failure on my part. That being a good mom did not require constantly improving myself and my children.

Photo by Ante Gudelj on Unsplash

It’s hard to adopt this perspective in the moment, especially when the “moment” is 2 AM and my daughter is standing in my doorway like an apparition from a horror movie. But it is also incredibly freeing. My daughter was anxious even before Covid, before the mass shooting at our neighborhood King Soopers when she was six, before the Marshall Fires just a couple of miles away, which burned almost a thousand homes in 2021. I can’t fix that for over a year after these tragedies, she froze when she heard a siren. Over and over during that time, I had to tell my daughter that I didn’t know, that was impossible to explain, that there was no easy answer. “This is just really hard,” I’d say. “I wish it were easier.”

My daughter’s sleep struggles are not all that surprising, circumstances aside. One of my mom’s famous lines is that I’ve never slept through the night; I just stopped needing her to be awake with me. In my family of origin, we all wake ridiculously early, and the quality of the sleep that precedes the early rising is questionable. We are spread out all over the country, but when we are together, waking up for our sacred first cup of coffee at 6 AM, my mom, brother, and I often greet each other with “Did you sleep?”

The answer usually includes some combination of the time we fell asleep, the time we woke up and thought we’d fall back to sleep, and sometimes, the joyful plot twist of falling back to sleep after resigning ourselves to a 3 AM wake up. When we are apart, our Wordle group text often reflects our collective insomnia; we send our scores at all hours of the night.

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

I remember being a child and watching the clock turn from 12 to 1 to 2 AM, and my worry even then about how tired I’d be the following day. My parents, too, tried to fix it, and there wasn’t a solution. On our way home from a sleep clinic when I was the age my younger daughter is now, my mom turned to my dad and said, “She’ll sleep when she sleeps.” When my parents divorced, my brother and I slept with our mom for years, and I grew up and went away to college, and then moved two thousand miles away. Now, when my children aren’t waking me, and my cat doesn’t demand a 4 AM can of food, I sometimes sleep.

It’s a parenting trope to tell moms of young children to enjoy every moment. That we will miss these days. And while I do not think I will miss many aspects of parenting through a global pandemic with an anxious child while chronically sleep deprived, I understand the sentiment. Instead of implementing a new sleep plan, or Googling yet another white noise app, l’ve decided to make some space, both literally and figuratively, and pull my daughter close. There is nothing to fix. One day, meeting her needs won’t be as straightforward as lifting up the blanket and saying sleepily, “Come on in,” and feeling her warm body next to mine. I can imagine missing that.

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About the Author

Megan Vos is a writer, producer, educator, and mom who lives in Boulder, CO.  When she’s not teaching, advocating, or writing, Megan loves sunny hikes, a good latte, adventuring with her kids and her puppy, and doing the New York Times Crossword with her partner (together, they sometimes complete some of the easy puzzles). Megan’s writing has been published in Motherscope, Kindred, Motherwell, and Journal of Expressive Writing. 



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