This week I became a bad mother. That indestructible golden thread that holds everything together, woven from the strength of motherhood, finally began to fray, finally has proven itself not so indestructible after all.
It started a few weeks ago when the stomach flu and a day care cold turned into a touch of pneumonia (a scary word for all parents, but especially for us), which led of course to sick days and trips to the doctor and a traumatic trip to urgent care, all of which occurred the same week as commencement (which I’m sort of responsible for running) and final papers for my spring classes. There was little sleep and endless stress both at home and at the office/commencement arena that was unrelieved by rest or by running or by even sitting down to eat a decent meal. But for the most part, I kept it together, and I did so by telling myself that once commencement was over, once the baby was feeling better, then everything would go back to normal. And it did. For a few days. But by the time the weekend came round again, Koukla had another cold and there we were all over again at the doctor’s office, another week of eardrops, out of the way follow up visits to the ENT. And all over again the baby started waking up once or twice at night and waking up in the mornings earlier than usual.
Koukla has recovered now, but her sleep has not. Now when she wakes up she will not go back to sleep, no matter what time of the early morning it is. First it was 5:15, then 5:00, which this week turned quickly to 4:30, 4:00 and 3:00. The nurse told us not to let her get into the habit of eating in the middle of the night, that it will only encourage more wakings, but on one of these early early mornings the poor child drank 16 ounces of milk (16 ounces!) – clearly she is very hungry. My sweet amazing and selfless husband takes the brunt of it, but no matter who is in bed and who is out of bed, neither of us can sleep when the baby is crying, thanks to our tandem bedroom and nursery. Even in the mornings when my husband gets out of bed with her to play in the living room and let me sleep, she bangs on the bedroom door until I get up, or she practices her new facility with door handles to come inside and bang on my shoulders instead.
My husband and I are caffeinated zombies during the day and move like drying clay at night. I’ve logged only two runs in the past month, yet haven’t slept past 5am in weeks. I’ve had to drop my summer course and I keep drawing blanks on the names of authors and books in the midst of these PhD prep conversations I’ve been having with college deans and other important people, which of course is leading me to ask myself how on earth I’m going to complete a doctorate in English when I can’t recall a single book I’ve read since my daughter was born, let alone articulate my take on postmodern literature.
I am beginning to lose patience, and this is where that magic thread starts to fray. I let the baby sit crying outside the bathroom door one morning because I wanted to pee alone. I did not cuddle her after her bottle but set her down to play by herself for a while so I could make and drink some coffee and check my email on my phone. Then later in the morning, after her breakfast when she was clearly very tired, I lost patience and did not fight with her when she refused to take a nap, I just let her be crabby and run herself ragged the rest of the day (though at least, on just that one night, she let all of us sleep).
I feel guilty in these moments – sitting in the bathroom listening to her wail on the other side of the door, shuffling around the kitchen with her hanging onto my leg, feeling her stare sadly at me as I stare at my phone – but I also feel justified. I say to myself, I work really hard all the time and I deserve to just pee in peace for once. I tell myself that it’s just that one moment, just that one morning, and by the afternoon she will have forgotten it and everything will be back to normal. I tell myself that in the grand scheme of things, just one hour of inattentive mothering will not make any big difference. But I don’t really believe that to be true. So the day wears on and the guilt burrows itself into my chest, builds a nest inside of me.
I do feel justified in taking a few moments every now and then, even if it means that the baby is left to cry for a minute and a half, but that guilt just won’t let me be. As much as I would love for all of my actions to be driven by love, I have to admit that not a small portion of them are motivated by guilt, or the avoidance of more guilt to be more accurate.
And so I’m sitting here alone now at 6am after another busy night and too too early morning. The house is finally quiet after two hours of a fussing near-toddler and my husband is getting a well deserved extra couple hours of sleep, but instead of going back to sleep myself, or meditating or reading or even just getting in the shower to get a headstart on my day, I’m drinking my third cup of coffee and waiting for a fresh batch of slow-cook oats to finish its long slow process of cooking and cooling so I can send my daughter off to school with a belly full of healthy food cooked with care. In a few minutes I’ll add mashed up fresh berries from the farmers market, creamy whole milk, lots of cinnamon. I’ll pack up the rest of her food for the day, more fruit to mix with tart plain yogurt, garbanzo beans mixed with olive oil hand carried from Greece, a few of her special little Papadopoulos cookies that she found at the Armenian store.
I know it is not enough to make up for the moments in which I am not perfect, for those moments in which I am less than loving, less than patient. But for now it’s the best I can do, packing up my little girl’s big bag of food and tying it closed with that golden thread. It may be a little frayed now, but it is also somehow made stronger by it.