Sleepless Nights

Last night I lay awake for a couple of hours in the middle of the night. My heart hurt.

It was a bit of a tough day yesterday. My two-year-old daughter has been having a hard time this week. Maybe it’s that I’m spending some hours working again, or maybe the travel we did last week took her out of her routine, or maybe the baby woke her up too early. Probably it was all of those things. My husband and I have both been grasping to find balance in this season of life where work and childcare demands can sometimes make life feel like a zero-sum tug of war. We both want to show up as the parents we want to be, do work we feel proud of, and care for each other and our marriage—and at the same time we both also are trying to find time and space to feed our souls by doing things that remind us who we are. We want to finish reading a book. We want to eat our meals sitting down, while the food is still hot. Even these simple things can feel like luxuries.

Children need so much, and still I feel a part of me bristle when I hear the advice—which, in truth, I often give to myself—to “just ask for help.” As though, if I simply handed off my kids to others more often, all would be well. That advice seems to me to ignore the way that my own well-being is tied up in my kids’ well-being: I’m happier when they’re happy. It also ignores the way my steady presence helps my kids to regulate their emotions: they’re happier when I’m there (at least for now, while they’re still so little). It sometimes feels that the person giving me the advice—and, again, that person is often me—sees a certain kind of weakness in my finding it easier to manage a lot of the childcare myself. More than weakness, perhaps my advice-giver even sees failure in my not being able to extract what I need from others to make my own path through life easier. I’m an educated woman in 2023, and I should be able to shift some of the load to others. But (I ask) is there also not a certain kind of strength in trying to raise my kids in the way that feels most true to me? In showing up for them when my husband is too tired, even when I’m tired too? Even when it’s hard, and in spite of it taking a certain toll on me? 

Even as I write this, I’m curious how my perspective will change with time and distance. I’m curious what advice I might give to my own kids someday on how they can find balance, if they choose to have children. I’m reflecting on how good it feels to, yes, leave the kids with a babysitter: at this moment they are upstairs, perfectly happy, while I sit in the basement and type this email. So I’m questioning myself. And I’m very aware that it’s a privilege to have a partner who supports the family financially, to make this choice possible.

So here I am at 2 a.m., awake. And my heart hurts as I’m sorting through all that I’ve just described. And the arch of my left foot aches, because I’ve been running more, and my shoes are old, and my postpartum feet have probably changed shape and size. But it’s hard to go get fitted for the right shoes, because I don’t have the time to go do that. Maybe I’m increasing my mileage too fast, but also I haven’t been able to run in so long, between IVF and pregnancies and postpartum recoveries. And while I don’t always love the act of running, I love how I feel after a run. On a day I run, I feel shielded from the irritations of life. But also, I think I might be getting plantar fasciitis, and the only thing worse than taking time off from running is not being able to run for a long time because of an injury, especially an injury like plantar fasciitis that could stay with me for months if I get it. But also also, is this a mind-body injury that is my body’s way of telling me I need to slow down? Telling me I need to rest? I haven’t rested in so long. I’ve only slept through the night twice in nine months, because my baby only started sleeping through the night this week, but my baby is currently sleeping, and I am not sleeping, so I am missing the opportunity to make it three times. Also also also, maybe if I’m thinking about the arches of my feet then I won’t have to think about the bigger feelings I have about what it is to be a mom and to work, and what is fair in a marriage, and what is love if not acceptance, and how much a person’s feelings matter when the person is two years old, and how much TV is too much TV for that two-year-old person, and also (sure) how many veggie straws are too many veggie straws for that same two-year-old. And also, if I take off running for a couple of weeks, how will that affect how I feel from day to day? Will I be OK? And when in my life can I go to the shoe store to get fitted for running shoes that won’t hurt my feet, when it felt like I had to move heaven and earth to get to my annual OB appointment—the same appointment where my doctor said that it’s important for my health that I not just chase the kids around but that I also do cardio. Like running.

Our brains don’t work the same in the middle of the night as they do during the day. I often find myself worrying about something that I know my tomorrow-self won’t think twice about. Our tools to regulate our emotions just aren’t as available to us at night. So, I practiced saying yes to all of it. Yes to the arch hurting. Yes to my concerns for my husband’s happiness and also my own, yes to my resentments, and yes to my fears about how my starting to work again will affect my kids. Yes to not sleeping.

I returned to the breath. Let me drop my resistance to not sleeping. I can’t make myself sleep. Let me send the kindness of my breath to my heart. What do I feel in my heart? Ache. A rawness. Weight. Heat. Soreness. I love you. I love you heart. My mind cycles again. I notice that I am thinking. I notice my concern for my family. I notice my concern for myself. I notice my concern for the arch of my foot. Back to the breath at my nostrils. Yes to not sleeping. Yes to all of it. I remember that everything is impermanent. Heartache will come and go. I remember that sleepless nights are often followed by remarkably OK days. I remember that I will sleep again. I remember how much we can make suffering worse by resisting it. I notice the sensation of sleepiness right above and between my eyes. A little tug from the other realm. I rest my attention there.

After many cycles of this I fall asleep.

There is some measure of freedom in accepting what is already here. Let’s not confuse freedom with relief, although sometimes they mingle. There is wisdom in labeling what arises. Self-compassion helps, but not always in ways we notice right away. We offer ourselves compassion because we care about ourselves, not to trick the heartache into disappearing. We care about the suffering that is here, the way we care about the suffering a friend shares with us. Maybe we bring our hand to our heart. Maybe we put the back of our hand to our cheek in a tender way that says I am here with you. It’s just us here, but we are here with ourselves. And then we do it again.