It started early in pregnancy when hormones took over and swiftly took sleep away from my eyes.
It continued after that first baby came home to our little college apartment with us, so fragile and tiny. His doctor told us he needed to be kept under bright lights 24 hours a day so that his little body could rid itself of the toxins that had turned him a color a baby should not be. Even the whites of his blue eyes were yellow. That first night, we slept in the living room, I can’t remember why. My whole body ached to hold him, but that night I followed the rules and placed him in his bassinet, wrapped as well as he could be with cords and lights under his newborn clothes.
I don’t know that I have ever slept deeply since that first midnight, when I awoke to the sound of him snorting and struggling to breathe, rubbing his head side to side as his instincts took over to help him find the air. The knit cap I had put on his poor, lonely head as more of a comfort to me than him had been wiggled up over the back of his head and until it completely covered his face.
I knew what could have happened and how narrowly we had escaped the fate so many others hadn’t. I couldn’t unsee what I had seen and I couldn’t stop rearranging the details like a choose your own ending chapter book.
And now that baby is almost 13. He’s alive and mostly unharmed, growing strong and tall and sturdy like an oak tree should.
We’ve almost never been without a baby in the house since those first tender days together, thanks be to God. Children are truly a gift, but they don’t come without cost. Their needs will be met, even if that means draining the minerals from their mothers’ teeth.
I often say I can be a really good mom, if I get to keep business hours. I tell my seven year old that he has to go to bed, not because he is tired, but because Nice Mom is about to clock out and he really doesn’t want to be around when Mean Mom shows up. Sue me, I’m human. You are, too. Here’s some free advice: stop acting like you are not human. Your resources are limited, like it or lump it. Take care of yourself, care won’t be given. You’ll have to take it and if you don’t, you might not have much to give, anyway.
I used to dread night-time in a house full of poor sleepers whose parents could never stomach the thought any sort of sleep training regimen. I can remember crying more than once as I laid a sleeping, swaddled baby in the bassinet, knowing as soon as my eyes closed they would be forced open again.
It took years for me to stop expecting someone else to come and rescue me from those night time hours. If you have ever raised a newborn with a man of any kind - good, bad, ugly, or indifferent - then I bet you’ve hissed whispered curses over the top of a sweet baby’s head at 2 am. Or worse, 4 am. Oh, there is little worse than a bed with a sleeping man and a NOT SLEEPING baby at 4 am.
To be fair, our marriage has been a work in egalitarian process since day one. My own particular man is a feminist wonder on a good trajectory toward carrying a non-traditional share of the parenting and domestic load and I have rarely, if ever, cleaned vomit from a mattress or a rug. He’s a good one, don’t hear me say anything I’m not saying.
But in the longest nights with the infants and the toddlers, it’s mostly been me, mostly because it’s me they’ve wanted. That’s a gift as well, but it’s not free, either.
Somewhere along the way, I think I learned to lean into the midnight hours and let them be what they are and bring what they will. I think this is what Barbara Brown Taylor writes about in Learning to Walk in the Dark when she says,” I learned things in the dark that I could never have learned in the light.” I needed the lessons I learned in the dark. There are just some things that the noon-day sun could never have taught me.
There was something unexpected and good about leaving my twenties behind and tip-toeing into my thirties. I still don’t know, at almost 36, exactly what it is about this decade. I’m still looking for the words. I can just tell you, the years have ushered in a new way of being in my own heart and body and mind.
I’ve learned to trust that the rest I get will be supernaturally multiplied and that if I need rest tomorrow, I’m allowed to take it. I don’t dread night the way I used to. I know part of that is just the passage of time and the fact that my fourth baby is an older toddler now, and sleeping a little better. I know my elaborate cocktail of tinctures and oils are helping my mind and body rest, I know that books are better than Twitter before bed, and I’m doing better sticking to the former. I have the whispered prayer, Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me because you love me. I lean hard on those words and they are the tape in my mind that has replaced a lot of the neurotic worries and complaints of my twenties. There are lots of reasons I’m not as nervous when the sun goes down as I used to be and I think they’re all working together.
I am learning what it means to find life and peace and joy, even in the midnight hours.
I am committed to living a hands wide open life and learning to hold steady, letting love flow in and out and do it’s wild work all over and around me. When you walk around with your heart cracked open like this, people find their way in. I receive the holy opportunity to hold space for people walking through all sorts of darkness. Sometimes the stories people share are of momentary afflictions, some are gut-punch stories of darkness that lasts for years on end. I don’t go looking, but somehow it just happens almost every day. I have heard enough stories from enough people to know that darkness is something we all come to dread at one time or another. The darkness shows up for everyone and sometimes it stays too long.
Fifteen years ago, I had collected a list of a half-dozen or so Biblical phrases and theological idioms that I believed could answer just about every problem a person could encounter. My intentions were pure and I think I really believed I was sharing Gospel truth and helping people, whether they asked me to or not.
And then one day, the fragile threads that held my own faith together quickly began to unravel and I was suddenly plunged into this other world where I couldn’t pray or worship and I felt completely cut off from my whole community. The worst part may have been the fear that everyone I loved might reject me if they knew I wasn’t sure any of this was true anymore. All of a sudden, the religious language I had spoken my whole life became foreign to me, even more, it hurt my ears to hear it. The Bible had held the answer to every question I had ever asked and suddenly I couldn’t even read it. I didn’t recognize it. I had been given my first awful taste of the merciful gift of doubt and I desperately needed the humbling that came with it.
I was supposed to become a missionary and instead I was losing my own faith altogether.
When it got too dark, I went to visit my religion professor in his office. I stood in his doorway and spilled all of it, right there.
He took me seriously, thank God, and he could see how much I was suffering.
After listening for a while he asked me a question.
“Have you experienced Jesus?”
I thought for a second and had to answer him, “Yes, I know that I have.”
“Then you can be true to that experience.”
He may have saved more than my faith that day, because the night was getting very long by that point.
His words set me free from being chained to the treadmill of trying to figure everything out. I didn’t have to find the answers to all of the world’s pressing questions, I didn’t have to explain away the problems of evil and suffering, because my experience of Jesus had simply been that He was with me, always with me. I could remember being little and scared and feeling Him there with me. He has always been with me. He hasn’t buffered me from suffering and loss and I am still succeptible to all the terror that everyone else is. I prayed and begged that my unborn baby would live and he didn’t. No miracle came, only pain and grief. After my third baby was born, my heart and my mind just broke, almost completely, and we lost a lot those long months. If I am willing to pry my eyes open a little wider and take in the tragedies being written into the lives of tiny children denied refuge and safety in our country, all my logic and mastery of the Scriptures might not be enough to explain the evil and greed that persists in the face of all my pretty words about a good God. But my story is that He is with me, I have experienced him, and I don’t need more than that anymore. And thank God, because sometimes I don’t know much else beyond that. I just know that down in my bones at the end of every exhale, if I stop and listen for Him, He is here with me.
And you know what, now that I think of it? That’s all my babies have ever needed. After the first few months, they weren’t waking for milk. They really just needed to know that I was with them, still with them, always with them. They needed to know that they hadn’t been left here all alone.
That’s all I need, actually.
Maybe that’s all any of us ever need. Maybe we just need somebody to come and be near us when it’s dark and then stay until morning brings mercy.
Steady, friends. Let the dark do the work that only it can and don’t be afraid. You are not alone here.