It’s 3:00 am and I’m woken by a small whine from the baby monitor. It cuts through the white noise, ocean sounds with an overlay of crackling static.
Actually, I don’t know it’s 3:00 am yet. That comes a minute later when I fumble for my phone on the headboard. Until then, I am in a temporal no man’s land, with no idea how long I’ve slept or if I will get to sleep again tonight. It’s pitch dark. The dog is snoring. By now my husband has lifted his head.
Shit, he whispers.
Wait, I say, as our not-yet-two-year-old daughter whines again. She might still work it out.
Within another few minutes, it’s clear we won’t be so lucky tonight. She’s started calling out, Mommy, mommy. Mommy. Mommmyyy.
I go get her. Come on, honey. Let’s go back to sleep. She wraps her limbs around me like a monkey, clutching her “tanket” in one hand. We make a space for her between us in bed while she mutters, mil-kah, mil-kah and claws at my tank top. I let her nurse and close my eyes, falling into a meditative doze for however long it takes her to roll over and fall asleep in the crook of my elbow. I carefully free my pinned arm and curl up beside her, feeling for her face in the dark to make sure there are no suffocation hazards in her way. I listen to her breath, and my husband’s too. His military training has given him the ability to fall asleep quickly, any time, anywhere. For me, it will be a while.
When my alarm goes off at 6:30, I will ask myself if I had any dreams. I think that will help me figure out if I ever got back to sleep. Sometimes yes, sometimes no. Sometimes, the night behind me is a warm haze, sometimes a knot I can’t untangle. Regardless, my daughter takes off running down the hall, calling out socks! when it occurs to her that her feet are cold on our stone floor.
My somewhat existentialist experience of motherhood began with labor. Roughly a day in, and several hours after I’d begun having contractions that rolled from one to the next with no pause, I surrendered in my quest for an unmedicated birth, opting for the mildest painkiller on offer because I was still under the influence of a fear-mongering birthing class led by a doula who warned that an epidural would sever my awareness of my own physical cues, effectively robbing me of the true experience of childbirth. While my sister briefly relieved my husband—who’d been glued to my side, feeding me ice chips and letting me squeeze his forearms while I writhed in mind-bending pain—I remember asking her a question:
What’s supposed to be happening right now?
She asked me to repeat myself. I wasn’t quite sure what I meant either. I tried again:
I don’t know what I’m supposed to be doing. I don’t know what’s supposed to be happening.
She comforted me, told me I was doing great. But I was still confused, and the confusion remained when, around hour 36, after the original painkiller had worn off and I was still only a few centimeters dilated, I tearfully assented to the epidural. It took two hours and two different anesthesiologists because of my (news to me) inverted spine. Did you have scoliosis? I was asked. I don’t think so? But who could remember in that moment, with a saintly battleax of a nurse bear-hugging me to hold me still through what must have been my millionth contraction as the needle was injected between my abnormal vertebrae.
Finally, I slept. Some time later, a young nurse I hadn’t met before woke my husband and me up to tell us it was time, and it took me a moment to remember what she was talking about. It had been nighttime last I knew. Now sun streamed through the window. What’s supposed to be happening right now? Fifteen painless minutes later I had my baby, bloody and rooting on my chest, her eyes a deep, dark blue.
I suppose What’s supposed to be happening right now? is a question I’ve had to abandon in these not-yet-two years. There were so many things I planned and expected to do. I would wean when she turned one. I still don’t know how that’s ever going to happen. I would speak to her exclusively in French. I manage some daily books and songs, but am frankly too tired to speak in my second, less intuitive language on any consistent basis. I would insist she eat her vegetables. Eh. She does alright most days. The day-to-dayness of parenting is so thick and all-consuming that there is no room for big picture concerns. I like this. I have an aesthetic appreciation for it. There’s a reason I wrote my first novel in the present tense.
When I do take a moment to look up from the here and now, it’s to take note of the absurd things our daughter does. I take pleasure in listing them without context:
- Blowing into the air on hot days, to cool it off.
- Yelling I fast, I funny as she bolts down an aisle at CVS
- Climbing into the shower while I’m in there and laughing as she gets drenched
- Repeating I dancing, I dancing as she dances to the alphabet, to radio ads, to wind chimes
- Wandering around the backyard, handing me rocks and sticks, saying mommy, sank you, mommy
There is equal pleasure in listing the absurd things I do:
- Singing in a dark room at night
- Noticing and naming all the colors I see
- Affirming objects (i.e. Yes, that’s a car)
- Dancing along with her to the alphabet, to radio ads, to wind chimes
- Wandering around the backyard, squinting against the sun, accepting rocks and sticks as gifts
We are simultaneously separate and not separate at all. Everything I do is now in relation to her, and in everything she does, she looks to her father and me for guidance, approval and the promise of safety. I hear a small voice cry hulp! and find her standing on the kitchen table, unsure how exactly she got up there or how she might get down. She reaches for me, relieved. Similarly, like David Byrne, I look around sometimes and wonder, when I am so tired I can barely keep my eyes open but my face hurts from smiling, How did I get here? There is a deep relief in answering: I’m here now, and that’s all.
My husband and I were married in a secular ceremony. Our central vow came from Kurt Vonnegut, a humanist benediction for our future: I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, “If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.” This has been a useful mantra as our life has taken shape, and is even more apt now that we’re parents. Because it is as hard as people say. Because it can be thankless to clean up thrown food, to step on LEGOS, to try to reason with a creature of pure instinct. So when we’re all awake together in the wee hours, in the silence between the crickets’ last chirpings and the first cooing of the mourning doves, we can touch each other’s faces, unseen in the dark, and we don’t even have to say it to know that it’s true.
Anne-Marie Kinney is the author of the novel Radio Iris. Her work has appeared in Black Clock, The Rattling Wall, Alaska Quarterly Review and Indiana Review, among others. She is co-curator of Los Angeles’s Griffith Park Storytelling Series.