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Showing Up

Let me tell you the legend of a mythical creature, the sleepy newborn

Gather round, children, and I will tell you the legend of the sleepy newborn.

This is a mythical creature, which people — most notably people whose children are long married — will claim to have met, and will even claim can be commonly found.

Those people are lying.

We named our son Eliyahu on the Vilna Gaon’s yahrtzeit. Like his illustrious namesake, our son slept no more than 30 minutes consecutively, though his obsession with obtaining nourishment was more temporal than the concerns of the original Rabbeinu Eliyahu.

It was around the three-week mark that my husband, usually a well-informed father, discovered to his horror that intervals between feeds are counted from the beginning, not the end, of a feeding.

And so, because we were desperate for some shut-eye, Lydia entered our lives. She came well-recommended, and with a no-nonsense air that made it clear she wouldn’t stand for Eliyahu’s two a.m. shenanigans.

The first 20 minutes of our acquaintanceship was spent on getting-to-know-baby questions. I squirmed like a schoolgirl, keenly aware of how inadequate my answers were. Lydia’s disdainful sniff was almost audible as I confessed that Eliyahu’s schedule was non-existent, that his preferred sleep location was snuggled in my arms, and that he ate every hour and a half.

How could I expect Eliyahu to understand nighttime, asked an indignant Lydia, if I fed him all day and night? Here he was only three weeks old, and already I was corrupting his nature and training him to be spoiled and needy and require round-the-clock snacks.

She stopped short of predicting that I’d soon have a 12-year-old rummaging in the pantry at four a.m. for gummy worms, but it was clearly implied.

So now my child didn’t sleep and it was my fault. In the immortal words of Calvin, there’s no problem so bad that a little guilt can’t make worse.

Chastened, I beat a hasty retreat, but not before making the tactical error of politely offering Lydia some refreshment. “Eet ees ze nighttime,” Lydia told me superciliously. “Zere is no eeting or drinking in ze night.” Clearly, Eliyahu hadn’t gotten the memo.

I settled comfortably into bed that night, feeling a grim satisfaction that I’d be getting my money’s worth as Eliyahu partied in defiance of the nurse’s attempts to instill in him more virtuous habits.

If you’ve ever had kids, or a car that refuses to go klunk when the mechanic is listening, you don’t need me to tell you what happened next. Of course, he slept soundly, waking just once to drink his bottle and immediately going back to sleep. I lay sleeplessly in the dark, waiting for his cries, while he and Lydia both snored peacefully.

Lydia didn’t come back, and that was the last time Eliyahu slept for the next eight months or so.

Exhaustion is an interesting challenge. Normally, we think of avodas hamiddos as a conscious effort to summon up reserves of strength we didn’t know we had. But when you’re so depleted, there are no reserves. There’s nothing — just survival.

What’s the point of these endless, sleep-deprived days?

I type these words two days shy of another due date, one marking the end of a blessed, but intensely exhausting and debilitating pregnancy. I haven’t been the mother I want to be; I’ve been snappish, short-tempered, and just so, so tired — and that’s without a baby up at night.

As I anticipate welcoming a new addition, I ask myself: Does exhaustion replace the real you with an irritable stranger? Or does it lay bare the real you?

Which is the real me? The one who greets each child with a warm smile and hug each morning, or the one who snarls at anyone who comes within 30 feet before she’s had her morning coffee?

Will the real me please stand up?.

During pregnancy, we accomplish something significant every moment of every day, even when we’re not aware of it. Our bodies are involved in the most miraculous of processes, without our conscious participation, let alone direction. And it’s a valuable, precious part of who we are, despite the fact that we can’t control it, even if we try.

Perhaps the other grueling marathons that are part of motherhood are the same? Stumbling groggily through the day doesn’t always seem so victorious. But maybe just putting one foot in front of another is today’s victory?

I’m educated and thoughtful. I value thinking, reflecting, making decisions. Just showing up doesn’t seem like enough.

But maybe sometimes it is?


(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 793)

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