Sleep has never come easy for my oldest daughter. There was a part of me that loved the sleep struggle during those first years, her need for me so potent it erased my guilt for spending 8 hours away from her at a job that I hated. The kisses I’d dust across her forehead and the way I’d lace our fingers together, mended the edges of my tattered ribbons of guilt. She’s nine now and sleep is every bit as elusive.
“Mom, I’m just not tired,” she says to me, her lips push out, “Can I read for a little while?”
“Sure, but not for too long, ok?” I say.
“Mom, will you cuddle me first?” Finley calls from the bathroom counter.
I start to call back, but Ave interrupts me. “It’s not fair, she always gets the first cuddle.” I feel myself bristle.
“It’s ok, Ave. I’ll cuddle Fin first, but I’ll cuddle you a little longer,” I murmur trying not to sound annoyed.
“Never mind, never mind. Ave can have the first cuddle,” Finley shouts as she hops off of her stool.
“FINLEY, you can’t do that,” Ave blasts.
“Ah, ah, ah, stop girls. Let’s do a double cuddle in the bottom bunk, ok?” Their answer comes in the form of thundering and squeals and a blur of fleece pajama bottoms diving under the blanket.
I wipe down the bathroom counter, globs of toothpaste in the sink and puddles of water around the super hero tooth brushes that are suction cupped near the wall. As I walk to their room I poke my head in on Briar, “You ok?” She doesn’t look up, her finger traces down the page of her Dork Diary book and after she reaches the bottom she looks up at me. A shock of hair is slung over the frame of her glasses and she has a half moon scab on her cheek, the result of a scramble for the prized laser pen kitten toy.
“You need anything?” I ask. She shakes her head. “I’ll be in to kiss you when I finish with your sisters.” She nods.
I take a deep breath and slip in between Avery and Finley. They are clumsy as they jockey for position, elbows bumping me and knees pinching.
“Sorry. Sorry mom.” They blurt in stage whispers.
“It’s ok.” I say. We spoon for a time, their little hands claiming me. As my hair gets inadvertently yanked I feel my lip snarl. “Girls,” I warn. My desire to be done, unencumbered by children or clients or chores collides with my shame. My whole body tenses and I try to take a breath, Finley wraps her arm around me and touches Ave’s hand.
“Hey, stop it, that’s my spot on mom.” Avery hisses.
“She’s not just your mom, Ave,” Finley declares.
Girls, let me give you each a hug and a kiss and then it’s night night time, ok?” They soften, I wrap my arms around Ave and whisper into her neck that I love her. She hugs me tight and I lift her up, rolling us out of the bed together and then lifting her into the top bunk. We rub noses. Then it’s back down to Finley. She holds her arms out beaming at me.
“My mama, come here my mama.” We find our way to nose-to-nose. “Let’s do cheek-to-cheek,” she says. And so we do, cheek-to-cheek, then soft kiss, medium kiss, and finally hard kiss. She always bangs her teeth into my upper lip. My eyes water, I bite back an ow and I pull myself away.
They call out more love you’s as I leave the room. My shoulders drop. Done.
The light in Briar’s room is off, her glasses sit lenses down on the nightstand. I tiptoe in, brush the hair from her eyes, and kiss her. When I start to leave her arms snake around my neck.
“Mom, please don’t go.”
I muffle a whimper. I was almost done. “What is it baby?”
“I just can’t sleep,” she says. My body was turned away, my mind set on the candle burning downstairs and my chair. Wine, maybe tea. The fire. Quiet. My end of day ritual.
She’s watching me. My insides quiver for a moment, a petulant thought about how it should be my turn to get what I want. Then something shifts. It isn’t shame or a sense of duty, something in her face. The pull I felt when she was a baby grabs me. “Scoot over,” I whisper as I crawl in beside her.
“Do you want me to rub your back?” she asks.
I laugh. “No, honey. You know what I want?” She shakes her head, “I just want to fall asleep with you for a little bit.”
The moon bathes the room in a pale blue light through her curtains. As her breathing evens and she drifts off to sleep, a tear slips out of the corner of my eye. I have no idea where this moment of grace came from and I have no doubt that it will slip away before the next bedtime, but this time, this night, I didn’t run out of patience. I smile at my first baby and let the tears come washing away everything but the certainty that I haven’t completely forgotten how to love bedtime.