There should be a special word for the fatigue of a new mom. The lack of sleep that begins in pregnancy and lasts through the first months of parenting is not a feeling; it’s a physical entity, skulking around the house unwanted and refusing to leave. Exhausted is a gag word for this level of sleep deprivation. I’ve done a triathlon, pulled college all-nighters, and worked double shifts waitressing, but I’ve never been as tired as having a six-month-old who hardly napped, fell asleep around 1:00 a.m., and woke every two hours. The schedule felt interminable, one weary day piling on another.
Google Translate says the German word for tired is müde. I like that. It looks like moody, an English moor covered in fog and heather, which is how my brain felt. The umlaut makes it hardcore, a strung-out metal band with smeared eyeliner and wild hair. That’s how I looked as my baby got older and bigger, learned to roll over and eat solids, but still cried to eat every other hour. Other parents gave me advice, reassured me it would improve, or even suggested cherishing the “special time” with my son, but none of that helped as days blurred into nights into weeks into months.
One night, I slept long enough to dream that my husband and I got one of those gigantic, fancy, stainless-steel Italian coffee makers. It just appeared, dominating our small kitchen and streaming out mug after mug of dark hot salvation. Oh, the darkness! I imagined a direct correlation between the opaqueness and its caffeine content. My brain jolted back to clarity, my spine unfurled like an animal stirring from hibernation. “It’s so beautiful,” I mumbled in the dream, transfixed by the warm cup I caressed.
Maybe the darkness had mesmerized me because I hadn’t shut my eyes long enough to appreciate the absence of light in so long. All day, in a haze, I considered my disorienting attraction to it. I recalled the speaker of Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” contemplating the “lovely, dark and deep” woods as an escape from his reality and responsibilities. But just like the poem’s horse shook his bells to break the reverie, baby’s cry shattered my fantasy of a magically rejuvenating cup of coffee. I’ve often wondered if the speaker was resentful of the horse’s reminder. Or was he pleased to fulfill his obligations? Maybe both, like how my first thought on hearing the baby was No, please, why are you doing this to me? But then I saw his soft round face scrunched in pain, physical or existential, and my heart surrendered. I would comfort him even if it meant the bags under my eyes would be duskier than that fantasy coffee.
Then one night, the baby snoozed from ten until two. I jolted awake at midnight, my brain and body programmed for segmented slumber. Hovering over him, hand on his chest to feel his hummingbird heart and shallow breaths, I reassured myself he was only sleeping. I’d learned most childhood behaviors feel permanent but are really phases, so this was normal, maybe the start of a new schedule. But what about parental behaviors? How long would I perform this systems check? Until he turned one? Five? Would my seventeen-year-old son fall asleep on the sofa watching a movie and wake to find me pressing his chest just enough to verify its contents? Would I even remember then this conflict between a desperate desire for him to sleep and a disturbing conviction he’d stop breathing if he did? Or would I be onto new hopes and fears for him by then?
Before I could predict the future in my exhausted stupor, the baby awoke. As I cuddled his warm body to mine, I only had energy to feed and love him. I couldn’t imagine the worries toddlers and teens bring. I barely recalled the previous day, let alone the concerns that obsessed me while pregnant and then with a newborn. So maybe the müde has a function. It blurs the good memories and bad, the past and the future, so that the new mom has to focus on her baby’s present and its fleeting devastations and fortunes. Even at five in the morning.
Maureen McVeigh lives in suburban Philadelphia with her husband and son. She teaches English and Creative Writing at a local university and spends most of her time and money on travel and books.