He has my short, plump fingers. They interlace with mine as I lie beside him in his narrow bed, his left hand clasped to my right. With his fingertips he absentmindedly strokes the smooth surface of my nails. If he will just stay quiet for a stretch, he will fall asleep.
“Mommy, do octopuses have bones?” he asks. He is four years old.
My most vivid memory from the moments after he was born is of his fat, tiny hand wrapped around my finger. We held onto each other in this way that whole first night after sixteen hours of laboring to cleave ourselves. His hand was a beacon guiding me into motherhood as it assuaged the unexpected fear that came with this strange, new love. My husband and I had suffered through miscarriages, endured fertility treatment. And then our son was there, a longing embraced skin against skin. His eyes opened wide as they drank in new light and movement. That was the first night I couldn’t get him to sleep. Desperate with exhaustion, I asked the nurse to take him for a while so I could rest. That was also the first night I felt rent by maternal guilt.
He inherited fighting sleep from me. I spent too many nights in my own early years willing myself to stay awake while my own tired mother lay by my side. I have always hated the day’s finality, the little rehearsal for death. Even as I write this, I should be sleeping.
The nighttime terrified me as a child, car lights flitting across my ceiling or strange creaks from the attic. “It’s just the house settling,” my mother reassured me. I lay in bed certain I’d wake in the middle of the night with a stranger in my room, and each night I prayed, not understanding the difference between wishes and prayer, that God would put a force field around our house to keep out thieves and Soviets. This was during the tail end of the Cold War.
I don’t think he is afraid, not like I was, despite his periodic complaints about “the darkness.” He just doesn’t want bedtime to end. It is the warm glow at the end of his day, when his little sister has gone to sleep and he can have us entirely to himself.
After his bath he struts imperially to his room, donning his robe and slippers. We begin with books. Tonight he grandly holds out two books about planets. We talk about Jupiter’s Red Spot and Venus’s volcanoes, and he asks if I’d ever want to go to Mars.
We read as he sits in my lap in the same rocking chair I held him in as a newborn, a spot where so much of my mothering has been performed. I held him here through the colic of his first weeks, when he never slept more than forty-five minutes at a stretch. My husband would bring me peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, which I ate while I blearily nursed. I have held him here through ear infections, stomach bugs, and croup. I have held him here through two rounds of postpartum blues, as I cried and felt ashamed about crying while he slept on my shoulder. I have fallen utterly in love with him while sitting in this chair.
Our reading done, I tuck him in. Now it’s my husband’s turn to take over. I practically run to our bedroom and shout, “You’re up!” My son is already back out in the hallway, pretending to be our cat. This too is part of the ritual.
My son’s prolonged bedtimes fracture me into incompatible halves. My resolve to savor every transitory moment with him collides with my introvert’s need to restore myself in solitude. The sliver of time after he falls asleep is all I have untethered from duties of work and motherhood. These are delightful burdens, but they drain me to the dregs. The hour or so after the children are finally asleep is a lifeline that pulls me through long days. There are too many nights I am left feeling either ashamed for wanting a period of autonomy or depleted by not getting it. No other facet of motherhood has challenged me quite like this.
Through the monitor I hear my husband’s story winding down. Tonight it’s Odysseus and the Cyclops, highly adapted. My son loves how Odysseus tells the Cyclops his name is Nobody, and he squeals with glee when my husband mimics the giant, his huge round eye still intact, shouting, “Nobody is tickling me! Nobody is tickling me!” This has been far too much fun. Tonight it’s going to be late.
“Mommy, I need you,” he calls out moments after my husband returns to our room. I try to wait it out, but he repeats more loudly, “Mommy, I need you!” He’ll wake his sister, so I go.
“Mommy, could you outrun an Apatosaurus?” Sometimes I get frustrated, especially when it’s 10:30 and he’s still going strong. But I also adore these interrogations, and a large part of me longs to lie there with him for hours debating my odds against dinosaurs. As we talk, he removes the band holding back my ponytail and twists my hair around his fingers.
Newborn babies seem oblivious to the distinction between themselves and their mothers, hardly aware that what seemed to be one has now divided into two. Recognition of this separateness happens only gradually as the child’s interior world strengthens and builds. My son has now accepted our duality, and he reaches out for me not out of fear of separation but desire to reconnect. This process of severance will only continue as he carves out a fuller space apart from me. There will not always be these bedtimes.
“Is it daytime now in Australia?” he asks. My husband is an Aussie, and we traveled there this past summer to visit my in-laws.
“Yes,” I say. “Grandma and granddad are just sitting down to lunch.” It reassures him to know the world is still spinning, that we are slowly trekking back toward the sun and morning is on its way.
“Are there planets in other galaxies, mommy?
“Of course there are, but they’re so far away we’ll never see them.”
“Are there little kids on those planets?”
“And do their mommies read them books before bed?”
“I am sure they do.”
“I love you. Do you know how much I love dinosaurs?”
“Only one. But I love you nine hundred thousand and a hundred and a hundred.”
At this I wrap my arm around him and close my eyes. It is 3:00 a.m. when I awake. He is snuggled up against my side, his breathing steady in my ear.
I groggily make my way back down the hall and climb into bed beside my husband. I’ve been denied my hour but am still enveloped by the warmth of my sleeping child.
Stephanie McCarter has published essays in Eidolon, Literary Hub, The Millions, Avidly, and Gucci Stories. She is a Classics professor, and most of her non-scholarly published writing has taken up the intersections between the ancient and contemporary worlds.