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In the Dark

“Maaaaaamaaaaaaa! MaMAAAAA!”

It’s 1 a.m.; prying my eyes open from a sleeping pill-induced slumber which SHOULD NOT BE INTERRRUPTED, I bolt upright. I’m half out of the bed, running on instinct, before my wits return. Silvia is up again and we’ve decided to just let her cry.

Let her cry, my stomach says as it twists up in a knot. Let your poor, sad, heartbroken two-year-old cry? What’s wrong with you? interjects my shoulders, tensing up all the way to my ears. Don’t you remember what she told you, the morning after you first callously ignored her wails?

“Mama, I cried. I was scared in the dark, Mama.”

Scared IN the dark. As in, alone and abandoned, unable to see around her, desperate for comfort. Scared IN the dark implies terrible imaginings that are far more devastating than just being scared OF the dark itself. Being scared in the dark means curling up against all the unseen horrors that lurk just out of sight.

And you’re just going to leave her there, frightened by nightmares beyond description? This comes from my heart, my physical heart, which begins painfully to skip beats in disapproval.

From the other side of the bed, I hear a mumble. “Just leave her, sweetie. She’ll calm down in a minute.” Then, a snore. How can he sleep, doesn’t her HEAR her tortured calls? How is it possible that his own body is not fighting against an instinctive response?

“MAAAAAMAAAAAAAAA!”

Cry it out. It sounds simple enough in theory: When a young child wakes in the night, you simply let them cry to teach them that this action will provide no benefit. Picking them up only reinforces the night wakings. It should only take a week, max, before the new behavior is learned. We tried this procedure, in desperation, with Anna after nearly a year of waking at least four times a night. Boy, oh boy, was it a disaster. She’d scream until she passed out, then wake again to continue for hours more. Once she cried so hard she made herself sick. After that, I decided, “Hell, no!” and just toughed it out with nighttime feedings, cuddles and bringing her to my bed. Eventually, she settled down on her own over the course of several months-several long, sleepless, coffee-filled months.

Silvia, though, responded immediately. She had been a good sleeper from the beginning, waking only briefly to nurse before returning peacefully to sleep. Getting rid of that last midnight waking took only two or three nights. Each time, she’d cry for less than fifteen minutes then settle herself down.

“MAAAAMAAAAAAAAAAA!”

Until now, when she has suddenly decided to sleep no more. Now she is two and remembers her nights in the morning. Now she has more imagination, more expectation, more understanding of her own power. Now, she will not give up so easily. NOW, she can kill me.

We’ve tried going to her, soothing her in the rocking chair and carefully laying her back down in a warm, limp cocoon of blankets. Before the door closes, she’s standing up, leaning over the side of the crib with renewed energy. This cycle continues until the sun rises or we take her to bed with us. If we bring her to our bed, she sighs and sucks her thumb so loudly it’s amazing she doesn’t wake Anna up three rooms away. Then, every night at bedtime she begs, “Wanna sleep in Mama’s bed!”

So now, despite my rebellious instincts, we are leaving her to her fears, alone in the dark. I do not want a two-year-old in my bed, much less a three-, four-, or five-year-old. I don’t want to spend each night asleep in a chair or pushed to the side of my king-size mattress as she claims more space than is possible according to the laws of physics.

So, she cries. Last night, it went on for nearly an hour—an hour of painful guilt for me and deep sleep for Kurt. Will it be better tonight? Does it make more sense for the both of us to be miserable separately than for me to be miserable while at least she sleeps, soothed, in my arms? Either way someone loses. The question boils down to a choice between an exhausted mom or an exhausted child. Neither one of us is pleasant when we’re short on sleep but at least I can rely on my caffeine habit. When are kids old enough for a latte, by the way?

“MAMA!”

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