In the dark, a child’s cry stirs the most primal of instincts, even reaching into the deepest sleep. It pulls me from vivid dreams of suturing bloodless wounds long ago in PA school. Half-asleep, my hands still fluttering through the muscle-memory of years gone by, I hurry down the moonlit hallway to the sounds of my littlest one crying. His big brown eyes are wide, staring sightless at invisible monsters. I gather him to me, his limbs shaking with fright, kiss his tousled head, and murmur wordless, susurrant sounds of comfort. Lately, these episodes occur more frequently, and some nights I startle awake from the feeling of someone standing close to the bed. In the soft light, his tear-streaked face is all I need to see before I open the covers, and enfold him into safe harbor.
My husband and I have very different approaches to these nights. Having experienced these night terrors as a child, he knew instantly what to do when our son started screaming in the night. He strode into the room where I was holding him trembling at the tender age of 2, flipped on the light, and spoke loudly to him in a firm, though kind voice. “Wake up, buddy. It’s just a dream.” Roughly stroking his arms and legs, his goal was to awaken him, telling me that once he was awake, he would not slip back into the grip of whatever made him shake and cry in the middle of the night. Strangely, it worked every time, and he would sleep soundly the rest of the night. If my little ones do creep into our bed at night though, Daddy is sure to make sure they go back to their own bed in short order.
In a family where children went from sleeping with their parents, to sleeping with grandma, and then to sleeping in a room with other siblings, this approach is antithetical to what I feel no matter how much better we all sleep in our own beds. Because of my husband’s schedule, on the nights it is just me, I never end up sending my little guy back to his own bed, partly because neither he nor I end up waking up again until the alarm clock drags us both from the depths of sleep, and partly because I know he is my last child. For those women who have not yet made this decision, I envy you the possibilities of dreaming of what your next child might look like. Though I know that having another child would likely be impossible given my health and situation, it was not a door I closed lightly.
My little guy is an only son. I wanted him to have a brother. His sisters have one another to commiserate with someday, as my sister and I do. My husband and his brother are very close, and I imagined the two little boys getting into mischief together, having adventures and coming home covered in dirt. He is all boy, and does all of these things on his own and with his sisters, but he is also quick to ask me if I’m all right when he sees my furrowed brow or hears tears in my voice. Like me, he cries when he is angry. He is still in the cuddly stage, asking me still to carry him up to bed. Last night, because he is on spring break I let him stay up after prayers to read. Then I heard, “Mama! Mama, come here, please!” Leaving my book, I hurried down the hall, then stepped gingerly through the minefield of Lego blocks littering his floor. “Come here. No, closer,” he said. As I neared his bed, he reached out and hugged me. “I just needed some more love that’s all. You can go now,” he sighed as he snuggled into his pillow. I laughed, and headed back to my bed, and marveled at the openness of his heart.
I pray for him, and my daughters as they make their way in this world of men. I know that this sensitivity that is in all of my children makes them more of a target in a country where strength and power are valued. My husband who moves easily in and through the world of men doesn’t tell them not to cry or to toughen up, but doesn’t seem to worry for them as I do. He has the confidence in their ability to navigate in this world, and to adjust to what may come that I have never learned to acquire. Though we are both confronted with acts of senseless cruelty and heartlessness in our work, he has somehow managed to overcome the fears that haunt my sleep. Though our daughters have never been conformists to the norm (whatever that may be), he seems to challenge the world to accept them on their own terms so long as they can do what he taught them to do. He taught our oldest daughter how to change her own tires and maintain her car, and expects her to try to solve problems before coming to him, though he is always available to give advice. Living on her own now, she fixed her clothes dryer by looking it up on YouTube, mentioning it in passing to me, the mechanically inept one in the family, as if it were no big deal. “That’s my girl,” he crowed when I told him.
He calls it tough love, and for those of you with children, you know there is no other kind. Why is it so difficult for me then, this tough love? I want to shield my children from all that is horrible and unkind in this messy, beautiful world. Perhaps it is because when I look at them, instead of seeing them as they are, I remember the sweet smell of their baby heads as I held them in the night.
I want them never to be hurt, despite knowing that learning how to walk tall also means learning how to fall and stand back up. I hope they know that their daddy and I will always be a safe harbor for them. I want them to live with open hands and hearts to all that is good, knowing full well that living like this is tantamount to a body walking around without skin, defenseless and exposed, and no amount of suturing will banish the scars that will remain. And yet, I know the rewards to being open to joy are immense. And so, I raise my sensitive little boy and tough little girls to be lovers and leaders, and their daddy teaches them how to fix things, and we hope this tough love will be enough.
Today I am thankful for my three messy, beautiful children; I’m grateful for a partner who helps me to balance my fear and over-protectiveness with laughter and practicality, and I’m thankful to be part of the Messy, Beautiful Warrior Project.