Somewhere around 1 AM, the toddler started crying. I’m not exactly sure how long it went on, but neither my wife, Mel, nor I moved a muscle. In fact, I laid as silent as a slug, hoping that Mel would get up first. That she would assume it was her turn, or perhaps she would somehow realize just how tired I was and take pity on me.
Not that it was necessarily my turn to get up with Aspen. It wasn’t. But it wasn’t Mel’s turn, either. We have three kids and we have always shared the responsibility of getting up in the night.
With our first two kids we always worked out a system. Sometimes one would take the first half of the night, and the other would take the second. Sometimes Mel would get up one night, and I would get up the next. An every/other sort of thing. But every once in a while we fell out of any sort of system. We drifted into anarchy. An every-parent-for-themselves sort of thing.
These were the moments we usually ended up fighting in the night. We have called each other everything from jerks, to butt-faces, to assholes. (Well … I used “asshole.” Mel used “jerk” and “butt-face.” Sometimes she muttered “worthless.” You get the idea.) This was when doors were slammed and accusations were made and crazy sleep-deprived angry ramblings echoed down the hallway.
Now, with our third and final child, and 11+ years of marriage under our belt, most of the arguments are gone. The name calling and door slamming doesn’t happen all that much anymore. Sure, we still ramble strange things when up, but it isn’t always angry. Instead, we have a new game — a game of bluff, where both of us pretend to not hear our child cry. We remain quiet and wait until someone gives in.
On this particular night, Mel kicked me.
“Will you please just go get her?” she said.
I grunted, turned over, looked at the ceiling. “I got up with her last night,” I said. “Or … was it the night before? I can’t remember, but it wasn’t all that long ago and it was in the night and I’m pretty sure it’s your turn.”
“I got up with her last night,” she said.
“I don’t remember that,” I said.
“Yeah … because you slept through it,” she said.
I did remember it, actually. I won the bluff that night. Mel won it earlier in the week. Or at least I thought it was last night … Aspen hadn’t been sleeping well for several weeks because of hand, foot, and mouth disease. She was over it now, but it messed up her sleep cycle, which meant early mornings and late nights and plenty of fussing. Most of the late nights had melted together into one long sludge of dark moments spent rocking a child in the living room.
We didn’t speak. Aspen stopped crying for a moment.
“Or was it the night before …” Mel said. “I can’t remember. I’m just really tired and you should let me sleep because you love me.”
I let out a breath. “I don’t know what love has to do with anything right now.”
“Love has to do with everything, all the time, every day, especially at night,” Mel said.
“You are just doing sleepy crazy talk,” I said. “You just want me to get up and you are using my love for you as leverage.”
“But you do love me, right?” she said.
“Yes. Where are you going with this?” I asked.
Getting up in the night with a toddler is thankless. I sit and hold the little turd — squirming and fussing and fighting sleep — while feeling exhausted and worried about work the next morning. All the time thinking about my wife, who is sleeping softly and soundly in bed.
And that’s when I start feeling bitter. Feeling like I should be the one sleeping and she should be the one up.
And no, this isn’t a gender role thing. I have as much responsibility to get up in the night as she does. These are our kids. But there is something about being up with a kid while my wife is sleeping that just makes me feel picked on. Sometimes I tell myself that I’ve done something noble. I let her sleep and I should get sex or something, but ultimately she doesn’t owe me anything. And on the flip side, I feel confident that Mel feels the same way when she is up. She must think about me snoring away, and wonder why I’m the lucky one. I think it’s natural to feel jealous of the one sleeping. But even though it’s natural, it’s still a nasty feeling that makes getting up in the night with a child doubly difficult.
I heard the door to Aspen’s room open. We’d recently moved her from the crib into a bed. With our two oldest, this resulted in better sleep, but with Aspen it had been an invitation to get up and wander into rooms at 3 AM, talking gibberish, freaking out her siblings, and searching for toothbrushes (her new obsession).
Short shuffling pajama bottom steps crept down the hall. She tugged at our bedroom door, opened it, and came wandering in. “Thank you,” she said, over and over again in a sing-songy voice. Aspen could say a number of words, but “thank you” seemed to be her go-to for everything from receiving something to throwing food on the floor. It was a pleasant gesture and all, but in the middle of the night I just wanted to put my hand over her mouth.
“Please,” Mel said.
She was pleading now. I’d done something similar earlier in the week and she ended up getting up.
Aspen was tugging at our blanket on Mel’s side of the bed. I rolled over and crawled out.
“You know this means I love you,” I said.
“I thought love didn’t have anything to do with right now,” she said.
I grunted, put on my pajama pants, and picked up Aspen.
“Love has to do with everything, all the time, every day, especially at night,” I said.
As I stepped from the room Mel said, “I love you.”
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