It’s one in the morning, the bleary-eyed hour. He’s up crying for me and only me, no other consolation will suffice. I stumble across the dimly lit hall, make my way to his bed where he sits with tousled hair and wet eyes, sniffling in the dark. I need you to stay! he wails into my arms. Mama, I need you to stay with me!
Inwardly I groan, already tired from up-too-late working, craving the warmth of my own bed. I know he won’t fall asleep with me next to him; I know his brother won’t have anyone to hear his cries if I drift off here without the monitor. But I can’t say no to the sobs of a small boy. I curl beside him and pull his heaving chest close. You’re okay, I soothe as I stroke his messy hair. It’s all fine now.
But of course he doesn’t rest.
His antsy arms wiggle in and out of blankets, legs thrash back and forth as he rolls around trying to get comfortable. In the delusional mind games of nighttime parenting, I convince myself that if I can model peace and quiet, it will be contagious. So I lie there, still and silent, breathing deeply in and out, willing him to sleep.
It doesn’t work. (It never does.)
I lie there next to his tossing and turning as his feet kick against my shins, his knees poke into my stomach, his elbows bang into my arms. I’m tired, too! I want to complain. But I stay still, my body perched on the edge of his bed, a straight and solid line, and I think about what it means to be the edge.
He has to push against me – kick and thrash and push and roll away – and these nighttime jabs, innocent and innocuous, are only the beginning. Because that is how the child defines himself against the parent: you are the edge, I am my own core. Only if I push against you do I learn the limits of myself.
. . .
Two hours later, his brother awakens in the room next to mine. It’s been ages since we’ve been up in the wee hours like this, but we’re traveling, I’m solo-parenting, everything is topsy-turvy. So of course I pull him close when I see his chubby arms outstretched, wailing mama! mama!
I sigh, snuggle back into the bed with him, snarl at the clock’s laser red reminding me just how little sleep tonight will bring. Again I break a long-set rule and let him nurse mid-night, anything to soothe so quickly. It’s strange and simple all at once, this nursing of a toddler, reminding me how fleeting babyhood flies, yet lingers far beyond first steps and words. He’s still not far from newborn days but every day he inches further.
Struggling to stay awake, I watch him rest there lying in my lap, his arms lazily grazing my shoulder, his legs trailing off around my middle, his feet curling round my back. Now he is the edge and I am the core. He wraps around my self for comfort; I am again the source of life and warmth. He is the one I push against now, wanting to be finished, sleeping, away, alone. But he reminds me that this mama work always calls me back to core: do what is simple, loving, present.
This is how I define myself against my child: I must rest here at the core, heart’s center from which you must push away to become your own. Only if I stay here can you become your own strong edge.
And only if I stay here can I learn the strength within myself.
. . .
Cores and edges.
Maybe family is just that. Always jostling up against the jagged corners, then easing back into smooth centers. Always struggling to define ourselves against the other, then grateful for the comfort of the core that knows us best.
We push and pull, resist and return, stretch and surrender. We need and we need from each other and we never stop needing. The needing changes as seasons turn, of course; sometimes we need to round ourselves into softer cores, sometimes we need to harden our hearts into tougher edges. But the give and take of learning to live together is just that – a give and take. Moulding each other, letting ourselves be moulded.
Learning when to push out into the edges. And when to pull into the core.