When other parents began a story about how early their children awoke, I would cut them off and say, If the time you are about to mention starts with a six or a seven, I might strangle you.
For the first three and a half years of my daughter’s life, she awoke each morning at 5:01 a.m. I can still see the brutal display of the alarm clock and hear the howling cries of Daddy!, which marked the launch of every day.
If you are a parent without a child who wakes at 5:01 a.m. or earlier, you might be thinking my husband, Chris, and I did something wrong. Like, to name a few possibilities, putting our daughter to bed too early or too late, or allowing her too few or too many naps, or feeding her too close to or too far from bedtime.
You might wonder if we bothered to read the parenting books or if we neglected to consider a calming blue or earthy green paint in the nursery.
You might conclude we were unaware of the benefits of letting her “cry it out,” or of a white noise machine, or of the miracle of the OK to Wake! Alarm Clock, which glows a gentle green to signal when it is time to rise.
None of it worked.
So in the darkness of the early mornings, I would carry our daughter from her nursery into the living room of our New York City apartment. Through our window, I would see the weathered pre-war building directly across from ours without a single light on, still thirty minutes from its first early riser, a woman who fried a single egg each morning before starting a run on her bedroom treadmill. On the deserted streets below, I’d watch the bagel guy’s morning routine. He’d pull his vending cart like a rickshaw towards Broadway where he’d position himself for the commuter rush that had not yet begun.
My daughter would point at the book she wanted me to read, eventually learning to say this one or that one. The first book would be followed by another, and then another and another, which would leave my voice so hoarse that I would occasionally Google the symptoms of throat cancer.
With my eyes still burning from the start of another day, I’d latch onto the hope that our marathon read alouds would ensure my daughter’s future as a reporter, a poet or a professor.
Before having a child, when my husband and I would talk to other parents about their experiences they would mention the nights. How they were often startled awake by a screaming baby who was hungry, soiled, lonely or sick. Parents with toddlers would talk about the incessant challenge of getting a child to sleep at bedtime. How kids could choose from approximately one million stalling techniques, anything from claiming to be hungry despite having just eaten, to the temperature in the room needing to be adjusted for a third time, to a fear of blobby monsters who surely had taken up residence in the closet.
I don’t remember anyone talking about the mornings.
I had this vision that with the help of extra caffeine some version of our pre-child morning routine — involving stillness and the smell of coffee and newsprint — could continue. This is a hilarious thought to remember having. It reminds me of other hilarious thoughts I had about my future life as a parent. Like when I believed parents who said that you can nap when your child naps, as if that time isn’t used for washing out the baby bottles or folding the laundry or mindlessly scrolling through Twitter because you no longer have any executive brain function.
As a responsible parental citizen of the world, I now tell prospective parents that they should prepare to be exhausted by the nights, the mornings and the afternoons. If they are lucky, there will be an hour at some unpredictable time of day in which the haze will momentarily lift and they will feel like a semblance of their former selves.
No one’s going to accuse me of underselling the challenge of parenting a young child.
On the mornings with my daughter, the sound of running water from neighboring apartments would arrive around 6:00 a.m. and signal that we were no longer the only ones awake.
We would move to the floor for play time where I’d sip my coffee, the first of several that would keep me alert and dizzy, as we chopped our wooden vegetables or traveled the world with the Fisher-Price Little People.
Chris would be done with his morning shower at 7:00 a.m. and give me a twenty-minute break before beginning his commute to Westchester for work. He would encourage me to use this time to take my own shower, or to brush my teeth, or to eat my breakfast. But, instead, I would lie face down in our bed. After the brief break, there would be more reading, feeding and play time until our sitter arrived at 8:00 a.m. Then, I would begin showering and readying myself for the workday.
Our pediatrician, upon hearing all the things we had tried in a quest to alter our morning routine, would offer this diagnosis: Some kids just have their time. Hers is 5:00 a.m.
But one evening a last Hail Mary of an idea cut through the fog of my exhausted brain. I would explain to our daughter that she could earn a star for sleeping until the alarm clock glowed green, and that earning ten stars would entitle her to a prize. Unlike previous alarm clock efforts, I would set it to 5:01 a.m., so on day one she would be assured of earning her first star. On day two, I would set it to 5:03 a.m. and award her a second star for sleeping until the green light. Day three would be set to 5:05 a.m., and on and on it would go.
After two months of steady progress, we arrived at a wake-up time of 6:55 a.m., which felt like sleeping until lunchtime.
Now, my daughter is nearing her ninth birthday. It’s been years since the reward charts filled up with regularity before being outgrown. And of all the routines and rites of passage of my daughter’s younger years, I miss our early mornings the most.
In the mornings, before the sun rose and the city came alive, I was kind and patient with my daughter. I overflowed with words and touch and laughter. My daughter needed that from me, and something about my primal exhaustion left me with only that to give.
I didn’t yet know what it would feel like to be the kind of father I am now.
The kind who loses his temper at predictable provocations. Like when I ask our daughter to put down her iPad, and I meet her repeated promises of one more minute with a screaming threat to take it away forever. The kind who needs to be reminded to stop reading his email during dinner. The kind who gives up in defeat along with his daughter when she protests about practicing her guitar.
The kind of father whose impatience and perfectionism has elicited in his daughter a habit of apologizing for even trivial mistakes.
You can be forgiven for thinking this is all a case of nostalgia, but I don’t think so.
Over the last few weeks, as the continuing cruelty of the COVID-19 pandemic has caused my daughter to break down into tears saying, I just want to see my friends and When is this all going to be over?, she has been waking up during the night. She screams Daddy!, just like she used to do in the early mornings, and I race into her room, just like I did then.
She tells me that she has forgotten how to sleep.
I sit at her bedside and I say, It’s okay. I read her a story, and I rub her back, and I pull the covers up to her chin. I ask if she has her teddy bear, the one from my childhood nights, which we reserve for times like these. I remain on her floor, sometimes for an hour, until she falls back asleep. The routine leaves me worn down in a way that I haven’t been since I was a new parent and the city mornings were ours.
As my daughter sleeps, I cry softly in the silence.
There are tears of sadness because it has been a year of this plague and I know she will not get that year back. But there are tears of joy, too. Because I had forgotten I was capable of this and now I remember. I remember that I like myself better in these moments when my child draws out something worthy within me.
The way I liked myself better during our early mornings, which to my great regret, I too often wished away.
I walked in the door and my son was slumped in his seat watching a Khan Academy video. The tutor who I had hired to teach him looked exasperated and took me aside to tell me so.
Later there was a temper tantrum (not mine) where phrases like “I hate my life!” and “I’m so stupid!” were flung at me in an accusatory way.
The day before had been a similar episode with a different kid.
And so I lost it. I had my own temper tantrum. I had to walk out. I grabbed the dog and drove a few blocks to park and look at the lake. I was a failure. I hadn’t pushed hard enough, I was too lax on screen time, I hadn’t set clear enough consequences or expectations, or… I didn’t know what. Whatever it was, it was my fault.
“He” (meaning my dead husband) should be here to deal with this. “He” would know how to do Algebra and Pre-Calc. I had a good sob. And then I got a text.
I got mad. I was incredulous. The gall.
“So make something,” I texted, heat rising in my cheeks.
“We have no food.”
“Can you go shopping!” I screech-texted back.
I sobbed some more. Until I calmed down. And then, of course, I went and got food for dinner.
I talked to them both separately, but the message was the same:
I have done everything in my power to help you. I have nagged you about homework, hired tutors, written 504 plans, gotten you tested, paid for therapists, psychiatrists, meds, whatever it took. I did it. And now it’s your turn. You have two choices: If you want to get into (college/higher-level math/fill in the blank), you are going to have to work for it. And work really hard. It will be hard and frustrating but you can do it because you are smart and you have everything you could possibly need to succeed. I have made sure of that. The only thing standing in your way now is yourself. So you need to get to work. If you don’t want a tutor, then fine. That’s your choice too. The consequence of that choice is that you may not get what you want. If you are OK with that, then so am I.
I’m sure I blathered on for quite a bit longer, but a while later I got another text: “I want to stay with the tutor.”
The tears stopped. The books were cracked. The tension dissipated and I had angelic kids on my hands.
A few days later I met another single mom who had raised her kids alone from an early age. She told me about her daughter’s failure to get into college.
“She just kind of lost her way in Junior and Senior year and now I think she’s going to have to go to community college or something to get her marks up. But really I want her to get a job, so she can learn to have a work ethic. I’m hoping that through working she will learn about working hard to get what she wants.”
I told her about my temper tantrum and subsequent speech and she commiserated.
“I’ve made that same speech many times!”
It felt good to know I wasn’t alone. The pressure on our kids is so intense, I think many wind up feeling hopeless and simply give up. I’ve seen it first hand and so I am learning to be a motivator. State things bluntly, get to the point, give the tough choices. I felt stronger somehow, more confident that we were headed in the right direction, that I was teaching my kids to cope with the hardships that life constantly throws our way, and that my kids might not wind up as homeless people.
We had all gotten through my temper tantrum a little wiser.
At least until yesterday when I discovered three charges on my credit card statement for a tanning salon that weren’t mine and a computer screen was smashed for the second time in three weeks.
Two steps forward, one step back.