Give Me My Nightly Rest
The Psalmist extolls that he gives his beloved rest. Am I not beloved?
My baby won’t sleep and it’s unraveling my faith.
It’s 1:37 in the morning. Since 11:30 the night before, I’ve had about an hour of sleep—snatches caught here and there between my nine-month-old’s erratic sleep patterns. The last time I had an uninterrupted six-hour stretch of sleep was months ago.
Once he wakens sometimes it takes ten minutes to resettle him. Sometimes forty-five long minutes of feeding and rocking before he’s limp enough to sleep through a transfer back to his crib.
Most times, I simply fall asleep in the nursing chair with him in my arms.
A book on motherhood gently reminds me to draw close to God while mothering at night, promising that God shapes me into his image in these quiet hours. So I fill these times with prayer and Scripture, interspersed with web surfing and book reading on my phone. Blue light filtered, of course.
It’s 2:05 a.m. My son’s breathing is even, his sleep seemingly deep. I rise and lay him down swiftly, softly in his crib. As I remove my hand from his back, I begin to beg, Pleasepleaseplease. For a moment he is still. Then he wildly rubs his face into the flannel sheet, one hand flailing about as his body senses separation from me.
I don’t move. Eventually, he needs to learn to self-soothe, as the sleep experts call it.
After two minutes of escalating wails, I scoop him up, unwilling to allow his crisis to precipitate a domino effect of waking my other two children and husband. My infant’s wails cease as we resettle in the nursing chair. No one else stirs as I resume my vigil. Not even God.
The past nine months have been laden with grief. Repairs to a new-to-us minivan have equaled the amount we paid for it. My nearly three-year-old slipped through an accidentally unlatched backyard gate resulting in a CPS visit that undermined my parental confidence. A favorite teenage cousin drowned on a family fishing trip. Our beloved cat experienced a neurological event, then rallied before dying on her own terms a week before Christmas. A dear friend received a shocking diagnosis of twelve brain tumors and almost immediately entered hospice.
Against this backdrop, how can God expect me to parent while shouldering this weight of grief on such little sleep? He knows how frail we are. The Psalmist extolls that he gives his beloved rest.
Am I not beloved?
We don’t need scientific studies to prove the detrimental effects of chronic sleep deprivation. Nights when I don’t get at least six hours, including a single three-hour stretch, I am an irritable monster, lashing out at my children in anger. My post-partum anxiety explodes, barely held in check by my daily dose of skullcap. Copious amounts of coffee and thin naps in the afternoon cannot replace lost nights.
By 4:11 a.m., my shut-eye for the night has totaled two hours and twenty-four minutes. The content of my prayers quickly slides from desperate pleas to petulant railings, “Don’t you love us? You know I need a basic amount of sleep to be a decent human being—let alone care for three kids! Why won’t you intervene? Where is your faithfulness?”
After another botched attempt to leave my son in his crib and find even just a few minutes of horizontal sleep next to my husband, I drop an f-bomb—for only the second time in my life if truth be told. Then I cuddle my son against my heaving chest, shocked.
There is no reply to my profanity—just the low hum of our air purifier and the lulling waves from the white noise machine.
At my son’s next check-up, his pediatrician asks me if I have any concerns.
“Lack of sleep.”
His eyes crinkle above his mask, and the sorry tone in his response tells me I’m not alone in this complaint. “Yeah, my wife and I are still battling that one.” His youngest is nearly four.
Other than reassuring me that it’s fine for me to sleep in the recliner with my son now that he’s older, he doesn’t have any other advice, except for, “Give it time. It’ll get better.”
It’ll get better. This is a phase. It’s not forever.
This is what I keep hearing. And to a degree, I know it’s true. Because both of our older children sleep through the night now. But I also doubt this truth because, like our pediatrician, many parents still spend much of their nights on the floor of their children’s room, curled around a tiny human whose restless body can’t seem to relax without the arms and heartbeat of one of their parents nearby. Sleep training cannot trump biology.
The spiritual irony is not lost on me. I, the child, am floundering emotionally in the wee hours, crying out for God. But unlike me, who jettisoned the leaky sleep training rafts after several screaming marathons by our son, God the Father appears determined to force the cry it out method on me.
The results would make bed-sharing devotees nod unsurprisingly. My relationship with God is fracturing.
6:50. My son’s cries drag me out of bed after several minutes as light shafts through a gap in our curtains. At this point, I don’t care if anyone else wakes up. My husband’s alarm is due to go off shortly. Post-pandemic he’s still working from home and able to get breakfast for the kids before starting his workday. This gives me the luxury of not getting up until 8:30, sometimes even 9:00 if the kids are not interfering with his work. It’s the one few glimmers of God’s faithfulness in all this.
And yet. If my baby gives me a solid hour and a half before 8:30 this morning I will have pieced together a grand total of five and a half hours, three-quarters of it from the nursing chair. This time as I latch my sleepy son on to nurse, I try to shun the voices that insist he’d sleep longer if I night weaned or gave him a bottle of oatmeal-laced formula. From scrolling mommy forums, I know these tactics do not guarantee victory over sleep issues. They only ensure a drop in my supply.
But isn’t it worth the risk? Isn’t pursuing sleep more important than dogmatically clinging to a belief?
My husband says I’m going through a silent season. Like St John of the Cross’s dark night of the soul. It’s not my first brush against such a time, but the crush of grief amplifies the silence this season, leaving me more bewildered than before.
I am not lauding my own halfhearted attempts at faithfulness. I cannot state that God has been unfaithful. All I can do is affirm the weariness of striving to be faithful when your dialogue partner seems to not reciprocate.
While my son nurses, I grab my phone and watch a few minutes of Love Is Blind on Netflix. Maybe after fifteen minutes, my son will be sated enough to return to his crib. Before I know it, my neck snaps up to the thump of my phone on the floor. I blearily stare at the screen noting that an entire episode and part of another has played while I nodded off.
It’s 8:21. Time to get up for the day.
In Scripture, God’s loyal love to a wayward Israel defines faithfulness to us. But what does human faithfulness in return look like? Am I embodying it as I nightly cry out to him? I am not certain. But I am struggling to not doubt him.
Mentally, I affirm that God is perfect in all his ways. But my heart shouts to experience his enduring care. All I ask for is a solid five or six-hour stretch of sleep every few days.
This. This would be a mercy.
In absence of that, I’d scramble to collect the crumbs of assurance, peace that passes understanding from the Spirit that he will strengthen me during this time.
Instead, I wonder how I can teach my children about the faithfulness of God when I cannot see it in my daily experience for something as essential as sleep. My case against him is not rooted in self-righteousness. It is informed from a lifetime of worship songs and platformed teachers extolling God’s faithfulness as a reliable friend. Indeed, I have found him to be such for most of my life.
These guides give me no accounting for the times when my experience is to the contrary.
Scripture, however, offers commiseration. Hannah’s steely persistence, Habakkuk’s bold accusations, the psalmist’s unanswered questions, and Jeremiah’s soulful laments. Job.
This is where I park. It is the only balm I’ve found. I will camp among those who have flooded their prayers with tears, laments, and yes, even accusations while waiting for Him to move. To reconcile the gap between faith and experience. To reset the compass of our expectations.
I awake disoriented, a prickling ache in my breast. It has been three days since the night of my breaking. My son snuffles and rolls in the darkness as I check my phone for the time.
5:45 a.m. Nearly six hours since I went to sleep.
I pick up my hungry baby with a renewed faithfulness.
Cover image by Bastien Jaillot.