To sleep, perchance to … write?

By Lauren Grodstein

Here is something true and sad: I haven’t slept through the night since May 2017. As I write this it is 9:15 in the morning in February 2019, and I am on my fourth cup of coffee. I am sitting on the living room couch — a dangerous place, since I know how easy it is to fall asleep here, how the couch, at this point, has molded itself (or I have molded it) to the lumps and curves of my prone form. The gas fireplace is going. The kids are at school. I have at least three memos to write and two classes to prepare for, as well as a presentation I’m supposed to give Thursday on a subject on which I have zero expertise. I know, however, that the presentation will go fine, since I’m good at learning stuff quickly and then spitting out what I’ve learned in an entertaining manner. Moreover, even if I can’t learn it quickly this time, even if I can’t entertain the audience, I just can’t worry about it. One of the nice things about being tired all the time is that I don’t have the energy to worry.

In May 2017, we adopted our daughter Penny from Lianjiang, China. She was eighteen months old and approximately fifteen pounds, with the most charming smile you’ve ever seen. We spent two weeks with her in China, giving her her first bathtub bath (she loved it) and her first swim in a swimming pool (ditto), and she was altogether more easygoing and happy than it seemed fair to expect her to be. She ate congee in the hotel dining room and threw balls to her new big brother and let us smother her with kisses. She had a head-thrown-back laugh that exposed her tiny perfect teeth.

But at night, in our Chinese hotel room, the terrors came — of course that’s the time they come for us all, isn’t it? Who knows what those nightmares were about: the endless years in an orphanage surrounded by crying babies? The horror of being left alone with these gigantic strangers speaking a strange language? The distant chromosomal memory of being abandoned by her biological mother? The terror of not knowing what would happen to her next?

She sobbed at night, and we did our best to soothe her, gave her a bottle full of formula and held her tight until finally, at one, two, three in the morning, she fell asleep. It was during those moments that we became her parents, I think. It was during those moments that she seemed to need us most, and that we figured out how to give it to her.

Which means that now, almost two years later, she doesn’t sob at night. Instead, almost every night, at one or two or three in the morning, she calls for “mama” or “dada” or sometimes “mamadadamamadada!” which is a lie; she’ll only accept me. She still wants a bottle, and sometimes she wants to play with her toys (the worst), and sometimes she just wants to cuddle, which is not as cute as it seems at two in the morning. When she finally does fall back asleep, she’s on my chest, which wouldn’t be a problem except it’s impossible for me to sleep on my back. Sometimes she says, “Mama! More baba!” after she’s drained the first one, so then I have to trudge down to the kitchen to make her a new one or she’ll start screaming and wake up the house. Sometimes she says, “Mama! My toys!” and then we have to find the specific tiny toy that got lost in the sheets or she’ll start screaming and wake up the house.

And so, I’m tired. 

I am able, most days, to manage. I have my coffee habit and the occasional snooze on the couch to get me through. Most days I can carpool and teach my classes and meet my students and even chair my meetings. But what I cannot seem to do is write. It turns out that writing is just about the only thing in my life I cannot fake; writing is the only thing I need my entire brain for, in peak working order. I need to imagine. I need to find the words. (Did you know that there’s a word for the inability to find words? There is; it’s “anomia.”) 

Currently, I’m attempting to write a series of essays, but this is pretty much impossible what with the anomia and the tendency to fall asleep mid-sentence during what I used to call “writing time” but have now downgraded to “surfing the internet and guzzling coffee” time. And what’s most ironic here is that the essays are about my travels with Penny, our adventures together during her first year as an American, and I want to capture them while they’re still near to me, still fresh.  But I can’t. I’m too damn tired.

Wiser women have reminded me that to everything there is a season, and that this, it seems, is my season of exhaustion. It won’t last forever. And it does seem silly to wish away these years just so that I have the energy to preserve them on paper.

Still, I’d like to be a functioning writer again, and I’d like to have this small but important part of myself back, the part that imagines, the part that invents, the part that dreams while I’m still awake. Penny will grow up and I will miss so many things about this time with her. But now, while I’m awake, I’m writing this down too, so that I never ever forget what it was like not to sleep.

Lauren Grodstein is the author of four novels, including the New York Times bestseller A Friend of the Family and the Washington Post Book of the Year, The Explanation for Everything.  Her latest novel,  Our Short History, was published by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill in March 2017. Lauren’s work has been translated into French, Turkish, German, Hebrew, and other languages, and her essays and reviews have been widely published.  She directs the MFA Program at Rutgers University-Camden and lives in New Jersey with her husband, children, and dog.


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