You know what the worst part of motherhood is?
It’s not the vomit, although that ranks right up there, or the potty training or the southside real estate I gained during (and since) my pregnancy.
It’s the helplessness.
There is no worse feeling in the world than when you see your child in distress and are unable to help, to soothe, to make it go away.
If you have a child who has night terrors, then you know what I’m talking about.
One night this past summer, about an hour after I had put Sean to bed, I heard a blood curdling scream coming from his room. I ran down to his bedroom to see what on earth was going on and found him sitting up in his bed on his knees, seemingly wide awake, breathlessly screaming and pointing at something in the corner.
He was not just crying — he was wild-eyed and shaking like a leaf. He was terrified in every sense of the word. There was nothing that I could see in the corner. Nothing in the room was amiss. He didn’t even seem to notice that I was in the room.
He got out of his bed and with both hands clenched into tight trembling fists to his chest, he started backing away as though there were a vicious dog in the corner. I tried to pick him up and comfort him, but that just seemed to agitate him. He thrashed and twisted and kicked trying to get away. He was sweating and his heart was racing. His eyes were open, but he was not awake. He wouldn’t respond to my voice. There was nothing I could do to help him.
After about 15 minutes, I got him back into his bed and within seconds he fell back to sleep, but I felt like I had just outrun a hungry bear. The next morning I asked him if he remembered anything unusual about the night before or if he remembered having a bad dream or anything at all, but he didn’t recall a thing.
Then it happened again the next night and the night after that. He might skip a night or two, but all summer, every night after we put him to bed, we sat on pins and needles, waiting for the screaming to begin. We were baffled. We had always had a good bedtime routine with Sean. He had always been a good sleeper. We had never had any sleep issues. Nothing had changed in our household. Why was this happening all of a sudden?
I read up on night terrors and I learned that they are not unusual and not a result of my inept mothering. Typically, children between ages 3 and 6 have them. They usually happen early on in the sleep cycle, an hour or two after they go to sleep. They usually last 15 to 30 minutes, sometimes longer. And there is nothing you can do but stand helplessly by and wait for them to pass.
The episodes are fewer and farther between these days. Eventually Sean will outgrow his night terrors, but I suspect that as long as I’m a mother, this feeling of helplessness is not going to go away.