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Sleepless nights are one of the most-repeated stereotypes about parenthood, so I knew to expect them when I had my first baby—but it was so much worse than I ever imagined.
I endured many nights catching what sleep I could in one- or two-hour stretches, especially as my first little one didn’t sleep through the night until around two years old. At its worst, the debilitating sleep deprivation affected my mental and physical health (not surprisingly, I ended up doing things differently with my other kids).
Many parents have similar stories. While we know this sacrifice of sleep is so worth it for the sake of raising these beautiful souls God has entrusted to us, in the throes of exhaustion it’s easy to forget all that.
Perhaps that’s why a recent Instagram post struck such a nerve and went mega-viral in Catholic circles. The post came from Leanne Bowen, a full time painter and visual artist.
Bowen was on a retreat with a community of Norbertine religious sisters and was awed to find out that the sisters wake up in the middle of the night to pray with and for mothers who are awake with their babies. She wrote:
This weekend I had the delight of getting to pray at the Norbertine Sisters on a little self-led prayer retreat. What you can’t see in this picture is the 40ish sisters who live in a cloister on the other side of the stone wall. Their voices are angelic and their prayers fervent.
Attending their prayers throughout the day kept me busy- I was in awe of how frequent all their prayers were. But halfway through the weekend I saw one prayer listed that wasn’t on my initial schedule.
Matins, 12 a.m.
12 a.m. …. Is that right?!
There was a sister who was allowed out of the silence of the cloister to be my point person. She left me a picnic basket of food for each meal and showed me which prayers to read during lauds, vespers and everything in between.
I caught her eye during a meal with a question… “Sister, do you all pray every evening in the middle of the night?”
“Yes, that prayer is long — for an hour. That is when we intercede for moms. It is our motherhood hour, where we get up with you.”
A sacrifice of sleep
Bowen beautifully captured how mothers feel upon learning that these religious sisters choose to sacrifice their own sleep every night for our sake. She wrote:
She left and tears poured down my cheeks. All those nights where I felt so alone, so tired and withered… these sisters had been there awake with me. So many nights I was too exhausted to pray, too tired just trying to feed newborns and ravenous toddlers. You know those stream of nights back to back where you are begging God for just one straight REM cycle? Exhaustion gnaws at your bones with such fervor and hormones and emotions are flying like grease in a hot pan.
They were with me and I never knew it, hidden away in their quiet heroic way interceding.
It changed something in me. Motherhood has been particularly tiresome for me lately. I have had to continuously beg Jesus, “Jesus, help me be holy…” on the most basic mundane tasks. Laundry and dishes seem so painful and dreadful and awful. Frustration and impatience snaps out of me like lightning zapping whoever pokes me first. I am a mouse trap — snapping at whoever tiptoes by.
I am not alone. You are not alone. There are sisters awake in the night praying for you in your tiredness. They are awake with you in it all. They are praying for you, even in their own exhaustion, because they know you need an intercessor.😭
Accompanied in exhaustion
After reading her post, I mentioned it to several friends, and more than one was moved to tears. Words can’t express how it feels to be seen and loved in this way, and how grateful mothers feel to be accompanied in the midst of our exhaustion.
Perhaps the worst part of walking the long hard road of sleepless nights is just how isolating it feels. In the wee hours, it feels like just you and your baby, alone in the world, and as though neither dawn nor sleep will ever come again. To know that these Norbertine sisters are walking beside us in spirit can give moms the strength to keep going and get through these hard times.
Not getting much sleep may be a stereotyped and common part of parenting, but that doesn’t make it any easier to endure. If you’re in the thick of it, know that it won’t last forever, and you are accompanied in spirit in a real and powerful way.
Thank you, mothers and fathers around the world, for the sacrifices you make for your families. And thank you, Norbertine sisters, for keeping us parents company. You help us remember that, united in the Body of Christ, we are never truly alone.