A Cry in the Night — ‘Mommy, I’m Scared’

Three-year-old girl in a red dress looking forlorn. Photo by BF Newhall

Christina at 3. Photos by BF Newhall

By Barbara Falconer Newhall, 1986

It was the smallest of sounds. So small that even Jon, a light sleeper, didn’t hear it.

First a whimper, then, “Mommy, I’m scared.”

I slipped out of bed, carefully folding the covers back so that I could find them later without disturbing Jon. I felt my way through the darkness to Christina’s bedroom.

My left eye was stuck closed. As had become my habit during six years of motherhood, I left it that way.

The less awake I became during these middle-of-the-night forays to soothe a frightened, hungry or sick child, I reasoned, the more readily I would go back to sleep.

These midnight interruptions can be brutal, yanking me without mercy from deepest sleep.

When the babies are new, they occur two, three, five times a night. As they grow into toddlers, it settles down to once, twice, three times a week.

Three-year-old girl asleep with her blankie in her car seat. Photo by BF Newhall

Asleep with her blankie.

The baby books assert that American babies and children are ready to sleep through till morning and grant their parents an undisturbed night’s sleep by the time they are a year or so old. Not so in our household.

Peter is in kindergarten. A few weeks ago, I heard footsteps in his room. I staggered out of bed and down the hall, left eye stuck closed.

He was curled up in bed with a notebook and markers, drawing a spaceship. Two weeks into kindergarten he had developed a passion for pencil and paper that was keeping him awake nights.

I squinted out my right eye at Christina, standing up in her crib, red-eyed, her lower lip trembling.

“Mommy, I’m scared.”

I folded my arms around her. I felt for her pillow and blankie. I planned to carry her wordlessly into our bedroom and lay her in the playpen we kept near the foot of our bed for moments like this.

There she would fall asleep, soothed in the knowledge that her parents were close by. It usually worked quite nicely.

If I didn’t get into a conversation with Christina, if I kept that left eye closed and my mind switched off, I would have no trouble settling back to sleep.

Later, when the alarm clock rattled me awake at 7 a.m. I would be reasonably rested. I would remain calm, if not cheerful, as I got two small children bathed, and snapped and zippered into school clothes for a 7:30 a.m. sharp breakfast with their father.

“Mommy, I’m scared.”

“What’s scaring you, Precious?”

Line drawing of a "monster" by a 3-year-old girl.

“Monster,” by Christina Newhall, age 3.

“There’s a monster in my tummy.”

Christina wrapped her arms around my neck and pressed her face against my cheek.

Her skin was satiny smooth. When she was a baby, her skin was so smooth it felt wet to the touch.

That liquid smooth baby was now long gone.

In her place, I had a three-year-old who could talk of monsters and whose embraces were mirror images of the ones I had given her these three years – a hug, a nuzzle to the cheek, a pat on the back.

I felt Christina’s small hand pat-patting my back.

I picked her up, pillow, blankie and all, and sat on the bed across the room.

“In your tummy? What’s the monster doing in your tummy?”

“He wants to eat my fingers.”

Barbara Falconer Newhall with 3-year-old daughter in her lap. Photo by Karel Howse.

Christina and her mommy — and her brother’s left foot. Photo by Karel Howse.

I pushed my left eyelid open.

“Your fingers. You mean like this?”

I nibbled on Christina’s fingers. She smiled a smile, sublime, to rival the Mona Lisa’s.

For the time being, I forgot my craving for sleep, my need for time to myself, my passion for ticking off the items on my to-do list.

“Babies are a lot of trouble,” the prenatal exercise teacher had warned. “That’s why God makes them cute. Otherwise, we might throw them in the garbage.”

Christina and I sat wrapped in each other’s arms, talking deep into the night of monsters and fingers and good things to eat.

Note: This is a story I wrote back in 1986. I found it tucked away in a sheaf of papers. There are no babies in the house right now — 2012 — but, yes, my left eye still sticks closed when I get up in the middle of the night.

When Christina was 6 years old, she wanted to be Cinderella. Read all about it at “Scrubbing the Floor With My Daughter Cinderella.”

Or, if you’d rather read about mothering an 18-year-old boy, go to “How the Selective Service Made a Man of My Son.”



  1. even dinosaurs were cute. i know their closest relatives, my parrots, are adorable when young–oh, and come to think of it, adorable when they get older. is that why i keep feeding them?

  2. I remember that up-in-the-middle-of-the-night era! Thanks for bringing it back so vividly…

    • Barbara Falconer Newhall says:

      The kids were so little, so cute and so huggable.. Now they are so big I can hardly get my arms around them, let alone hold one of them in my lap.


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