Barn Fires, Wakeful Children and Sleep

It’s 2:00am. Or maybe 1:15. Or 3:45. I don’t really want to know, to be honest. What I do know for sure is that somewhere in my house someone made a noise, and now I’m awake. It probably wasn’t even a big noise, but it was enough to jerk my mama-mind to alertness, ready to intervene on behalf of one of my children. Sometimes I stay in bed, listening to the coughing or the tossing and turning, willing the child to be still. Sometimes I leap up and act. And sometimes I discover that what I thought was my child was actually the cat, who is simply thrilled to discover that I am now awake and ready to play.

Since having children I have become a light sleeper. But things weren’t always this way. Take, for example, the story of the night the barn burned down.

As a teenager, my mother, my sister and I lived in an old farmhouse, surrounded by unused fields and two old, out-of-use, not-so-structurally-sound barns. The largest one was readily visible from one side of our house, fronted by a chicken coop that was also old and out-of-use. I went into each of the barns once or twice, but quite honestly, I was worried they would collapse on me, so I mostly stayed out. Inside, there was graffiti on some of the interior walls, and a picked-over feel. The idea that I could happen upon someone else inside also kept me out. I was a very well-behaved teenager, and I thought it best to avoid old, decrepit barns.

You can see the barn in this photo, behind teenaged Jon:

barn fire sleep

One night in 1993 or so (it’s difficult to remember exactly when, now, and since this was pre-internet you can’t find the info online) I went to sleep as usual and woke up in the morning. When my mom saw me she said, “Did you really sleep through that last night?” Having no idea what she was talking about, I said something like (wait for it …), “What are you talking about?” She pointed out the window, and I saw it. Or, more accurately, didn’t see it. The barn had burned clear to the ground. Luckily nothing else was touched. The chicken coop remained. The trees remained. The grass remained. But all that was left where the barn had stood was a black patch of grass and some pieces of charred wood.

The story of what happened the night before starts with my sister’s friend, Heidi, who was working the late shift at a local McDonald’s. When her father was driving her home that night, she noticed a light on the hill, in the direction of our house. They rushed over, arriving at around the same time as the firetrucks. The trucks and the arrival of our visitors woke my mother and my sister, as well as much of the neighbourhood. At some point in the evening, the police arrived, and questioned my younger sister. It was all quite the brouhaha … or so I hear. Because unlike everyone else, I slept soundly through the whole thing.

A string of arsons in local abandoned buildings, including a dairy, followed. Eventually, the culprit was apprehended. Our barn was identified as his first target. And I missed it all.

Tonight, the crisis is much smaller. Still, there is no sound sleep for me. Because tonight, and every night, there is a part of me that is ever vigilant. So I am awake at an hour that I would rather be sleeping, my brain forever altered by the alchemy of motherhood. Walking the halls, wishing for rest, hoping that nothing decides to catch fire tonight.

How has your sleep changed since having children? I’m sure I’m not the only mom who wakes up far more easily than she used to!

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  1. Omg, you missed all the fun! Yes, my sleeping has changed drastically! Now, I listen for imaginary intruders…and it takes forever to get back to some much needed sleep…

  2. Totally. The slightest little thing will wake me up now, and sometimes it can take me a long time to fall back asleep. My husband can’t believe that I can’t just ignore certain sounds – he could sleep though, well, a barn burning down 😉 it’s pretty amazing how once you have a child, you get this hyper-alert nighttime hearing.

    There was some research a couple of years ago that found that mothers are wired to wake up when they hear something that could threaten their child (specifically, hearing their baby crying) whereas fathers are wired to wake up when they hear something that threatens the family as a whole – but this hasn’t been my experience!!

  3. When I was 12 or so, I slept through a windstorm.

    The windstorm knocked over a tree that fell through the house.

    20 feet from where I was sleeping. I didn’t wake up until my mom woke me.

    Now, I can count on one hand and have a couple of fingers left over, the number of times I’ve slept through the night in the last 3 years or so.

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