Despite the fact that I have a gentle alarm—chimes that begin low and slow and gradually get louder—waking up at 5:15 a.m. is still not something I would describe as pleasant or peaceful.
Nevertheless, every weekday my alarm goes off at this time. I do a quick social media check while lying in bed (a habit I know I need to kick) before rolling my pregnant self out of bed. I brush my teeth while listening to NPR’s Up First, put on my favorite sweater and creep down the stairs as quietly as possible. It’s the dead of winter here in the Midwest, so in the predawn darkness, I rely on my phone to light my path.
I pour a smallish bowl of Cookie Crisp—one I won’t have to share with my three-year-old—while I heat up coconut milk for my coffee. The coffee maker is usually making its final sputters at this point and I pour the liquid life into my mug, swirling it with the milk until it’s the color of almonds.
I switch on the lamp in my living room and settle into my favorite white armchair by the window. This is the spot I’ve always dreamed of having—my writing chair, my reading chair, my watch-my-daughter-play chair—and every time I plunk down in it, it feels a little more like home. I unplug my laptop from its charger, open it to the place where I left off in my writing yesterday and get to work. At this point it’s about 5:30 a.m. and I have a solid hour before I need to get ready for my day job and begin my daughter’s grooming/breakfast/daycare-drop-off shuffle.
For the next hour, all will be calm and quiet and I will drink my coffee while it’s hot. For the next hour, no one will demand that I make them a snack, no emails will chirp as they enter my inbox and no one will stop by my office with a “quick” request. For the next hour, I can do whatever I want—and so, I write.
On a good day, I can crank out 500 words in this block. Sometimes when my creative juices are depleted, I read my favorite writers and recharge my mind. Occasionally I will just sit and think and drink my coffee, nothing obviously productive coming out of this time. But still it never feels wasted.
I once heard someone say that getting up with your kids is waking up to your day, but getting up before your kids is waking up for your day. Though I don’t use this time to consciously prepare for the demands of the day ahead, whether that’s mothering at home or working in the office, having this small window is a key way I maintain my sense of self. It’s a deeply rewarding sensation when I step into the shower at 6:30 having literally put myself first.
This doesn’t mean that every day that I wake up before my family does is amazing or that I can sail through it with perfect patience because I took care of myself. But it does mean I’m greeting those first few minutes of the day not immediately swept up in someone else’s needs—and that goes a lot further than I could have imagined in being the person I want to be.
This sacred window of early-morning time has looked different for me in various seasons of motherhood. For a long time it didn’t exist at all. When I was up multiple times a night with a nursing newborn, I rightfully clawed at every minute of sleep. There have been sleep regressions and bouts of sickness that made it unwise to cut my sleep shorter than I needed to. There was also a stretch when my daughter slept so lightly that the sound of a single step on our creaking staircase would wake her up, so I threw in the towel.
But right now, I’m in a sweet spot for making this beloved habit a regular rhythm. I don’t know exactly how long I have left; surely the expiration date will be sometime in late April when baby number two arrives and I have to give myself over to someone else’s rhythms and routines, at least temporarily. But for as long as I have the opportunity, I will make space for this time when I don’t have to be a mom or a wife or an employee—I can just be me and that can be enough.