A mother and child in a dark field, seen from afar, under a glorious night sky filled with stars.
Westend61 / Getty

The Days Are So Short. Consider A.M. Stargazing.

The long predawn hours that used to be my time to work have become playtime for me and my daughter.

I squeezed through the narrow passageway, the stone walls cool from not having seen the light of day in half a year, as I entered the central chamber of Newgrange — a World Heritage site and exceptional ancient passage tomb in Ireland’s Boyne Valley. It was the last stop on my first overseas trip with my husband, a two-week self-guided driving tour of the Emerald Isle, before a metal tube would take us 5,000 miles back across the pond and forward some 5,000 years in time.

Newgrange is essentially a Neolithic clock: illuminated only by the winter solstice sun, around December 21. The phenomenon begins at daybreak, the rising sun creeps down the 60-foot-long path until the chamber is flooded with light for 17 minutes, starting around 9 a.m. Built 500 years before the pyramids and more than 1,000 years before Stonehenge, its accuracy is astounding. I wondered what it would be like to stand there in the pitch-black, waiting for the longest night of the year to end.

A decade later, I am spending the darkest season in the dim of my family room with my 7-year-old — the flickering light of the TV fireplace lighting our faces an unnatural hue.

“What are we doing today?” she begins and ends each day of our Groundhog Day-type pandemic existence with this essential question.

I give her the same answer I always give when it feels like time has no meaning. “I don’t know, sweetie.”

I plug in the coffee pot and the Christmas tree. We have three hours to kill before online school, an eternity.

This used to be my time.

Children don’t start their day with the same wake-up-slow mentality as grownups. They go from zero to 100, like mini Usain Bolts at the starting line. The predawn requests for food, PBS Kids, and high-pitched Barbie voices can be a lot — even for an early riser like myself.

This used to be my time. Before I became a mom, I relished being awake while the world was fast asleep. The blackness was the perfect backdrop to read, write, reflect. Winter’s bonus hours felt indulgent and always went by too fast. It was my favorite time of day if you can even call it day.

But this time no longer belongs to me because I share it with my 7-year-old, along with all the other hours in 2020.

My daughter has always been on the same time zone as me. Attached first via the umbilical cord, then for 17 months at the breast, we still rise within minutes of one another most mornings, our biorhythms in lockstep.

MilosStankovic / Getty

The day before her Valentine’s Day due date, my next-door neighbor came by to check on me. “Are you ready?” she asked. “Yes!” I said. “I just hope I don’t go into labor in the middle of the night.” Being a morning person means not being a night person, and pregnancy had moved up my already early bedtime to 8 p.m., putting me on the same sleep schedule as 8-year-olds and 80-year-olds.

My water broke at 9:10 p.m. that night. The maternity ward was overcrowded, which the nurses blamed on a change in barometric pressure. Inside my womb, with no concept of light or time, our daughter knew exactly what to do. After pulling my first all-nighter, she was born at 4:54 a.m., and almost eight birthdays later, she still wakes around this time.

When she randomly started getting up even earlier, at 4 a.m., several years ago, I agonized over whether I should buy an OK to Wake! alarm clock. The product promised to teach her to sleep or play quietly in her room until the all-knowing clock emitted its signature greenish glow at the appointed time, indicating it was time to get up. “But what if we mess up her internal clock?” I asked my husband. I’d always been in awe of how her body could tell time, differentiating the ebony of midnight from the jet-black of 3 a.m.

“It won’t,” he assured me. “It might even help her adjust to the changing seasons.” I bought the clock. It worked. The planets were back in alignment.

I know that the invisible string that connects mother to child will get longer and longer until my daughter finds her own rhythm.

The parenting books say I should get up an hour before my offspring, to start my day with “me time,” as I did in prehistoric times, but that’s not an option when you rise as early as we do. Besides, self-care and pandemic parenting might as well be in parallel universes.

Instead, I’m considering this bonus time with my daughter, while she’s still little, a silver lining. When her school opened up unexpectedly this fall, I decided to keep her home for safety reasons but also because I wasn’t ready to bid adieu to our pandemic rituals of baking, conversing over a pot of afternoon tea, watching movies after lunch (which we’ve dubbed “Movies with Mom”) and basically spending every waking hour of her seventh year in her orbit.

I know that the invisible string that connects mother to child will get longer and longer until my daughter finds her own rhythm. The pandemic will end and someday I’ll be hounding a slumbering teen to get up and go to school in an actual building. She’ll be able to safely socialize with friends and as I burrow under the buffalo plaid throw by my lonesome, I’ll miss my morning sidekick. Meanwhile, I set the OK to Wake! for my 5 a.m. internal alarm, knowing the dawn will come for our mornings and this year that won’t quit.

As the days grow shorter, we make hot cocoa and wake up my husband to stargaze on the deck, the three of us waiting patiently for the longest year of our lives to end.