Sometimes Babies Don't Sleep

Before my son was born, I was a typical first-time mom-to-be. I signed up for every weekly email update. I read What to Expect When You’re Expecting. I researched car seats for weeks before settling on one, and the nursery was complete by the time I started my third trimester.

I'm going to have him sleeping in his own crib and through the night before I come back to work, I vowed to my co-workers during a conversation at my office baby shower. This was, of course, when I thought the books were right and good sleep habits were just a matter of structuring a consistent routine. The seasoned mothers wisely said nothing, knowing my baby would soon teach me what books could not.

Truthfully, my confident, assertive exterior masked a terrified, emotional mess lurking just below the surface. At one point, my husband found me sobbing on the floor of our yet-to-be-born son’s room after my last baby shower because we had five changing pad covers and no changing pad, and this was obviously the worst thing ever and how could we bring a baby home to a house without a changing pad and still call ourselves parents?

I thought I would be a good mom if I had all the knowledge and the gear and the clothes. Having the “right” everything mattered. I registered for the Diaper Champ, since it takes regular trash bags, instead of the Diaper Genie. So practical. So researched. I had my checklists and my hospital bag lists and my baby registries. I was a great mom, on paper.

The problem was I didn’t bring home a paper baby. I brought home a real one.

My son was born three weeks early and weighed only five pounds. He was a hearty eater and steadily gained weight, but he was still waking at least twice during the night when my maternity leave ended. He slept in the Pack ‘n Play (and on a bad night, the swing) inches from my side of the bed. Each work day, I felt like I was slogging through fog; I would grab a nap in my car during my lunch break and more than once I fell asleep at my desk while pumping.

I must have read the wrong books, I thought. There had to be a solution to my sleep-deprived woes. I started soliciting outside opinions and was quickly inundated with tips. Turns out, everyone has sleep training advice. Everyone.

Have you tried Babywise? Yes, but it seems babies can’t read schedules.
Did you try swaddling? Yep, he hates it.
Cry it out? Yes.
Ferberize? Also yes.
How many solids is he eating? Plenty, but I’ll try feeding him more. Ah, nope — if I overfeed him, he just throws it all back up again.
Maybe you should move his bedtime up? Tried that.
Or back? That too.
You’re too stressed out. Babies pick up on emotions. You just need to relax. Oh, of course. Relax. Yes, that’s very easy to make myself do. Thank you.

All the different suggestions only further confirmed my fears: something was wrong. I felt as though I was failing one of the first tests of motherhood. Even though Nathan was hitting every other milestone, the only thing I could focus on was the one place we were falling short.

My tunnel vision, combined with months and months of sleep deprivation and postpartum hormones, was ruining my view of motherhood.

At nine months, my son was measuring firmly in the middle of the growth chart, but he still wasn't sleeping through the night. I was out of ideas. I pleaded with his pediatrician at his well visit that month.

“What's wrong with him? Why won’t my baby sleep?” I asked.

She looked at the healthy, happy baby in my arms and saw past the question I asked to the one at the root of it all: what's wrong with me? She smiled, patted my hand and gently said, “Nothing’s wrong. You’re doing great. He’ll figure it out eventually, I promise.”

Wait, what’s that you say?
Nothing is wrong?
I’m not a bad mom?

“Of course not,” she assured me. “It’s just that sometimes, babies don’t sleep. This is a hard season, but you’ll get through it.”

None of the books said that. Every single one of them suggested that the hard could be trained or scheduled away. A wave of relief washed over me; it was as if she’d taken a heavy load from my shoulders. I couldn’t control this. I wasn’t supposed to control this. Nathan would sleep when he was ready. Until then, I just needed to be patient.

We put the books away and went off-script. I started savoring those 3 a.m. wakeups, buoyed by the assurance that they wouldn’t last forever. I discovered the quiet peace that comes when it feels like you’re the only two people awake in the world, as I held Nathan close while I fed him, then rocked him gently back to sleep. The irony is that the whole process only took about 15 minutes when I stopped fighting it. 

Three weeks later, Nathan started sleeping through the night. Just like that, the seasons changed.

Sometimes we forget that no season lasts forever. In the cold, dark, dampness of January, it can be hard to remember what spring feels like. It can also be difficult to believe that there will ever be a time when your baby doesn't wake up precisely every 74 minutes during the night. Rest, energy, and a clear mind feel as foreign as warmth, sunshine, and green trees.

Those first 10 months of Nathan’s life taught me something important, though. I can’t fast forward to an easier season. And sometimes, the best way to navigate a challenging one is to lean into the hard. Winter may never be my favorite, but I also can’t will it into spring. The seasons will change when it’s time, and no sooner.

So, if you're currently bouncing on an exercise ball, hoarsely singing "You are My Sunshine" while your arms burn from swaying your baby back and forth in a futile effort to force those eyes closed, take heart.

This is not your season, momma. And that's okay. I'm going to say that again, because well-meaning family, friends, strangers and Google are all going to try and convince you otherwise.

It is okay.

Everyone has a hard season. No one escapes unscathed. Sometimes, toddlers don’t eat. Seriously. For days. Sometimes, preschoolers throw tantrums in Target, school age kids forget to do their homework, and teenagers break curfew.

It’s not that we didn’t prepare for this. It’s that we can’t. Sometimes, there is no preparing. There’s just doing, inch by inch and day by day. Some days are light and effortless, but frequently, the seasons are heavy and the work is relentless. The trap of thinking if I could just do more/be more/know more, things would be easier is all too easy to fall into. There’s nothing we love more than a good life hack to make a tough job easier. I’ve yet to find a hack for parenting, though. There is only the slow, long, daily work of getting to know each child as an individual, and then tailoring your methods to meet them where they are.

Some kids are more challenging than others. Some seasons are harder than others. And sometimes, babies don’t sleep.

Cured

I’m in recovery from the disease that has afflicted me since my oldest daughter was in second grade. The disease: You Must Invite Everyone. The cure: last night’s annual Halloween Party for my son’s fifth grade classmates turned loud and raucous, and I wondered why in the world I ever thought it was a good idea to have 45 children in costume running crazily through our home.

Just last year, fourth grade Darth Vaders, astronauts and ghouls mingled happily with Pink Ladies and a huge cardboard Starbucks cup. This year, a number of parents, dropping off their kids, smiled, “Boy, you guys are brave,” and I, gracious hostess, smiled back. “No worries. We’ve got this. It will be fine.” 

Ha. How did those other parents know?

Oh, it all began amiably enough — too few kids in costume staring at each other awkwardly, one boy from the soccer team who did not know anything else, drinking cider in the corner of the dining room, gazing longingly at a monstrous cupcake displayed on the cupcake tree. High school girls from the school I lead had constructed a haunted house — blood streaked clothes, a beheaded baby doll, grape eyeballs. These girls and a few more helped me lay out snacks, planned a scavenger hunt. 

But about an hour in, organized chaos devolved into a noisy, wild frenzy … perhaps it was after my husband finished the “Eat the donut on the string” contest, littering the yard with donuts that our three small rescue dogs gulped down joyously. From there, things swiftly tilted-- boys running crazily through the house, screaming, a few throwing soda at others. 

Mob mentality prevailed. Others started screaming, too. Girls huddled on the trampoline, fleeces over flimsy costumes, chattering about who liked whom. Someone started a rumor that the police had been called. (They weren’t.) I worried neighbors might call to complain about the decibel level. (They didn’t.) Three girls left the party and walked home without telling me. The dancing in the living room that my ever-patient husband rigged with a disco ball and fog machine, was deejayed by Nora, one of the juniors from my sedate all-girls’ school. Decorous shuffling morphed from kids displaying dance moves to children leaping about in fog, tracks blaring; at one point, I had to tell the kids they could not dance with other people on their backs. The room pulsed: volume, hormones, squealing. 

When my adult neighbors appeared, I was grateful that they had arrived to help me restore order; my husband having retreated briefly upstairs with the three over-stimulated and over-donut-ed dogs. I was glad, too, that the party was almost over. 7:30 never took so long to arrive.

“Cured?” Kathryn, my neighbor and colleague, asked. I knew she asked if this craziness had cured of my insistence that every child in the grade be invited. My affliction dates from my older daughter’s experience in second grade, when we lived in a different city in a different life.

***

“Davina’s having a birthday,” Miranda reported to me. “And I’m not invited,” she quivered.

“Oh, honey, I’m sure you are. I’m sure the invitation just hasn’t arrived.”

“It’s tomorrow, Mommy. I’m not invited.”

“Well, honey, maybe it’s a very small party. Perhaps she could only invite a few girls,” I reassured, busy making dinner in our galley kitchen, each meal carefully choreographed because there was so little counter space.

“Every other girl in the class is going,” she persisted.

Cutting peppers, I smoothed it over. "I bet it’s just the girls in her second grade class. The two of you aren’t together this year.”

“Bridget got invited.” Bridget was in Miranda’s section of second grade. In her small school, there were only about ten girls per section. I paused, trying to think of a plausible explanation.

“You always say to include everyone, Mommy, that I can’t leave other girls out.”

“I do, sweetie. I’m sorry you got left out. I bet it was just a mistake. Want to stir the batter for the cornbread?”

In bed that night, next to my husband, I had a few things to say about Davina’s mother, a woman I had always found snobby and condescending. Our babysitter told me once that Davina’s mother thought she was better than most of the other mothers in the class, a nugget of gossip gained when all the babysitters chatted, waiting together at pick-up.

Miranda noticed too much, was all too conscious of the social pecking order that our lives as schoolteachers happily precluded us from joining. We ignored social climbing. We did not go to fancy benefits or land reservations at chic new exclusive restaurants. We lived in an apartment, not a penthouse or a brownstone. And we did not ski in Europe on vacations or hang out in fancy mansions on Long Island on the weekends. Both of us worked. Once, a little girl, upon being invited to our house for a birthday party, arrived with her nanny and said, “What a very small house you have. Ours is much bigger.”

“Well, we like it,” I smiled. “Would you like to come in?” And slum with the peons? I thought to myself.

Here’s what I remember next. Davina’s mother phoned me one night a week or so later. 

“I just wanted to say we were so sorry we couldn’t include Miranda this year at Davina’s party.”

Stunned, I muttered a few incomprehensible syllables into the phone.

“I know you’ll understand. We just had to draw the line somewhere,” she oozed.

Oh, I understand, I fumed.

“Right. So you drew it on my daughter. I understand completely. I doubt she’ll ever understand. I’m not sure why you phoned. It doesn’t help,” I replaced the receiver deaf to her sputtering.

“Bitch,” I growled. In that instant, I was the wolf who raised Romulus and Remus; I was Demeter failing to protect Persephone; I was a lioness; I was every mother whose cub has ever been threatened. I wanted to throw plates against the wall. Instead, I checked the broccoli and served dinner.

“Who was that?” Miranda asked.

“No one,” I lied.

***

And so the rule — everyone had to be included. Always. Because I had seen what it felt like for my girl — for myself — to be left out. The bruises lingered longer in my psyche than they did for my child. So, I insisted. 

Until last night. Scraping pizza off of the dining room rug after most of the guests had been retrieved, I thought, “Hoodlums. Wild things. What if someone had gotten hurt?” Grimly, I sponged up spilled soda, grateful that we had narrowly avoided catastrophe.

And then my husband appeared. He, who had made all the decorations, done the cleaning, made the soundtrack, hung the black lights. He, who makes magic happen in our family. 

“Great party, wasn’t it?” he grinned. “Let’s do it again next year.”

Maybe there’s a vaccine or an over-the-counter medicine I can find to give him.


Guest post written by Ann V. Klotz. Ann is a writer and mother who lives in Shaker Heights, OH, where she is Head of Laurel School, a girls' school. Her house is full of books and tiny rescue dogs. Recent work has appeared in the Brevity Blog, Literary Mama, Mothers Always Write, Mutha, and Mamalode. Her essay about becoming a teacher has just been included in the anthology What I Didn't Know, published by Creative Nonfiction. She blogs semi-regularly for the Huffington Post. Read more of her work at www.AnnVKlotz.com or follow her on Twitter.

Permission

For six warp-speed hours every week, my youngest son is in preschool. Since he’s been my constant companion of the last four years, I’m overtly protective of this sacred time alone. I try to maximize my productivity while allowing an ever so slight width of margin … just in case something pops up.

Although I typically start adding to my Next Preschool Day agenda before the current one has ended, I found myself without a plan one random Tuesday a few months ago. Two confused hands on the steering wheel, my blinker on to turn left, I stared out the front window in shock: How can this be?

I always enjoy having time to write, but I bucked against the thought of going to the same ‘ol coffee shop up the road, the one I can literally (well, almost literally) throw a stone from when I’m in my driveway.  

It’s a special free day! What a gift! Do something different! Low level "don’t waste this precious time" panic set it. A small roast-their-own-beans coffee shop I’d never been to popped into my head. It’s only a few miles away but across town. I’ve heard the coffee is excellent.

Give yourself permission, said a voice in my head.

With the flick of my wrist, I switched my blinker to signal a right hand turn and headed east to my destination.

***

My son was four months old. My daughter, two and a half. We resided a small third floor condo in a building full of young professionals which somehow hadn’t moved closer to my family, despite all my praying. It was freezing, a New Year, and my dog wouldn’t stop needing to be taken out to pee twice a day.

You know how they say drowning is silent? Well, this was the part right before the silent drowning. This was the flailing stage. This is when I could sense how close I was to becoming too tired and physically spent to do anything but slip under the waters in a sea of diapers and tears and let the four walls of my new-construction urban home envelop me. With all my might I yelled a desperate, “Help!”

I need help. A declarative. An imperative. A New Year’s resolution that was more of a plea than a battle cry. “Babe. I need some help.” My husband, ever supportive, simply said, “Okay.”

I’d already been back to work for a month, and the part-time schedule had not provided me the break I craved, because I worked nights on the weekend. It was the stay-at-home mom thing during the waking hours of the week which left me spent. My form fluid, I was melting into my life. I wanted to feel solid again, even if only for a few hours at a time.

In a few weeks, through inquiry and interviews, I found someone to come watch my kids for four hours every other Friday.

Although I struggled with seeing the expense of a sitter as an extravagance, I wondered, like with counseling, if taking care of my mental health should be considered a frivolity.

I’d love to tell you that I fed my soul with books, friends, massages, or coffee shops and writing. But at that point in time, writing was only a dream and being alone was about the extent of my self-care capabilities. No matter what I did, I enjoyed that time of freedom from searching for shoes, lugging a bulky car seat, breastfeeding in the middle of an errand, and walking at a pace more suitable to an adult with average length legs.

Looking back, I don't remember much of anything except the joy of having four hours in silence without holding a small breathing being. Save one. Each babysitter Friday, I’d get sushi and sit in the park or (depending on the weather) at a table for one, and read a book for a few minutes before heading back home.

***

I’m sitting across from the woman from my church I meet with a couple of times a month and we’re discussing getting (or taking) time away from our family. She’s almost an empty-nester and although my kids are growing up quickly, we still fall solidly in the "young family" category. I ask her if she ever spent a weekend away from her kids.

“No. I didn’t. But I always wanted to.”

We talk about the people in our lives who regularly give themselves permission to retreat and rejuvenate - even if for short periods. “You know what?” she says, “I have a friend who used to go away regularly. She always seemed so refreshed afterwards.”

***

A half mile down the road, I’m greeted by a blazing wall of red lights. I realize we all hit traffic at some point in our lives, but traffic around DC, even in suburbia at 10 a.m., is a special kind of frequently recurring hell. Stuck between crossroads and turn-offs, I watch my precious preschool time tick ever-so-tauntingly away for an infuriating thirty minutes. I moved 400 feet. Committed, I cautiously plowed past the men in yellow vests and orange cones and up the road to sit through another four lights to end up at the strip mall coffee shop. I open the door and walk on the yellow laminate tiles to find four industrial-style two person tables shimmied against an empty, acrid orange colored wall. Besides the glorious roasters in the front room and the woman behind the counter, the shop was empty.

“Um. A small coffee. To go.”

***

Today during my preschool time, I plopped my purse down in an empty chair and placed my laptop next to my latte in the coffee shop two seconds away from my house. At home I have laundry to fold and tasks to do, but I’m learning to understand: giving myself permission to have a break and do what I enjoy is not the same thing as being selfish.

Sometimes we give ourselves permission and we get to eat spicy tuna on a sunny day while reading a book off the Time’s best seller list. We return to our life feeling rested and refreshed. But sometimes we give ourselves permission, and end up in a traffic jam and kick ourselves for not making a left hand turn. Giving yourself permission doesn’t guarantee a perfect day.

But it’s in the practice of giving ourselves permission that we learn to know right where we belong.

Mother, Ph.D.

“Helen? What about you?”

I jerked out of my tortured reverie to find my advising professor staring at me with a knowing look on her face. Ten bucks says she knew exactly what was on my mind.

The topic of the class was identity, and the question at hand was what word we would put on our gravestones if we were only allowed to choose one. As soon as the question was asked I felt myself break out into a cold sweat and my mind began racing.

Scientist.
Mother.

Scientist.
Mother.

I felt like I had been camping in the underbrush, smearing leaf mold on my face, and fruitlessly running in circles trying to dodge this question ever since becoming pregnant two and a half years ago. Now here it was, strolling into my graduate seminar just when I thought I was safe. What word would I choose if I couldn’t choose both?

Could I choose both? It certainly didn’t feel like it. Not since I had announced my pregnancy to my colleagues and received shocked stares and the question, “Was this on purpose?” asked as if I had let a cat outside that had ended up dying and they wanted to know if I was merely stupid, or if I was perhaps actually cruel. It was on purpose. Even worse than that, it was meticulously planned and prayed for. I felt horribly protective of my tiny, blueberry-sized baby when my old advisor reacted to my announcement with, “Oh. Okay. Will you still finish on time?”

Not everyone reacted with horror. When I let it slip to a friend and colleague the reason why I wouldn’t be working that summer, she grabbed me in a hug and then clasped my hands and jumped up and down with me, right in the hallway. My current advisor wished me well, asked how I was doing, and talked to me about her upcoming grandson. It never went away, though. It doesn’t seem to matter how many papers I publish, the conferences I attend, or how hard I work. How many hours I commute or how quickly I come up with an approved dissertation topic. The moment I announce that I’m queasy or haven’t eaten, I get a horrified look and the question “You’re not pregnant again, are you?” Other colleagues make sure to proclaim “I would never have kids while I’m in school. I care about my career too much,” with furtive glances in my direction as if fertility is catching.

If only I could seek refuge with the Mothers and proudly lay claim to the word Mother, if not Scientist. My mom friends who work outside of the home are not numerous, and most of them live out of state. The women I meet in play groups and at the library on my days off from work look down on me for the exact opposite reason that my work friends do. Why wouldn’t I choose the word Mother? Isn’t he my proudest accomplishment? Aren’t those curls and those chubby fingers and the way he lisps when he so proudly exclaims “I did it!” the best thing I’ve ever created? Why did I sacrifice breastfeeding for a long commute, not much money, and a job that doesn’t love me back? Why would I spend hours away from my son and pay another woman to accidentally get called Mommy? The truth is that I have no idea.

Up until I got pregnant, I would have chosen the word Scientist without hesitation. Ever since I sat in my bedroom as a child and recorded the different phenomena that occurred when you put two magnets beside each other, I had known what I would be. After graduating college at nineteen and getting my name on my first publication shortly afterwards, I seemed to be on a short track to what I had dreamed about as a little girl.

Oh, but then pregnancy happened. How can you explain to outsiders what it feels like to have something of your own creation moving around inside of you? I thought of the lazy winter morning when I lied on my stomach next to my husband. When I would put pressure on my stomach I would feel these odd little flutters, almost like gas, but more like little tickles. I waited almost twenty minutes before telling my husband. It wasn’t like me to stay silent about anything, but the immense power and love that I felt of knowing that my baby was in there and was communicating only with me gave me such an overwhelming feeling of love that I couldn’t even speak of it.

I want my son to know without a doubt that I love him more than anything or anyone else on this planet. But I also want him to feel proud that his mother knew what she wanted and went for it, regardless of the opposition. I want him to marry a woman who can choose ten words for her grave, and raise daughters who can choose twenty. The truth is that I would leave it all for him. I would give up everything I’ve earned and everything I’ve struggled for in a heartbeat if I had to. I’m just not ready to believe that I have to only choose one word yet. I want to be the proud and brash 22-year-old that knew she could do anything, and at the same time be the humbled new mother who can’t stop staring at her, her husband’s, and God’s gorgeous new creation.

I took a deep breath and looked at my advisor. She was still sitting there waiting for me to answer, leaning back in her chair with a small smile on her face. She knew. This is a woman who manages to not only be an accomplished scientist and a wonderful teacher, but a proud mother to five grown children. There are pictures from earlier on in her career of her standing at a work site, hugely pregnant, a toddler strapped to her back, and another child playing in the dirt at her feet. Despite the hard work that she and others have accomplished, there is a large part of me that feels like a traitor to my son by picking Scientist, but a traitor to myself by picking Mother.

I called my husband on the way home from class.

“If you had to choose only one word to put on my gravestone that would explain my identity, what would you choose?”

“Scientist,” he says, not missing a beat.

“Really?” I ask, surprised. “You wouldn’t choose Mother or Wife?”

“No. You are those things, but they’re not what make you, you,” he explained. “You’re a wonderful mother, but would I use that to describe all that you are? No. To me, you’re a scientist.”

“Good,” I told him. “That’s what I said, too.”


Guest post written by Helen Werner. Helen lives with her husband and their two year old son and goldendoodle in Wisconsin. A Ph.D. student in anthropology, she finds pleasure in getting academic themed tattoos, breaking down working mother stereotypes, and disco dancing with her son in their kitchen. She has two twin boys in heaven.