Every year, when I teach AP Literature & Composition, I begin with Shakespeare’s tragedy, Macbeth. In order to gain a deeper level of understanding of the story, students are instructed to follow various motifs throughout the play, one of which is sleep. For the most part, sleep symbolizes innocence, purity, and peace of mind. Sleep, as it pertains to Parenthood, is remarkably similar.
When our babies are wee little newborns, daily life revolves around the clock and sleep, or lack thereof. It comes to no one’s surprise, after having gone through the trenches of this early stage, how potent sleep deprivation is as a form of interrogative torture. Sleep is a keystone in any discussion involving newborns, either by way of ruminations from an exhausted parent, or a well-meaning inquiring mind – How is she sleeping?
News flash – the sleep issues don’t necessarily end with the newborn stage. They evolve into considerations of bed-sharing, then maybe getting littles into their own cribs, then out of baby jail and into their own beds, keeping them in those beds, and so on and so forth. We won’t even get into the challenges of time changes. And just as frustrating and mind numbing as the world of sleep can be during this period in life, so too, can it be the most incredible.
One of the most cherished images I have of me and my daughter is a picture I snapped on my terrible faux blackberry, when she was just a week and a half old. She is nuzzled on my shoulder facing me, peacefully sleeping. If I close my eyes, I can almost conjure up the way the weight of her tiny body felt in my arms, the sweet smell of her head, and the tiny baby breath sounds she made. I am literally awash with contentedness just thinking about it. Her skin against mine conducted a symphony of oxytocin through my veins, a glorious orchestral sonata from which I hoped never to hear the end.
It's quite easy to forget the poetic rhythm of these moments, especially when all I’ve wanted to do was sleep peacefully myself. Fear, too, is an immense force: fear that she’ll not figure out how to self-soothe, fear that she won’t ever sleep in her own bed, and the fear that she won’t learn to stay in that bed, because my goodness, all the stories circulating, the ones you hear about and selectively fixate upon when you’re knee deep into sleep-training, serve only to highlight what you can’t get your own kid to perform successfully.
But one day, the knot untangles, and she figures it out.
Hard to say if it’s because of the fairy you invented and convinced her lives in her room to protect her, or whether it was the rewards chart, or if it was the militant week you spent returning her to her bed a la Super Nanny, hour after hour, night after night. She got it. She understands now that in our home, her bed is for her, and ours is for us. That her five year-old body doesn’t quite fit as comfortably as it once used to, and her sprawling ways generally end up smacking someone in the face. In fact, she’s often more comfortable in own bed because of this. She realizes now we all sleep better this way.
I’d be a fool to tout some cavalier belief that all our sleep challenges are long behind us. That would be laughable, because occasionally, she has a rough day or evening, and requests to sleep in our bed. We oblige when we see fit, but these happen less and less. Nestled there, though, lies the quandary, the double-edged sword I now find myself learning to handle.
I miss her body. Her smell. Her breath. This is not a constant, but rather an interloper hiding in the shadows of our days. When the feeling crests, it is visceral. I can’t always name it, I just know, impulsively, that I miss her. Sometimes the decision is easy – no, you need to sleep in your own bed tonight. Other moments, there is a physical beckoning, something beyond and greater than my own control that wants to say, yes, you can sleep in our bed tonight because I need you near me. These are fleeting, I know – not my need to be near her, but her wanting to be near me. I expect that as we broach and dive headlong into the teenage years, she won’t be asking much at all. Because of this it is my personal goal to try to pay attention to these moments, to remember that now is now. There will come a day, I presume, when we've circled back around the sun of teenagedom, and she will be all grown up and out of the house. Her body will not be near mine - at all.
The other day I’d spent entirely away from her, in a studio photographing mothers and their children. I was struck, once again, by a fierce compulsion to be with my daughter and wrote the following:
Once upon a time, so many sleeps ago, I did everything I could to get you into your own bed and out of mine. And here we are, on this night, when all I want to hear is the rhythm of your breath, singing me to sleep.
She’d had a long day and was particularly whiny and overly emotional. As we were lying in the dark, drifting off, my hand around hers, I said, “I love being your Mama.” She didn’t say anything back - just squeezed my hand for several seconds.
There she was, lying next to me, purely innocent, and I was peaceful. The recurring motif in our little world. I inhaled all I could of her.
She’d not asked to sleep in our room - I volunteered the offer.
Because I wanted it.
Selfishly, I wanted my daughter next to me.
I needed her there.