Hug It Out

My son is a persnickety fellow. He’s happy as a clam so long as things are going his way, as is the case with most people. Again, as with most people, when he’s feeling misunderstood or slighted in some way, he expresses…distaste. We’ve been working on the most polite and succinct way to say, “Pardon me, Mama, but maybe I wasn’t clear in expressing how dearly I love crawling away from you/harassing the cat/not wearing pants/chewing on this ____, but somehow it’s just not taking. So, while he creates an effective script, his father and I are tasked with keeping him in that clammishly happy state. Sometimes that means our lives are not exactly how we pictured they might be.

For the first (give or take) eight months of George’s life, his papa’s sling was, nine times out of ten, the only place my child would deign to nap. I could get a scant twenty minute snooze out of him in his swing once a week if the stars aligned. He would allow me to nurse him to sleep in the dark in the bed with about as much regularity but only if I super-duper swore not to even think about thinking about looking at my phone or iPod. He wanted to be on one of us, so on one of us he was. At night, he turned up his nose at the beautiful, organic baby hammock we’d scrimped to afford in favor of nursing nonstop in the crook of my arm.

Thanks to television (or whatever), I had envisioned putting my still-awake baby down for a nap, humming a few bars of Mister Sandman and looking into some fancy-ass crib to see him drifting sweetly off to sleep before I made it to the chorus. I’ll pause here while you laugh. No, really, don’t hold back.

Needless to say, that quaint scene has never played out here. George has, since birth, basically refused to be alone and would awake screaming, only seconds after we put him down in the midst of “limp-limb” sleep. I read books; I asked my midwife; I kept trying to convince myself that I was doing it wrong and with just a little more effort I would stumble on the answer: the trick that would make my baby sleep…all night, alone, and without waking to eat. Like every other baby does from the age of six weeks, if your polling group consists of strangers at the grocery and women who bore children during the Carter administration. We never left him to cry because to do so was, to me, completely counter-intuitive. My goal was to chill the kid out, not to make him think I’d run off and may or may not materialize again.

During my pregnancy I researched (among many other things) attachment parenting, and a lot of it resonated with me. I also knew that I valued my sleep, my privacy and my space. But having a baby is sort of like a surprise party in your honor where the guest list changes every time you go to the bathroom. It’s a total blast one minute, but two minutes later, the room is full of drunk cousins, old roommates who skipped out on rent, and the waitress you suspected of spitting in your salad that time you sent it back twice. The secret: just don’t go to the bathroom! I finally figured out that if I had a good thing going, I needed to cling to it, not try my luck at a little bit better. I needed to re-evaluate my priorities. I needed to adjust the view I’d gotten from god knows where that babies do a series of things in one way, in one order, and accept that little ones are simply small people with preferences, fears, likes and dislikes and changing moods just like the rest of us.

After the revelation that George was not going to bend to my preference for night-time leg room (nor should he) we changed our tack and started unapologetically telling people that he goes to bed when we do – eleven, midnight, sometimes even later – and he sleeps until eleven or noon. We told them that we co-sleep even for naps because he doesn’t like to be away from me, and so I don’t have to worry about his state of mind or, overnight, the potentiality of SIDS. I (for the most part) stopped acting like there was a goal, however far off, of sleeping separately, and embraced the status quo because we are generally all happy and comfortable with this arrangement. The sling goes places with us and George can, when slung, almost invariably still be put to sleep in a matter of moments. Is it a little burdensome to carry a 22 pound baby for hours a day? Yes. Is the burden more than the psychological effects of being left alone, confused, sad, and lonely, because your parents would rather sew, keep a tidy house or do any number of other things one can do when a baby is not attached to one’s boob? No.

I understand the need for sleep training, kind of. I’m not a single mother who works outside of the home. I don’t have other children to care for, with differing sleep schedules and needs. I don’t need to let my son “cry it out.” George has two parents, one of whom is almost always with him, who can (while sacrificing some things) give him as much attention as he wants. The giving of attention is, as I understand it, the main “deal” with parenting. Being a present, attentive parent means that as long as my kid doesn’t understand the concept of compromise, that burden falls to me. I have to compromise as much as possible, so that when it’s time for him to give a little back, he doesn’t feel slighted or fearful. However subconsciously, he knows that I’m there, that I respect his needs and want the best for him. By not allowing him to cry it out, he will, with any luck, avoid developing emotional memories of feeling abandoned. He won’t grow resentful when I want a shower by myself or, just imagine: a weekend girls’ trip. He won’t worry when I leave the room to make a sandwich that I may not reappear for hours no matter how hard he cries. People ask how long I’m willing to ride this out, but George has already formed what I see as a pretty secure attachment to me. Two months ago, I had to literally run to and from the bathroom, keeping him in my line of vision and babbling at him like a buffoon all the while. Now, I can set him down some place safe, walk away and even flat iron my hair some days without him throwing a fit or being mad at me when I return. I attribute those gains to his papa’s and my willingness to take a hit for the team in the beginning.

People I know have been forcing their babies to cry it out since I’ve known people with babies. I rarely voice my objection publicly. And before I object even privately, I consider their situation. Single parent? Two parents working long hours outside the home? Lots of other kids? When the answer to all of these is “No,” I feel sorry for the babies, who are trying so desperately to get their points across the only way they can, and are being met with such incomprehensible opposition from their caretakers. In all likelihood, their parents are simply doing what they know, what they’ve been told worked for their own parents and grandparents, what they’ve read in books recommended by friends. But, while I’m sad for the babies, I almost feel sorrier for the parents, for frittering away this brief, unadulterated closeness. For so sorely misunderstanding what I see as the most basic and, ultimately, most rewarding tenet of good parenting: take care of your child before yourself. Do I miss reading a book with both hands or having a leisurely cup of tea and daydreaming? Sure, but waking up to his sleepy smile, his fingers poking my face – it’s magical. And someday I’ll be lonesome for my baby; I don’t want to look back on his first years with regret.

Photo Credit: Author

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Stefanie lives in the sometimes beautiful Pacific Northwest with her cat-obsessed baby boy and public high school-teaching partner. She routinely sleeps until noon and blogs at very, very fine.
This post was edited from a version previously published at very, very fine.

8 Responses to Hug It Out

  1. Kathy Haynie

    Your post made me laugh, and brought back memories of my own babies, the youngest of whom is now 24. I DO miss those days of constant attachment and sweet snuggles! I was lucky to be a full-time at-home mama with my 5 children. When I had less time to hold the younger babies, I noticed that the older siblings helped take up the slack. Plenty of love to go around. The babies lived in my Snugli when they were small. Thank you for a thoughtful post. My daughter-in-law sent me to your blog.

  2. Heather

    Very wonderful post! My daughter is 3 months old, and I am a self proclaimed attachment parent. A lot of people I know think I’m “spoiling” my daughter by co-sleeping, exclusively breastfeeding on demand (even at night), and literally having my baby girl attached 24/7. I don’t care what others think though personally, I completely agree with what you said in your post. I think I’m doing the best I can, and it works for our family. These baby days go too fast and having 2 other children (8 and 1) as well, the early morning breastfeeding and co-sleeping are my baby and I’s special time together. I know she won’t remember these times, but I hope that I am helping to develop a secure little person for in the future.

  3. Laura  

    Thank you thank you thank you! We share similar experiences of bring up baby. My little man is 11 months old now and we have co-slept and breastfed since he was born. My mother and various non-breastfeeding friends and relations, take every opportunity to tell me that I am setting myself up for a nightmare when it comes time for him to have his own room. They advocate cying-it-out and tell me that he needs to learn to ‘self-soothe’ or he’ll be to dependent on me!!

    I am sooo heartened by your article. I was starting to feel like maybe they have a point and I’m being a bad mother. THANK YOU for making me realise that I’m not alone.

  4. Heather

    I would just like to say to the previous poster – Remember this! WE are doing what has been done for centuries, something that has been passed down from generation to generation, something that is biologically what we are supposed to be doing!
    In my opinion something that feels so right, and seems to make our children SO happy can’t be wrong and definitely can not make you a bad parent!

  5. stefanie

    Thanks so much for your kind comments, everyone! And to Laura: ditto what Heather said! Since my son was born (also 11 months ago!), I’ve been criticized by strangers who initiated conversation with me for co-sleeping, breastfeeding and babywearing. Crazy! But! I’ve had some really heartening talks with (mostly older) ladies who congratulate me for doing what they secretly did, too. I’ve also gotten support from women whose cultures of origin value the extended family a lot more than we normally do here in the US. One grandmotherly lady who turned out to be from Mexico said to me in a checkout line, “Are you sleeping at night with your little one?” to which I feebly answered yes. She shocked me by squeezing my son’s cheeks and saying, “Good! That must be why he is so happy!”

  6. Lauren

    Lovely post, and sums up a lot of my own experiences, maybe because my baby is 11 months old, too. As I watch her growing up, all to fast, a part of me dreads the day she wishes to sleep alone. Never, never, never will I regret holding her and sleeping with her. I already miss those newborn snuggle-days, and the thing that gets me through is knowing I took every opportunity to connect with my sweet girl.

  7. Momma Jorje

    Yep, my daughter is “spoiled rotten,” but I am *convinced* that spoiling her now (she is currently 15 months old) will help her to be a confident, independent person. I’m already seeing glimpses of that independence… and remembering the days when all she did was sleep! They do grow so very quickly!

  8. Lisa C  

    This sounds a lot like my little boy’s first 8 months (at around 8 months I was finally able to put him down for his naps…or at least half of his nap). Being so physically close to your baby all the time really cements the bond between you. It’s tiring, but it’s so worth it.

    At nine months old, my son wouldn’t let me out of his sight for a second. Then when he started to crawl, I taught him that he could follow me, and I never went further than he could follow easily. It made him feel very secure. Slowly, he started spending time on his own, and now at age 2.5 I am able to clean the house, or read, or write (who are we kidding, we can’t do it ALL).

    I knew not to listen to people who wanted to make us think we were spoiling our child. I knew his emotional health was more important, and that independence would come when he was ready for it. I daresay I was right. I look back over the last 2.5 years, and I’m so happy I got to hold him so much, day and night. I’ll never get that time back with him, and I’m so glad I took full advantage of it.

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