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.

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