I think the bulk of my posts on motherhood have had something to do with sleep. Mostly, the lack of it, and my acceptance of my sleep deprivation.
Our son is nearly 19 months and finally, having been driven to desperation, I turned toward that one source I thought I would never choose: Dr. Ferber’s “cry it out” approach in his book “Solving Your Child’s Sleep Problems,” which I had never read.
As it turns out, it’s not what I thought it was. Not an endless tunnel of all-night crying while you bite your fingernails in terror in the other room, your spouse restraining you from rushing in.
Dr. Ferber, it turns out, is rather a sensible man, with a sensible approach. As an “attachment parenting” still-nursing type who has co-slept with our son since he was three months old, and hasn’t had a good night’s sleep in that much time, I’m shocked at how easy this has been.
For two nights I have not nursed my son to sleep. He has slept in his own bed, by himself. The first night he woke four times, but fell back to sleep after kisses from me in less than 5 minutes each time. Last night, following Ferber’s plan to extend the amount of time you wait before going in, he woke three times, but I never made it in any time–he fell back to sleep in less than five minutes each time, so that I never had the opportunity to go into his room. He slept from 8pm to 7am.
And, with only temporary waking, so did I.
I don’t regret waiting. I don’t regret the time we spent co-sleeping and bonding and nursing at night. But we are all ready for this, and it is good.
The holidays always make me feel reflective. I remember them very vividly from when I was a child. My grandmother always came out from New York, saddled with gifts from places like the Museum of Modern Art gift store. My parents, who were divorced when I was 2, came together and pulled on a good face despite whatever shit was going on at the time–(and it was always going on).
Trimming the tree was always a big deal with my mom. Even in those bad, bad years when there wasn’t enough money for much, and she wasn’t sober, we always got a tree and put those damn ornaments on it! She was into tinsel–a trellis of silver built out of sparkly plastic . Our ornaments were glass balls and precious and came from my mom’s own childhood. Though my father was Jewish in name and blood, his parents gave up religion after escaping Germany in the nick of time–so he rode the coattails of Christmas for my mom and me.
Today, as I watched my nearly 18 month old son bustle around, carting ornaments from tree to various hidey holes in the house, asking to sniff the scented candles, and jamming his not-yet-hung stocking full of his favorite toys, I thought: we are making his memories. And no matter that we will screw things up in several ways, we are not drunk, we are not on drugs. He has one stable home with two loving parents. He is well tended to on every level. His memories of the fun at Christmastime will hopefully not be of a happiness strung together haphazardly once a year, putting a fancy veneer on the ugliness.
May his happiness be real, and year round.
My son and I took a class for 9 weeks last semester called Music Together. There was one daddy in the group. The first week his wife was there with two year old Emma. Then daddy stepped in for the remainder–a curious thing as he looked the business man type, always checking his iphone between songs and adjusting his leather loafers. It turned out, when I asked, that his wife is pregnant again. With their third child.
“We’ve only got plans for the one,” I said on the way out of class one day, feeling something new and strange begin to slither up my windpipe. Wimpy was the only word that came to mind.
He laughed. “One is for amateurs!” he said, and the energy in his voice spoke of countless nights up late, an algebra of tantrums and teething soothed I could not fathom, and sibling rivalry probably exacerbated by his wife’s nausea and fatigue from carrying number three.
“We have no family here,” he said, “So it’s kind of hard.”
The first year of my son’s life I had this glittery feeling of being a survivor. Not only had I entered the realm of motherhood–done my hazing rituals of sleep deprivation and been smeared in countless bodily fluids at any given moment–but I had stretched, grown, learned new things about myself. Reorganized my priorities. Given up control. Accepted that there was a power greater than myself and it only weighted 7 lbs and couldn’t even walk on its own.
And now I can say I’ve mastered the art of traveling with child in a reasonable amount of time, which includes an vast array of stuff that would make Paris Hilton’s luggage look like nothing. I get places on time. Even early sometimes. I’m accustomed to imperfect sleep. I’m used to dropping an important piece of work at a moment’s notice to give attention that is being demanded in a shrill voice; or suffering the tantrum that follows when I don’t give the attention. In a word, life with child is pretty normal. Being a mother of one is doable. While I may not have a bustling night life back, I do things. I go places. I see people, which all seemed like a dream in that first year.
We remain content with our choice to have one, but now that more people I know are moving on to number two and three, I am indeed starting to feel that life with one child is a bit like life with no children was…in comparison to two or three.
If one is for amateurs, well let me say that I am happy never to rise up that particular hierarchy (and continue to feel awe and respect for the parents of more than one 🙂
Daily, parenthood is an exercise in humility. By which I mean that the ethereal perfect all-accepting mother of my imagination pre-baby is bitch-slapped by the wayside by the I-can’t-take-another-minute-of-your-INSERT IRRITATING BEHAVIOR HERE mother. She’s the mean mother who makes her child cry, who denies things, who yells, who has even stamped her foot in a moment of anger like some little child herself.
I am not proud of her, and most of the time I don’t even like her. But she’s in there alongside the patient-beyond-all-measure mother and a host of other mothers who trade caps and come out on a moment’s notice.
I have the parenting books (and yes, have even read them). I know that yelling is not an effective teaching tool. I do not see positive results from doing it. But there’s a place I reach beyond all reason, much like the place my toddler is in when he is screaming about whatever has upset him, where I cannot access the wise mother. She only comes out after the fact, when the tantrum-mother has given in and let the boy nurse again for the 600th time in an hour.
Then she sits back, shakes her head, and reminds me that despite the number of parenting books (I’m sure it’s in the millions), there is no manual for your own child, only patience and learning together and a little bit of luck.
Before you have children you are so wise about childrearing, and quite smug about it too. You look at mothers with toddlers having tantrums in stores and you know what a terrible mother she must be. If you’re like me, you have a mental list of the “nevers”–things you will absolutely never do when you have children. This ranges from things your parents did to you, and things you’ve seen other parents do. You will be a bastion of perfect motherhood.
(cue the cackling laughter).
My list included things like:
I will never let my child eat candy until he is at least four years old.
I will never yell “shut up” at my child.
I will never let my child have a tantrum in a public place (especially loud laughter at this now)
I will never feed my child fast food or non-organics
On the flip side of the “never” list is the “always” list. For not only will you be so disciplined as to never lose your temper and prepare gourmet, organic meals for your children, you will go a step further!
I will always make sure my child gets enough rest.
I will always make sure my child has a clean face and clothing.
I will always discipline my child in a calm, firm way (related to the “I will never let my child have a tantrum in a public place” issue)
So you make your lists, and then you have a child, and God laughs at these little resolutions of yours (frankly I’m pretty sure even Buddha or Allah or the Tao laughs, too) and real life as a parent ensues.
In which case, you now see a child having a tantrum in a store and you think: “That poor woman. She just wants to get her shopping done! What a spiteful little brat.”
Or: Fast food French Fries can’t do much harm, right? At least I’m not feeding him a whopper.
Or: So he had a candy bar…those baby teeth fall out anyway, right?
Or: “Would you please shut up? Shut up! Mommy is trying not to crash into the nice man in his BMW talking on his cell phone and you ARE NOT HELPING.”
Parenthood is not for the smug, I’ll tell you that.
I spent four days in pro-dromal labor, which kept me from sleeping. Right before they gave me the pitocin at the hospital to induce me, I told the nurse, “I’m so ready to have this baby, so I can sleep.”
She turned, smirked at me and said, laughing, “Having a baby…to sleep? That’s funny.”
I had no idea what she meant at the time.
At nearly 17 months my kid still wakes up after 4 or 5 hours down and I spend the rest of the night with him. Thank god the studies keep coming out that show the psych0logical benefits of sleeping with your children.
One bleary eyed day I was stumbling along the fluorescent lit aisles of the baby section at Target, barely able to distinguish between different types of sippy cups when I stumbled upon a gleaming specimen of a mother reaching for the same item. I couldn’t help but stare at her because she was so put together. She looked clean. Rested. There were no bags under her eyes and her hair was washed. She had matching items on and she was smiling–in a real way– as she pushed the carriage containing a newborn and a toddler.
I couldn’t help myself. I stopped her. “Excuse me, but can I ask you why you look so together, considering you have a new baby?”
She smiled graciously. “Simple,” she said. I began to rub my hands together unconsciously. She was going to provide me with some magic answer that I could use on my own little fitful slumberer.
“My kids sleep!” she said. “Always have, since birth.”
She didn’t have a magic answer. Her kids just slept. Since birth. I almost fell to my knees and begged her to take me home. Maybe it was something in her house. Maybe the radiant glow of her white teeth mesmerized her children into a paralytic state of slumber.
Now I wonder, did I dream her? Did I hallucinate her in my fugue state of exhaustion?
There is nothing the mother of a not-so-good sleeper likes to hear LESS than that oft-asked question: “Does your baby sleep through the night?” What’s worse is the look of shock when you say “No, not yet.” Now try that when your child is 14 mos old. People were shocked enough at 4, 6 and 8 mos that my child didn’t sleep through the night. Now they pretty much write it off to some inherent flaw in my mothering.
What I know, though, about sleeplessness is that it was almost 100% responsible for many of the overwhelming feelings I’ve had along the way. Without the anchor of sleep to give you a clear head and a level of tolerance, life is hard. I didn’t have post-partum depression, I had post-partum sleep-deprivation, and the symptoms were nearly identical.
The fact is, though, not all adults I know sleep very well either. So why should every child be expected to reach some plateau of perfect sleeping?
Co-sleeping mothers, of whom I know many, all say that their children took longer to sleep through the night. Some as late as 2 years old, and some even later. Sleep, with children, is for many of us a new beast. We sleep differently, with a baby’s downy, hot scalp shoved into an armpit, his little leg propped upon our own. Or we sleep on one side, arm angled up and over, leaving a ready breast available should our wee one wake and require it. Truthfully, just as often as I complain about wanting my sleep, I miss him when I manage to get a few hours of sleep alone in my own bed before he wakes.
It’s a conundrum.
Well, I persist in being fascinated at the idea of going through labor again even though we don’t plan on having more children. I keep reconstructing my actual labor and building the one I’d like to have in my mind through new information and new stories I read/hear and see. Maybe that’s just as healing.
It’s taken me so long to write my labor story here, because I did process a big part of it already, but also because it’s exhausting to relive it. It’s so easy to focus on the negative, too, but I’m starting to see it through new eyes. Rather than tell it in the blow-by-blow format I used to tell it, I thought I’d write about how I see it differently now.
I recently had the pleasure of interviewing one of the nurse midwives who attended my birth at a Kaiser hospital. This particular Kaiser actually has nurse midwives on staff, and while traditional midwives will tell you there’s a big difference between them, I tell you, better nurse midwives than none. They do listen. They are open. There’s a BIG diff. between them and OBGYNS.
I was in the hospital for 24 hours before my son was born–much of that in labor. Melanie Jordan was the 3rd midwife on rotation, almost the last one in that period, the one who gave me confidence that I would push my baby out shortly after hours and hours of agonizing labor and drug-fueled sleep. Her very presence made me feel like I was going to make it.
While interviewing her, I told her my story: 4 days or prodromal labor (intense contractions that do not seem to become “active” labor, mistakenly labeled as “false labor.”) in which I barely slept or ate. (When I went to the hospital they took my blood glucose and said “you’re starving!”). Two weeks overdue already. I finally went in to be induced, the very thing I had resisted so passionately for months. I was dilated on my own to 2 cms.
My husband and I had taken a class known as The Bradley Method, which emphasizes training the partner to be involved, and alternative techniques to drugs for handling pain. The class focuses a lot on the kinds of interventions used in a medical setting and its goal is to get women to deliver vaginally and without drugs. This is all great. I was on board with that from the get-go. But I started to get hyped up about all these “interventions” and how I was going to be pitted against the very people supposedly helping me labor. I was going to have to ward off a thousand-limbed beast that would try to ply me with drugs, instruments to break my water and unnecessarily monitor my baby, and a variety of other things that would interfere with my labor.
We hired a doula to go with us to the hospital. She was fabulous. But the more I read about natural childbirth, the more afraid I became that I would not be allowed to do it. I wanted it so very badly. My own OB did not believe me when I told him I wanted no drugs. I left him in a huff and saw a lovely nurse midwife the rest of my pregnancy who supported everything I said I wanted.
So by the time I was starting to go into labor, prodromally, I was stuck in the war inside my head, in a place of fear, like a cat with its limbs outstretched against the carrier it refuses to enter. This is the attitude with which I undertook giving birth, but I didn’t see that at the time.
Melanie Jordan pointed out that in her practice (home births, not at the hospital) the women she sees in prodromal labor are so very often caught in their heads and she talks and talks with them to see if she can’t help break through that stuck place. I realize now I needed that level of help.
Yet, help, she said, sometimes comes in the form of interventions (and she’s a huge natural birth proponent). For some, the way out of it is to get an epidural, or pitocin.
Hearing this was revolutionary to me. That maybe I did exactly what I needed to do. The first thing they did at the hospital was to give me a shot of morphine becuase I hadn’t slept–this helped me doze and put me up to 4cms! Next they induced me with pitocin, and I labored for 6 or 7 hours without drugs–those pitocin induced contractions are intense, too! I don’t know the difference but what I’ve read tells me the pitocin ones have an unrelenting quality. For some of that time I didn’t move from my position gripping the birth ball in my lap on the bed, but my doula eventually got me up and around. I was sure we were making progress.
However, after those 6 or 7 hours (and 4 days of prodromal labor!), I was still only 4 cms dilated. Even though Bradley had pointed out that that may mean nothing–a woman can dilate to 10 cms in minutes when ready–I was fatigued and discouraged. Then I got the shakes–totally involuntary shaking that doesn’t stop, and I was sooooo tired I was irrational. So I took an epidural to sleep. I don’t know how long I slept, but by around 6 am the next morning, I was nearly 10 cms.
The short version is: Thinking I’d push the baby out in an hour, three and a half hours later, aftering finding meconium in the baby’s water sack, and after believing at several junctures that I was either going to die, or get a C-section, they called in a special doctor who used the vacuum suction. Things were dire. He needed to come out. I needed to be done with labor.
Between the vacuum and me pushing like I’d never pushed before, we popped him out in minutes. And let me say, the epidural had long since worn off since I’d asked them not to re-up towards pushing time. And pitocin contractions are so intense that I couldn’t even rest during them–I HAD to push. And I had a sciatic pain shooting up the back of my right leg into my back that was almost as painful as my contractions. I really thought I was going to die. It’s amazing that women don’t pass out from the pain.
He was born with a hand up toward his head and his cord wrapped around that. The hand had acted like a wedge, preventing him coming out easily. Yet the hand had also stopped the cord from being wrapped ever-tighter.
The moral: I did the best that I knew how to do at the time.
In the imagined second labor I would have, I would know that there’s nothing to fight in labor. That it’s all about just being in it and staying with it and doing whatever is necessary to get you and your baby to a healthy place. I wouldn’t fear the doctors–the staff was great to me–I wouldn’t fear the interventions. I would spend a lot more time in advance getting emotionally in touch with myself and the babe.
But it happened exactly as it should have.
I do intend to write my labor story (I promise, Karen) soon…but first I wanted to talk about a more morbid subject (morbider?)…Recently I’ve had a chest cold. A long, lingering one that rather than getting better proceeded to get worse. Then it lodged in one lung, which started to hurt. And even though all my logical intuition told me it was some kind of bacterial infection, perfectly treatable, my husband and I both had our dark thoughts. Lung cancer or something that spread to the lungs from other source.
The doctor confirmed it’s nothing more than a case of walking pneumonia, which isn’t even as dire as it sounds, providing I take my antibiotics and rest. It would have been dire before the advent of antibiotics, of course. I could have easily died from such an affliction once upon a time, but not likely these days.
Still, having a child in the world means that you think about what would happen if illness took you. I’ve thought a lot about how we would get by without my husband–and that would be a dark enough night I can’t bear to imagine. But the scarier thought is what would happen to my husband and son without me. It’s the second worst thing I could possibly imagine: my baby suddenly having to live without me. A baby who cannot understand concepts like death or illness, who knows only the warmth and surety of the breast and his mother’s steadfast presence. Her warm breath at night reassuring him that all is right in the world. Her unconditional love for him. Of course a father has most of those things, too, but a baby is wired to need his mother for several years longer in symbiotic ways.
Thank god it’s only a perfectly curable modern infection that is already being killed off by science’s little miracles.
Thank god this is just one of those dark musings that many of us have but don’t like to admit.
As you read in my last post, we have no plans to have a second baby. And not for all bad reasons. We just always saw ourselves as one kid kind of people. We got the best one–why keep going?
The funny thing is, I’ve been somewhat fixated lately on stories, articles, and people’s tales of natural childbirth. I can’t hear enough about those who did it the way I so dearly wanted to do it with Ben. I actually daydream about what my second labor would be like–imagine the ways I would prepare differently, how I’d embrace courage and shed fear, how I’d arrange a support team of women who did it around me to cheer me on. . . only to remember that I’m not going to have a second time.
Which is when I realized that I still have something left to process about my labor with Ben.
I don’t know if I ever wrote about my birth experience publicly, but I think it may be time. What’s more, I think it’s time to look at some of the emotional issues that most definitely contributed to the way my labor went. Most women will agree that labor is not just a physical process–a woman’s labor can stop and start depending on how she feels about what’s going on around her…and inside her.
So I’m working on that post. It’s not ready yet, but it’s percolating. I think what I’m trying to do as I revisit labor in my imagination is get to the core of some essential feelings that have been tucked away in the subsequent hubbub of going from pregnant to parent. Because the fact is, labor is a transformative experience. Even though it’s probably the most common act on the planet, and many women do it repeatedly and then put it behind them, experiencing it changes you in some way forever. If you let it.