(Un)Sleeping Beauties


By Marjorie Ingall

Published May 06, 2005, issue of May 06, 2005.

You know that part in “The Shining” when Shelley Duvall thinks that her husband, Jack Nicholson, has been working on his novel all winter, and she sneaks a peek at his manuscript and all he’s written over and over is “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy”? That’s pretty much the caliber of work I’ve been producing lately. Actually, my coherence levels fall somewhere between Jack’s psychotic typing and the muted mwah-mwah-mwah-mwah spoken by the adults in Peanuts cartoons.

Why am I so incoherent? Because I have not slept through the night since… well, I can’t actually recall. But it feels like it was during the Carter administration.

Maxine is now 6 months old. Cute as a button. Babbles. Beams. Rolls. Grabs her toes. Fights sleep like a dervish. She reminds me of Mel Gibson in any number of Mel Gibson movies; you know, holding her sword and whirling and fighting and kicking and ultimately going under the giant horde of bad guys. (The next scene in the Mel Gibson version is usually Mel getting homoerotically, shirtlessly tortured, but we don’t do that with Max.) The kid does not want to sleep.

Of course, we went through sleep hell when Josie was a baby, too. I have a whole shelf of sleep books left from those golden days. At first, I swore I couldn’t let my precious darling cry it out (the dreaded “CIO,” in the language of parenting message boards). That was when I bought “The No-Cry Sleep Solution: Gentle Ways to Help Your Baby Sleep Through the Night.” Then, as my exhaustion level mounted, I bought “Secrets of the Baby Whisperer: How to Calm, Connect, and Communicate With Your Baby,” “Sleeping Through the Night: How Infants, Toddlers and Their Parents Can Get a Good Night’s Sleep” and finally the Big Kahuna of sleep books: “Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problems,” by Richard Ferber, the man whose name became a verb. “Ferberizing” is the process of letting your baby CIO, checking in on her at increasingly long intervals. In certain circles, telling people you Ferberized is like casually saying you dipped your child in chum and threw the baby into a shark tank.

Ferberizing baby Josie was hard. I cried. I snarled at Jonathan, who urged me to have a cocktail. I hid in my home office, blaring the radio to try to drown out the sound of my beloved’s sobbing. Jonathan went in every five minutes, every 10 minutes, every 15 minutes. I worried that I was killing her spirit, teaching her that she was unloved. I viscerally, primally needed to pick her up and cuddle her. Call off the experiment! I didn’t need sleep! I wasn’t in charge of nuclear codes! Reading the message boards, hoping for solace, didn’t help. The highly evolved mothers who believed in A.P. (attachment parenting) and the F.B. (family bed) called women who let their D.D.s (dear daughters) CIO “child abusers.” A.H. (Acronym Hell).

Thankfully, unlike some babies, Josie did not cry until she puked. (In that particular case, Ferber perkily advises simply stripping the bed, remaking it and continuing the training. Richard Ferber: Man of Ice.) The training worked. First she cried for 40 minutes, then 20, then five. Soon she learned to fall asleep on her own, and she became a champion sleeper. She can sleep through a window-rattling thunderstorm, a police action, a screaming newborn. We live across the street from a Hell’s Angels clubhouse, and she can sleep through the sound of a gunning Harley engine at 50 feet.

It’s been somewhat easier with Max. Don’t get me wrong, I still cried. But this time, I’m a bit more confident as a parent. I know that she’ll be okay, and I’m more amused than freaked out by the wildly contradictory schools of parenting advice. Co-sleep with your baby! No, don’t, you’ll roll over and smoosh her like a latke! Let your baby cry, or she’ll never learn to self-soothe! Don’t let your baby cry, or she’ll become an insecure adult!

We’re all looking for the magic bullet that’ll guarantee our kids grow up healthy and happy and accomplished. Our desperation makes us panicky and prickly, so we attack others for choosing differently. Sleep is just one of the battlefronts. Those message boards teem with tension between the “überboobers” and the F.F.ers (formula feeders), the SAHMs (stay-at-home moms) and the working moms, the H.S.ers (home-schoolers) and the public schoolers, the vaccinators and the vaccines-cause-autism brigade.

But life isn’t so black and white. (Which is why hyperventilatory “Mommy Wars” stories also amuse me; they rarely mention that 36% of women work part time at some point, usually for child care reasons, according to the research firm Catalyst, and the women who insist that their choice is right for them may find that another situation is better for them in a couple of years.) There’s no one-size-fits-all solution. So, like a lot of mothers, I follow a bissel this advice, a bissel that philosophy. I don’t “wear the baby” during most of my waking hours, as the attachment-parenting guru Dr. Sears suggests. But I frequently put her in the Bjorn or Hip Hammock when she’s a little fussy, and sure enough, the body contact tends to shut her right up. Max has slept in the car seat, the bassinet and our bed. I don’t see the point in being doctrinaire.

Apparently, though, Max did not get the memo about how fabulous and reasonable I am. Like Josie, she knows what she wants and she screams like a banshee when she doesn’t get it. She liked sleeping in the car seat (we put her in it when she was a few days old and had the sniffles, so that she’d get better drainage, and she liked it so much that we kept her there for a few weeks), and she screamed in fury when I tried to get her to sleep in the bassinet. So I laid her in the Snuggle Nest, a sort of soft box you put in your bed when you’re co-sleeping, lest you accidentally roll over onto your baby. (“Snuggle Nest?” Jonathan said, reading the box. “This is not a product aimed at men. To a guy, the words ‘Snuggle’ and ‘Nest’ say, ‘I will never have sex with my wife again.’”) We moved her from the Snuggle Nest to the bassinet (there was some crying) and from the bassinet to the crib (there was more crying), training her in stages to go to sleep fairly easily in the crib.

But I’m still not willing to train her to put herself back to sleep in the middle of the night. Right now, she usually wakes up once at 3 or 4 a.m., and that’s okay by me. Because with baby number two, I’m acutely aware of how fast the time slips away. When I’m sitting in the dark with Max, my beloved husband and hilarious preschooler asleep nearby, and this luscious little meatball nuzzles my breast and I cup her small fuzzy head and one fat wee hand scrabbles softly at my collarbone, I could cry knowing how soon she’ll be a sticky, fast-moving big kid telling me, as Josie recently did, “Actually, I would like to learn oboe.” I don’t regret them growing up (and, kayn aynhoreh, what’s the alternative?). Josie’s more fascinating every day. But sometimes I wish I could stop time in amber.

That said, we’re due for some more sleep training here — for Josie, who’s begun popping out of bed and coming into our room several times a night. I’d be sleep deprived enough with just the baby, but Josie’s demands to be re-tucked-in and re-snuggled send me into do-not-operate-heavy-machinery territory. She is convinced that bees are out to get her. So we have to pull the sheet clear up over her head and make sure there are no bees in the bed or lurking under it. I’m sure a lot of her anxiety has to do with Maxine’s existence, but I do not care. I’m tired. So last night, Josie and I made a deal: If she can stay in bed all night for seven days, she will get a mani-pedi at the neighborhood salon. This is a prize she’s been salivating for. There are advantages to growing up. I could probably name more of them if I weren’t so damn tired.

Write to Marjorie at mamele@forward.com.

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