A collection of essays, outdoor adventure stories, ruminations, wordplay, parental angst, and blatant omphaloskepsis, generated in all seasons and for many reasons at 64.8 degrees north latitude

Friday, December 12, 2014

Perchance to Dream

It was 10:04 p.m. From my late-evening slouch in the living room -- laptop on knee, butt in beanbag, hot tea within reach – I heard a plaintive call.  A familiar call. 
A far, far, far too familiar call. 
Kid, you are eight years old. We are supposed to be at least four years past this phase.  To quote the title of a delightfully popular picture book that is definitely not intended not for actual children, Go the &$%# to Sleep.
I wanted to yell these things.  I wanted to morph into Mean Mommy, righteous monster of late-night annoyance.  However, long experience has taught me that anger and frustration will not solve this particular problem, but will instead turn it into a hideous nightmare of anguish, guilt and despair.
I heaved my complaining self out of my comfort zone.  I marched the six steps into the twins’ room.  I scrambled up the ladder of their exciting new Big Kid Loft.  On the left, Molly was a faintly snoring quilt-lump.  On the right…
I couldn’t see her face distinctly in the dimness of the multi-colored nightlight, but I could tell she was half propped on one elbow, a tiny huge-eyed figure amidst a wallowing sea of plush, crochet, and fleece.  One arm was wrapped around an old teddy.  The ample bulk of Winnie the Pooh dwarfed her back.  An assorted heap of other fuzzy creatures spilled across the area that would have contained legs, had the bed been occupied by a more-than-pint-sized human. 
“What’s up, Lizzy?” I whispered.
“It’s…”  She hesitated, desperate tension in her voice.  She knew she wasn’t supposed to be awake.  She knows she’s not supposed to call for me.  “It’s so… lonely.”
Seriously, kid?  Your twin sister’s mattress is, like TWO FEET away from yours.  Our family of four lives in a cabin that totals less than a thousand square feet, with no real internal doors. 
But this was no calculated manipulation, prevarication, or ploy.  This was the distress of a child who had spent the past forty minutes lying silently in the dark, waiting in vain for sleep, and fighting the shameful urge to beg for my help.   It was ten at night, and Lizzy was truly, deeply lonely -- a miniature, solitary insomniac.
For a long time, I didn’t think of her as an insomniac.  No one has an “insomniac” infant, because all newborns are insomniacs.  Whoever invented the phrase “sleeping like a baby” has never hung out with a minuscule person who doesn’t know the difference between day and night, and is planning to triple her bodyweight in one year via a ludicrously tedious sucking process. 
Before the kids were born, I tried to mentally prepare myself.  I knew that being the mother of twins would mean that I’d be a sleep-deprived-lunatic-milk-factory for a while.  For the first few months, I took the mayhem in stride.  The fact that I was finishing my PhD at the same time could be considered an additional exonerating circumstance, couldn’t it? Molly had some Gassy Infant issues that made her somewhat crankier than her sister, and Lizzy woke up every time I tried to transfer her off my lap, but who was really counting?  I mean, maybe I hadn’t showered in days and couldn’t remember my own name, but that was normal, right?
It was only when we’d passed the six-month-mark, when baby flatulence seemed under control, and when I’d sent all my dissertation chapters to be bound in hardcover ready for their glorious new life gathering dust in Rasmuson Library, that it dawned on me that other babies did this amazing thing called “sleeping through the night” – not to mention “spontaneously napping” and “falling asleep in cribs”.  Some friends of mine actually possessed such infants!  Jay and I wanted to be just like those people! 
So, we did what exhausted, frustrated parents do: we acquired vast amounts of entirely conflicting advice from friends, family, and iffy internet sites, and then misapplied it in a messy hodge-podge.  
We tried fixed routines.  We tried lights, music, nursing the kids to sleep, rocking them to sleep, going for not-really-necessary drives, putting them in mechanical swings, and endlessly dragging them around the frozen woods in sleds.  I recall, with appalling clarity, a night when we took turns swinging two car seats – one in each arm, like horribly awkward metronomes -- until our shoulder joints were on the verge of dislocating, because it was the only way to make the screaming stop.  PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE JUST MAKE THE SCREAMING STOP.
Eventually, desperate, we tried Cry It Out.  Yeah, I know, I know: there are strong proponents and even more vociferous opponents of this method of baby sleep-training.  Is it cruel abandonment of a helpless infant, or is it a sensible way to teach necessary self-soothing skills?  I belonged to neither camp, really.  I didn’t know what the hell I was doing.  All I knew was that there were books and articles that told me, unequivocally, that a baby will learn, relatively quickly, to calm the heck down and sleep.
Yeah.  One baby will. 
I can attest that Cry It Out TOTALLY works.  Molly cried for perhaps twenty minutes the first night, and for shorter periods of time each subsequent evening, until she gave just a token ten-second whimper before snoring her bald little head off.  Yup, those childcare gurus sure knew what they were talking about! 
Except that while Molly was snoring, Lizzy was screaming.
And screaming.
And screaming.
We let her go for two hours.  TWO HOURS.  Anyone who has ever heard a full-on baby-wail for ten seconds … well, you still can’t imagine what it’s like to hear YOUR baby howling in red-faced choking despair for a goddamned eternity.  It was Hades -- complete with the three-headed dog, the hydra’s fifty black gaping jaws, and Tisiphone lashing a whip at the adamantine gates of Tartarus.  While my baby’s torment escalated from woe to fear to abject terror, I hid my head under a pillow and sobbed.
The empathy was crippling.  I couldn’t remember my own infancy, of course – and my parents tell me that I was a reasonable sleeper, anyhow.  But I do remember the later years of childhood, when – despite being generally able to sleep – I occasionally spent what seemed like decades lying awake.  I had all kinds of strategies to try to help myself.  I took stuffed toys to bed.  I took a red plastic truck to bed.  I tucked the covers super-tight.  I did math problems in my head.  (You don’t doubt this, do you?  No, of course you don’t.) 
I remember the shame of having the dentist ask me, when I was five, whether the incipient protrusion of my front teeth might be due to thumb-sucking?  “No, no!” I told him.  Technically, I didn’t suck my thumb, I sucked my index finger – but I knew myself to be a despicable little liar, nonetheless.  I remember hunching under the covers in rigid torment, trying to fall asleep without that oral comfort.  I’d wake with a start in the darkness to find that the Evil Finger had somehow crept into my mouth again.  I’d start all over, lying on my hands to prevent cheating, and giving myself pins and needles in the process. 
In particular, falling asleep in an unfamiliar bed was torture.  I recall one New Year’s Eve when my parents enjoyed the rare thrill of attending a Real Grownup Party, and left my sister and me with Grandma and Grandpa.  This was safe and familiar territory -- and yet, even as Sarah snoozed blissfully next to me on the fold-out couch, I heard the abysmal ticking of the living-room clock like mocking thunder.  Nine o’clock.  Ten o’clock.  Eleven.  I didn’t WANT to ring in 1979!  Do you know how long it takes to get to midnight, alone in the dark?  There are geologic epochs that have been shorter.   
As a parent, having a long memory and a modicum of empathy kind of sucks. It puts you on a guilty hook from which there is no escape.  On that terrible Cry It Out evening, Lizzy and I were both shaking with adrenalin and exhaustion, with fear and grief, by the time I finally – finally! – picked up my two-hours-howling baby. Dripping with remorse and milk, I nursed my tiny human to, at last, an uneasy sleep.
I swore to myself, after Cry It Out, that I was never going to do that to my kid again.  She needed my help going to sleep?  Fine.  I no longer cared if I was doing it all wrong.  I no longer cared if I wasn’t going to get to sleep through the night until she hit middle school.  Screw you, parenting manuals.  I’m her mommy.    
At age two, Lizzy still needed me to stand by her crib rubbing her back until she fell asleep -- a position that really did wonders for my spine -- but both kids were, finally, sleeping through the night.  Normally, that is.  There were still nights when Lizzy had nightmares.  Screaming, shaking, terrible nightmares.  What horrors does someone dream about, when they aren’t yet old enough for preschool, when the scariest motion picture they’ve viewed involves Dora the Explorer, and when their greatest accomplishment to date has been successful potty usage?  Two-year-olds are not very good at describing their dreams.  Two-year-olds are not, in fact, very good at knowing the difference between dreams and reality. 
I had nightmares as a child, too.  Vivid, awful, sweating nightmares from which I had trouble waking myself.  In preschool, I dreamed again and again that there were monsters in the basement.  They were lurking behind the dollhouse.  They would come and get me, if I made even the tiniest sound.  They dined on children, they had a particular appetite for chubby little three-year-olds, and they were VERY HUNGRY.  To this day, my dreams are overly vivid.  I refuse to divulge any of them, lest Nurse Ratched takes it upon herself to medicate me – but at least I now know that they are only dreams.  Usually.
Ten o’clock at night. Eight years old. Wistfully, Lizzy sighed, “I wish you could sleep in my bed with me.”  She knows I’m not going to, so this isn’t manipulation.  It’s just… what she wishes – fervently and wholeheartedly.  One of the reasons that Lizzy adores camping trips is that, although she has to leave behind her familiar bed, she gets to sleep right next to us.  Or, in the confines of a small tent, sometimes partially on top of us, all friendly-like.  Welcome to the Grand Canyon!  Your kids will be sleeping on your head for the next five days!  Have a great hike! 
Everyone knows that lots of little kids will throw a fit, demand a million stories, beg for water, and any number of other antics to delay the final “good night”.  Popular wisdom also decrees that, duh, parents shouldn’t cater to this crap.  But where is the line between what is crap and what is genuine?  When is a kid demanding Mommy’s or Daddy’s attention in order to be a pain in the ass, and when is does a kid really need that attention?  My parents will undoubtedly admit that I was always more of a procrastinating, demanding whiner about bedtimes than Sarah was.  But was that because I was an intrinsically annoying little beast, or was it because Sarah always fell happily into nightmare-free sleep in ten seconds flat?
Over the years, Jay and I have given a lot of ground, in the name of sleep.  I never meant to be one of those uber-lactaters whose chunky toddlers stroll up and use full sentences to request a tasty warm beverage straight from the source.  Nonetheless, I nursed the twins at bedtime and naptime until they were two and a half, not only because they were really, really into it, but also because it was necessary for sleep.  When I finally weaned them, Molly grumbled a bit, but was assuaged with extra hugs and kisses.  Lizzy, however, needed her pacifier. 
Binky didn’t go away until we hit the kids’ fifth birthday, and Mommy and Daddy drew the line.  I didn’t want to relive my own humiliating confrontation with the dentist.  I didn’t want to have a kindergartener with a furtive collection of rubber nipples.  Even then, it was a miserable transition.  It wasn’t that Lizzy didn’t understand.  It wasn’t that she didn’t want -- and try -- to be a Big Girl.  But sleep did not come easily – to put it mildly.  Sometimes she lay in bed, compliant but miserable, for more than two hours before she finally conked out.  Could I blame her for calling me back every ten minutes to share, if only a little, in her lonely ordeal?
Things got better.  Sleep arrived faster.  Lizzy’s nightmares have also become less traumatic, over the years.  The going-to-bed routine has become, bit by tiny bit, easier.  Brush teeth.  Listen to a story.  And, for the past couple of years, read a story to yourself, too – but nothing too stressful.  Nothing too scary.  No Roald Dahl, and DEFINITELY no Harry Potter.  How about some Beverly Cleary?  Ribsy?  Henry and the Paper Route?  Good choice, good choice.   Snuggle down.  Close your eyes.  Winnie the Pooh is right here.  Sure, I’ll give you another kiss.
Yes, things improved.  But at age eight, there was another sleep transition to be weathered.  After five years of slumbering in a mini bunk bed designed to fit the four-foot-long crib mattresses, it was time for the twins to move to their Big Kid Loft.  Poor Molly, the taller twin, had been complaining of the cramped quarters for months.  She was fully four inches longer than her old mattress by the time Jay and I finally finished the new space and gave her a bigger one.  She moved into her new bed with joy and alacrity. 
The other twin… not so much.
Five months later, itching to get rid of the lumbering old bunks, Jay and I finally forced the issue.  The resulting drama was thick enough for an After School Special.
Four minutes after ten o’clock at night.  “Lizzy, we’re all here in the same cabin.  We love you, kiddo.  You’re safe.  You’re warm.  You don’t need to feel lonely.”
 “You get to have Daddy in your bed,” she sighed. 
“Well, but…” Parenting is full of these awesomely terrible and potentially creepy conversational segues.  How, I wondered, do I argue that Mommy sleeping with Daddy is different from Lizzy sleeping with – well, anyone?   
Or… is it? 
We humans are deeply, irrevocably, evolutionarily social creatures.  Lacking decent night vision – not to mention any sort of useful claws, canine teeth, sprinting potential, or armored hides -- we are pathetically vulnerable, especially at night.  Even the most stalwart of caveman warriors, armed with the most up-to-date flint spear, would have been jackal-meat on his own.  Not only did he need half a dozen other warriors at this back, but maybe he also needed the sharp-eared teenager to call the warning, the crone at the fire making sure it never went out, the grandfather gently guarding a lap full of toddlers… and perhaps even the wide-eyed little girl who just might be the first to spot some new danger. 
I’m not going to sleep with my children, because it doesn’t jive well with my 21st-century first-world lifestyle – but maybe I’m swimming against the tide.  Maybe I have to admit that we’re not really hard-wired to sleep alone. 
Lizzy was way ahead of me.  She informed me that when she’s grown up, and gets to choose everything for herself, she is going to ALWAYS have someone else in her bed.  Maybe several people.
“Well… gosh.  That sounds awfully… cozy, Lizzy.”  I’m all in favor of you making your own adult choices, even if they are, um, unusual.  “Will Winnie the Pooh still be there, too?”
“Yeah.  Of course he will.”
“I love you, kiddo.”  Really, you have no idea how much.  “Sleep tight.  Sleep tight.”
And she did.

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