In Praise of Sleep

I am not at Lake Hotel today. Today I am at home, sleep training.

Being a parent means getting real with my own expectations of myself, owning up to the discrepancies between who I think I am, and who I am. In my mind’s idealized eye, I am a crunchy queer granola mother with deep commitments to sustainability; to health; and to abolishing the status quo with my dietary, consumer, and lifestyle choices.

In real life, I am an exhausted mother just barely hanging on by a thread. I use disposable diapers. I sometimes use formula; sometimes shop at Wal-Mart. I let the baby have a pacifier. I eat fish and poultry. I sometimes dress my daughter in non-gender neutral clothing (and way too often catch myself telling her she looks “pretty”). Once in a great while I throw away a peanut butter or spaghetti sauce jar that I am too overwhelmed to wash out. And now, I can add sleep training to my list.

Last night was Night #1.

Last night, as I laid awake, I had intended to write a piece about “Mom Guilt.” I’d been writing this piece in my head for a while because I can’t get over how guilty I feel about so many of my mom-choices. I didn’t think I would feel this way. I try to be vibrant and shameless above all things, but when it comes to parenting, I sometimes second-guess and shame myself into frenzy and despair. (See above list of shortcomings, and there are a lot more where those came from.)

I figured letting the baby cry-it-out would be just the thing to push me over the edge. Then I could wake up, write something insightful and poetic, and feel better. But the thing is: I don’t feel guilty. Not about this. Not yet anyway.

Bedtime had become more and more of a hassle (if you’ve been reading along, you know some of this), and I was becoming more and more upset by it. Two nights ago, two hours into “bedtime” (after trying everything we could think of) Rafal insisted that we lay her in bed between us and let her cry. That was fucking awful. But to my utter surprise, she fell asleep after 15 minutes.

OK, I conceded. Let’s give sleep training a try. Many, many people—including the pediatrician—have encouraged me to stop bitching and try this. She is almost 7 months old. The apartment adjacent to our bedroom is recently vacant. If there were ever a right time, I guess it’s now.

We share a room with Lydia, so in preparation for the big “cry-it-out” night, I hung some curtains between her crib and our bed and downloaded an album called “Help Your Baby Sleep Through the Night,” with white noise and nature sounds. Then we did our usual bedtime ritual (bath w/ mama, darkened room w/ soft lighting, jammies, bottle, singing Me & Bobby McGee while rocking in chair). This time I added the white noise, closed the crib curtains, and said “Goodnight Lydia. I love you.” After five minutes of crying, Tata went in to pat her and tell her we loved her again (although, this actually seemed to make her more upset). After another 15 minutes, she was asleep.

She slept for 6 hours and 15 minutes straight.

She hadn’t slept that long in over 12 weeks. (I know this because yesterday marked exactly 12 weeks in Yellowstone, and the last time she slept 6+ hours was in a hotel room in Scottsbluff, Nebraska. I remember it well.)

I nursed her and put her back in her crib. She cried for a minute or two and fell back to sleep. She woke up one other time, and I did not go to her. She cried for about 10 minutes before falling asleep again. We started our morning at 7:30am, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, and more rested than either of us had been in months.

It’s hard to feel guilty. I feel too good.

I feel so good that I decided to include naps in this experiment (which was not the original plan). So rather than packing up and heading to Lake Hotel (like most Mondays), I decided to stay home and see this thing through.

She is currently napping in her crib by herself, and I am drinking coffee and writing. This has never happened before. It is way too soon to call this project a success, but damn if it doesn’t feel successful today. [Update: Nap #1–she cried for 12 minutes and then slept for an hour and a half. Nap #2–she cried for 8 minutes and slept for almost two hours.]

Maybe tonight will be harder. Maybe the worst is yet to come. But truthfully, none of that matters right now. Right now I have that free hour I sobbed for. Right now, that is plenty.

This is a lot like how I felt when I finally broke down and gave her formula. Breastfeeding was so hard for us for so long; pumping was a joke; and I somehow needed to throw a backyard wedding, graduate, and move. I had help with the baby during those hectic weeks, but what good was that if she needed to eat every hour and I was the only person who could feed her?

So we gave her some formula, got over that hump, and made it to Wyoming. Breastfeeding finally clicked for us (as so many people reassured me that it would), and I phased most of the formula out. About a month ago, I started giving her a 4 oz. bottle in the evening, and I do think it helps her sleep.

Lydia and I have gotten great at nursing. We can do it anywhere: baby wearing, over the edge of her car seat in a moving vehicle, lying down in bed. We both enjoy it, and I don’t see us stopping any time soon. Honestly, I don’t know if we would have gotten to this point if I hadn’t supplemented during those low, desperate moments.

I am not perfect, but I am still crunchy and I am still queer.

I make my own baby food (though not always). I feed my family healthy food, with as much organic produce as I can. 99.9% of the time, I recycle. I still don’t shave my pits and work the post office in unabashed tank tops. I still dress weird and let my freak flag fly. Even when I let it slip that my baby daughter is pretty, I always follow it up with the fact that she’s smart and funny and strong.

So today’s parenting lesson is this: I will probably always fail to live up to my own expectations. I have to accept my imperfections; keep trying in the face of my known imperfections; love myself not despite, but in light of my imperfections. This is what I have to do because this is what I need to teach Lydia.

Today this is easy, because the bad mean uncool thing I did actually worked. And I slept. And I feel good. But some days I do things that don’t turn out so well. Some days I feel downright awful. But I have to find love for myself on those days too.

Many years ago, my friend Nathan told me that children teach you much more than you teach them. “You’ve got this perfect little Buddha in front of you. And they will show you all your shit.”

Dear Lydia, I’m ready. I want to love myself in the face of every flaw you can illuminate. I will do this for you, for Tata, and for me. Because this is what it takes to be a parent, a woman, a human. And I’m sorry I had to let you cry, but thank you so much for letting me sleep.

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