From now on I’m calling The Prince, ‘B’. It was just getting annoying.
Minky was sick; no, I’m not talking about sick in terms of Minky’s various depravities that we’re all painfully aware of ; I’m just talking about a bad summer cold. And am I inDIGnant! This doesn't happen to ME! It takes more than mere germs to fell the persevering Minky...but I was in a weakened state. Well over a year ago M launched a battle campain against his poor mother that I call the Nurse of Attrition. Night after night he chips away at my sleep and my sanity. His strategy is thus; in bed by 8:30, then wakes up anywhere from 1 to 4 times after that, and starts his day at 6:15 a.m. In between, it’s booby, booby, booby.
I used to think this was him and me bonding. These days… not so much.
Little H, on the other hand, is not one to bite the boob that feeds. She's reliably down before 7, sleeps till 6, and gets up once in between, if she can be bothered; “She could give a shit,” my mother would have said.
Meanwhile, I myself can't go to bed before midnight. I just can’t. I can fall asleep drooling on the carpet in front of ‘Sex And The City’ reruns no problem, but once I shlep my fat ass into the actual bed, I’m wide awake. What am I doing till that time of night? Oh... this, probably. Emailing. Watching various seasons of 'The West Wing' and 'ER' with B. Suffice to say, what I'm doing is having 2 or so hours out of 24 that don't involve the babies; some selfish bitch, me, hah?
Nightly, then, about half an hour after I finally drift off, I hear the first stirrings of restless M, and then I see the shadow of his messy, rectangular head, and my heart starts to race, ‘cause here it comes-
“Mom-EEEEEEEEEE!” he whines, loud, and it goes through my skull like screeching tires, my shoulders bunching up under my ears in irritation. B goes near him and gets a disgusted, “NO! MOMMEEE!” and a slap for his trouble.
“Mommy, booby…” M weeps, changing tactics, so I get up, and hoist him out of the crib, into the nursing chair, he has a boob, falls back to sleep, and I put him back into the crib, and go back to bed. Fair enough.
Then GLINK, GLINK go my eyelids as I lay there awake. 20 minutes pass. No sign of sleep. Now it’s 1-ish. GLINK, GLINK. In my mind I start itemizing the refrigerator contents… one wilty romaine, half a box of baby spinach leaves, a salvageable red cabbage, 2 bags of baby carrots…and my eyes start to close….
Rustle, rustle, “Eeenh,” mutters M, “race car…” and he fidgets, then kicks…
“WHERE’S MY FUCKING BINKY?”
I could have sworn that’s what he said.
I leap over B, irate; WHY is M awake? He CAN’T be hungry! “Sh! SH! SH!” I hiss at M as I fish in the crib for the damn binky, find it, and tuck it into his face. But that won't do.
"Nooo...BOO-bee," he whimpers, so I haul him out of the crib again. “Come on,” I stage whisper, half-hoping B will wake up and suffer with me. I plunk myself and M down into the nursing chair, M across my lap, his long, Princely limbs folding all over themselves, bink pulsing in his mouth, and I flop out a boob, but he’s not interested; he’s asleep, and I've been bink-winked.
I dump him back in the crib. Fine, I think, fuck it. I unfurl my big quilt onto the floor, grab the pukey-smelling nursing pillow, and lay down in the middle of the room. Why keep climbing back and forth over poor B? It’s almost 2 now. She’s due, Little H, she’s been down for 7 hours, and if she wants to keep those ham-hocks happening she’s gonna need a Booby-shake. I lay there, GLINK, GLINK, look up at the digital clock, 2:20;
Scramble up off the floor, scoop her out of the minicrib, jostle her into position on the nursing pillow and stuff her mouth full of nipple; she nurses for exactly 5 minutes, and is back to sleep, the efficient little darling.
Okay, I mutter, okay. Was that out loud? Am I alive? Okay. It’s a quarter to 3. That’s not so bad, right? I’ll just lay down here on the floor again rather than push and drag what seems at this time of night to be all 8 feet of B over to one side of the bed or the other, because by now, he’s set up camp twisted into the blankets and smack in the middle, arms and legs everywhere, not to mention nose and hair. Let him have the bed, the poor old dude, he works hard. That big jerk. I could kill him. I’m here on the floor pretending my face makes cartoon noises and he’s been blissfully asleep for 4 precious hours. The bastard. He’s obviously trying to gaslight me. He wants me to go insane so he can have me committed and run off with our beautiful children and someone willowy with her own paycheck. Well, if I was on the old episodes of ER, I’d be Carol’s best friend from childhood, and I’d be a paramedic, and I’d have my own subplot, and I’d date Carter for a while, but he’d turn out to be too young and optimistic for me, and I’d turn to Dr. Green one evening in Doc McGoo’s over a beer, we’d have a laugh about something, and then a wonderful affair that turns out too good to be true, and I’d be killed horribly when one stormy night on the way to rescue a child pinned under an airplane, my rig flips over into a ditch! And THEN my husband, I mean my real-life husband, B, would finally realize how wonderful I am and all my books and stories would be published posthumously and that would show EVERYBODY!
When suddenly, I’m snoring! Hooray, I’m snoring! I hear myself snore! This must mean I’m asleep! Except that I’m not asleep, I’m awake! Which is how I heard myself snore!
“BOOOOBEEEEE!” M howls into the night.
“boobee,” he reiterates, pitifully… none of us really understand his suffering.
I stand up. I stumble. I grab him. We’re back in the chair. He nurses. He falls asleep. I toss him in the crib. It’s 4:16 or some fucking time. I give up. I go out to the living room. I eat a bowl of cereal and watch the super-early news. I lay on the couch. I hate our couch. I start to doze off. I hear the bedroom door open, then B’s feet, heavy, because he’s carrying M.
“Minky?” he whispers carefully.
“He’s not,” I mutter.
“He is,” he says. “If you just give me one more hour, I’ll….”
“NOPE,” I say, “No hour. I’m sorry. No,” and I storm off to bed, because it’s after 5 a.m., and I’m just shit out of magnanimousness.
And that is a typical night at Minky’s, and Mother of Christ, am I tired.
I am not often given to wondering if I’m doing it wrong. Usually, if I wonder anything, it’s why somebody else is doing it wrong. But in the case of month after month beyond month of sleepless nights, I’m beginning to consider the possibility that I fucked up but good.
M has always gone to bed, as in lain down for the night, beautifully, because I nurse him to sleep. It works, so why mess with it? Many moms told me not to do this. “They have to learn to put themselves to sleep,” is what a lot of people, A LOT, say. Not until Little H arrived did I know what this means. But when M was really tiny, I thought it was a bunch of BS, and in many ways, still do.
First of all, why did he have to learn to fall asleep by himself? Was he getting his own apartment? And how exactly, if nobody showed him, or helped him, fall asleep, was he going to learn it at all? Because babies usually didn’t get the memo, you know? And then there was all this sadistic crap under discussion about leaving the baby in bed by itself, the really obscenely inhuman “CIO”, or Cry It Out, big-finger-quotes-gesture “method”, or to my understanding, abuse system, of purportedly teaching the baby to go to sleep alone.
Yea; I’m going to leave the person I love most in the whole world, who weighs like 15 helpless pounds, and who happens, in the bargain, to think I’m God, all alone, in the dark, to cry himself sick, thereby learning, if he doesn’t choke or vomit or die in the process, that I don’t give a shit about him. Yup, that’s a good idea. That’s just what I’m going to do.
It kind of reminds me of my mother’s old friend Elaine, who 36 years ago said, “I heard that if you just throw the baby into the pool, they’ll automatically swim.”
“Tell you what,” said my mother. “You throw yours in, and if it works, I’ll throw in mine.”
Elaine was not, in fact, willing to try. But in the case of sleep, a great many moms seemed to be insisting that not only did they try, but that it worked. So I had to wonder; did it work? Or were they lying?
Listen, I really get it, I do, that there are babies out there who will not go to sleep; I heard once of a colicky baby who began her nightly screaming shortly after midnight and continued till sunrise, for 2 months straight, and I think those parents deserve a highway named after them or something; I'd have gone Kool-aide by the end of the first week. I'm not talking about truly unusually uncomfortable babies. I'm talking about regular babies, and our expectations of them and for ourselves.
In a birthing preparation class while pregnant with M at Realbirth in Manhattan, educator Hallie Grieder frequently said, "Having a baby means things aren't going 'back to normal.' Remember, folks, this is 'the new normal.'"
Nobody gets that for a long time, it seems. It's hard enough for new moms to adjust to so little sleep, and with the added pressure of everyone from our families to perfect strangers asking the same question over and over, it's practically impossible, without feeling like a total failure...an exhausted failure.
My mommy-pal Danielle, mother of Anya, who’s almost 2, and president and publisher of CelebrityBabyBlog.com, once wrote to a brand new mom on an e-chat, “If anybody asks if your baby sleeps through the night, just lie and say yes; because that question is code for, ‘Are you a good parent?’ and if your baby doesn’t sleep through, then you’re not.”
And everyone else on the chat with slightly older babies, who had, in other words, some experience, concurred. The e-chat belonged to a breastfeeding organization (guess which one) which insisted that nursing to sleep was the only humane way to get a baby down for the night, and that nursing it throughout the night, as frequently as the baby requested, was the reasonable extension. While I myself had no need to insist about what other moms should do (I make myself laugh that I even have the balls to write that; okay, how about, I try really hard not to be too jugemental,) I felt then and maintain that there are a variety of moral, emotional, and safety related problems with leaving a crying baby alone. But when I was brand new at this, it was a relief that at least somebody, in fact a whole bunch of people, thought I was, well, doing it right.
I wanted validation, and maybe even an excuse to go on, because the central issue for me, beyond the right way or not, and beyond even that nursing to sleep worked, was that I liked it. I still do. To sit in a comfy chair, in a safe, peaceful, twilight room, holding one’s baby against one’s naked skin, to smell their bath-time freshness, to watch their blissful face, to listen to their grateful suckle, and to just be, to just be together, to just sit there and love and nourish one’s baby…is there any other reason to have the baby to begin with? Isn’t this moment the dream come to life?
What’s not to like?
Anyway it wasn’t as though I had anywhere else to be. In fact, I didn’t go anywhere at night till M was about 17 months old and I flew off to Rochester one weekend to visit The Elegant and Productive Nancy, who is one of my 3 self-adopted sisters and who is also probably the most prolific artist I know personally. I was about 6 months pregnant and my milk supply had dropped considerably, so whatever nursing M was doing was almost purely recreational or ritual, and B and I hoped that with an excess of exercise and a big dinner and a long bath, he would be able to get M down for the night without me for just one weekend, and he was.
Had I consulted my crystal ball (I must clean out the closets and find that thing,) I might have night-weaned the kid right then and there. But I didn’t, so I didn’t. Besideswich, I also thought at that point that given his age, the low supply, and his changing role from baby to Big Brother, M would soon see fit to night-wean, or totally wean, himself. I just wasn’t worried about it.
All right, I was worried about it.
I wasn’t worried that M would not ween, I was worried that he would.
In my heart, in the soul of my body, in the center of my life-force, I nurse my babies. I cannot bear the thought that one day they will stop. I love to nurse them. And they love to nurse.
Nevertheless, I’m exhausted. It’s one thing to nurse a baby through the night for a year, or even two. And it’s not such a big deal to go on doing it, as I did, through pregnancy, as long as you’re eating right (translation - a lot) and have basically no other responsibilities. But it’s another thing to nurse a big, fully verbal, probably somewhat spoiled, little boy, 3 or 4 times over the course of just 6 hours or so, in the depths of night, when he’s fully capable, as Miranda on “Sex And The City” once said, “of chewing steak,” even if his infant sister is taking is going very easy on the night nursing herself and even if, yup, you have pretty much no other responsibilities. It’s a thing, in fact, that can maybe make a person sick; not because it's unhealthy, but just because it makes a person...
And so the gland thingies under my jaw that my mom would always touch to see if I was faking had been about the size and texture of walnuts for over a week. I had a headache every day. My nose was runny, my eyes itched, my joints hurt, and I basically felt like crap, but I ignored it; after all, I was really tired, right? But by Wednesday, I was running out of steam. And Saturday after noon, I crashed.
I had taken M and Little H and The Dog to the playground so B could have a nap (let’s not compare notes on who slept how many hours this week just now, shall we? Someone’s liable to get stabbed.) We ended up staying about 3 hours. When we got back I was hot and sweaty…but B was making waffles! From a good mix this time! So I sat down to tuck in, and half way through, the room started spinning. I was more than tired. I was about to pass out. I even put down my fork.
Meanwhile, teething Little H just couldn’t get into her nap, and the third time I went in to settle her, I actually stumbled through the doorway, and found her crying her big blue buggies out, so I gathered her up like a bunch of laundry and set her at B’s feet.
“Good luck,” I said, and went to bed.
Four hours later, they were in the exact same position in which I had left them, sitting on the couch watching old episodes of The Muppet Show, only they claimed to have been, in between times, on a walk, to a park, and eating ice cream; in fact Little H was sitting primly on The Prince’s lap having some yogurt just then, the no-dairy-till-one-year-old rule long since discarded in my cheese-inhaling-household and incidentally aren’t formulas (not that ONE DROP of the stuff has ever passed my children’s lips) based on the genetic structure of cow’s milk so who’s kiddin’ who? Anyway B took care of all of us for the rest of the weekend and by Sunday night I was somewhat on the mend.
Lucky for Minky it all happened when B was home; if I’d collapsed like that early in the work week we’d have been screwed. I am quite sure it was all due to nothing other than the sad fact that I haven’t had more than 3 consecutive hours of sleep, except for Saturday afternoon’s nap, and my weekend visiting Nan, in over two years. I can’t go on like this.
All right I’ll go on.
I’m gonna try the Dr. Jay Gordon night-weening plan..soon. I don't know when. But Dr. G’s is the only one of all the sleep adjustment plans out there that’s remotely relevant for us, because he designed it for use with babies who sleep in a “family bed,” or it’s evil cousin, the crib-3-feet-away. You see, the real problem here is not just habitual, my friends, it’s structural; we all sleep in the same room. That’s how we ended up in this position.
We live in a one-bedroom apartment because that’s how we survive on one income; and when everybody sleeps in the same room, you give a loud baby anything that will shut him up at 2, and 3, and 4 a.m.. Here at Chez Mink, it’s the boob. I didn’t start out wanting to get up 5 times a night, I started out wanting to take good care of my baby. I read, I listened to other moms, and B and I talked a lot. Nursing, actually, is the foundation, the guiding principal, of all my parenting, and for all the mistakes I may make, for all the late-night expletive hurling that I do about the night nursing, the truth is that I’m not sure either M or I are ready to stop.
Did I, in fact, fuck up? Did I have another choice? The world will never know.
Meanwhile, Little H has learned how to fall asleep by herself, and I helped. In the beginning I just let her pass out wherever she was, which was mostly on the couch or in our bed, and at the end of the night, one of us would crawl in with her. We'd trade pairs through the night according to boobular need. Eventually, I started to transfer her into the minicrib. And when she was 3 months old, I remembered that I started putting M down formally to sleep at 6 p.m. when I noticed that she started getting really cranky at that same time. I would give her a bath, and a final boob, but M would be bouncing around in the living room, and I couldn’t just sit there in the nursing chair as long as I had in the old days of one baby. So as soon as she stopped nursing, I would put her in the minicrib, still awake but drowsy, and go out to the living room with M, and listen for her. If she cried, I ran in and gave her a binky, and then went back to M. If she cried again, I ran back in again and re-binked her. If she cried again, I gave her another few slurps, and put her back in the crib, awake, because I had to. And in a few more minutes she’d be asleep, and that is how we do it now.
I didn’t leave her alone to cry. I will never do that. And frankly, I don’t think you should, either.
What I’m saying is, I didn’t use a system. I didn’t count minutes, I didn’t follow a series of steps that anyone else delineated; I met the babys' needs. That’s my job as the mom. And babies are pretty nice, they will usually tell you what they want, and it’s almost always one or two of just a few different things. Except, of course, when it's not, and I don't have experience with that, and I'm very fortunate.
I’m not saying I’ve got this beat; there are always curve balls. She could change! Growing children will do that! The very thing that's wrong with books and systems and experts is that there is not, in fact, one kind of baby, one way of doing things, one answer.
(Except don’t give the baby Pepsi and Doritos for dinner. And don’t leave it alone to cry. Yes, this is Minky insisting on how other mothers should do things.)
I just think that change is incremental, and suddenly the babies grow up. We have to listen closely, look closely, and take it moment to moment. Sure, I may try Dr. Gordon, but then again I may not (I guess I'll sleep on it.) Oh who am I kidding. This is about M and me bonding. This moment with M, and Little H, too, is all there is. New York could blow up tomorrow, in fact it often does that. If my family survives the unknown of the next ten minutes, ten years, holding M at my breast in the night will be a memory, one that I’ll be lucky, very lucky, to have.