night frights
25 October 1999
From the day Damian was born, Dan has rocked him to sleep most nights. Well, the actual day he was born, Dan showed him the green flowered curtains in the hospital room while I slept an hour or so. He zoned out our newborn baby with stimulation, overwhelmed the brand new optic nerves. Then Damian curled up next to me in the narrow hospital bed and slept snuggled into my armpit like the fetus he’d been mere hours earlier.

But the rocking chair has been our best friend since we got home from the hospital. Sometimes he conks out nursing but most nights he climbs over his books to me, nurses his fill and lets Daddy take him away into his room where the rocking chair awaits.

Dan settles into the mahogany Art Nouveau chair with its old fashioned peach upholstery and sings, pats and rocks. Damian settles into his shoulder, then twists around, facing front, then twists again, curling sideways in his father’s arms. And adds commentary: "kitty" and "gegee" (dog) when the songs include cats and dogs. And burbles and whimpers and twitches and murmurs and finally -- finally -- settles into deep dreaming. And sleeps for three or six hours, until he wakes and I bring him into bed to snuggle against me like the day he was born.

Until last Saturday night. When Dan picked him up, Damian cried. Dan settled into the rocking chair, crooning and softly patting his son’s back. And Damian cried.

For the first time ever, Damian wouldn’t let his father ease him into sleep. Only me. And not by nursing, either. We tried that. He nursed, sure, but then was done and not asleep and no happier to be with Daddy.

The immediate catalyst for his mommy-fixation must have been my absence for the evening, but I think Dan working every day this past month plays a part too. They have father-son time every evening and Damian lights up and utters little happy shrieks when he sees Dan come home but I think he’s started feeling the distance in some subtle ways.

And one not so subtle way.

Time for me to try the rock and sing. But he wiggled and wriggled and repositioned himself ten times in five seconds and my shoulder blade zinged with sharp muscle pain and he was nowhere near sleep and I felt like I was about to scream. I don’t know how Dan does it. Damian starts to squirm and I want to impale myself on a Lego tower.

I’ve only twice before had to get Damian to sleep without Dan. When Damian was a mere three weeks old, Dan flew to New York for his sister’s funeral. That was tough all around. For the obvious reasons, but also because I got almost no sleep the entire three days. I just held my breath a lot and hoped and waited it out. And came
thisclose to dissolving in a puddle of tears.

I take that back. I did dissolve in a puddle of tears.

The last night, Dan’s flight was supposed to get in by nine, thank god I wouldn’t have to spend the night alone, a neophyte mom still recovering from major surgery and overwhelmed by suddenly being completely responsible for this tiny helpless being. But his flight was delayed. An hour, then another hour, then another. I called the airline, heard the "please hold while we connect you to an operator for information on this flight" message, closed my eyes waiting for the bad news. After the first time, I knew it only meant more delays not... well... you know. But that was hard enough.

I just waited Damian out. He nursed himself to sleep at, maybe 1:30 a.m.? Oh thank god. Lay down myself next to him. Pulled off the bottle around my neck, put it in the bowl of ice next to the bed, turned off the light.

Wait a second, back up here a moment. Bottle? Bowl of ice? What gives? Nothing about that in the baby books.

You see, I had -- Damian and I had -- problems getting the whole nursing thing happening. He was dehydrated and jaundiced at his three day checkup. It’s a long story unto itself, but the upshot was, I had this bottle of formula I wore around my neck like an avant-garde new-mom necklace, with tubes extending out over my breasts and taped to my nipples. So every suck Damian took at my breast gave him my milk and formula. It trained him to suck properly and trained my body to make more milk. And gave him enough calories in the meantime. I hate formula but it sure does have its uses.

Back to that night. It took a while for the tension to leave my body. I finally drifted off to sleep at 2 a.m.

2:01 a.m. Damian woke up. Hungry cry. Oh shit. Fumbling for the bottle in the dark, I knocked the bowl over, melting ice splashed onto the floor. Onto live wires on the floor. Do I turn on the light? Will that cause a fire? A short? Damian was crying now in earnest, starving, not understanding why nothing was happening. I turned on the light.

Whew. House still standing.

I twisted the cap on, jammed the bottle into place. He latched on. Quiet reigned. I tried to lean over the side of the bed, sneak a peek at the scary mess below. But Damian got dislodged and made his displeasure known. So there I saw, anxious but immobilized.

Nursing done, time for a diaper change. Wade through the water, hope I don’t electrocute myself stepping in the wrong place, head into the nursery.

Just as I was about to set Damian down on the changing table, he barfed. Stinky cheesy formula dripping all the way down my back. Lovely.

I shrugged off my bathrobe. Sat down to change him, opened up the diaper, reached for a new one -- and exposed in the cool night air -- he peed -- a stream of urine like a water pistol shooting straight up -- aimed right at my healing c-section scar.

I was wet back and front. Not to mention the soaking wet floor.

That’s when I started crying.

Dan didn’t get home until four a.m. We held each other close the rest of the night, that terribly early morning. Damian finally -- blessedly --asleep swaddled tight like a human burrito in our bed.

Fast forward to April of this year. Dan was cutting a TV pilot and working seven day weeks, fourteen hour days. I was a single parent for a month. We did well, Damian and I -- I made up silly games and read a lot of tot books, went for long walks and cooked very easy meals -- and most nights Dan got home by eleven, which in this house is early enough to put the baby to bed. I gave Damian his bath and read to him but never had to crack the mystery of how a wriggling bundle of energy turns into a somnolent heavy mass of child.

Until the night Dan had to work until after midnight. I dreaded the approaching moment of truth, put it off as long as possible. Damian stayed in the tub until his whole body was wrinkled and pruney, we read his entire collection of books twice through and I would have gone for a third go-round if I thought he’d sit for it. I sat perfectly still while he nursed, willing him to sleep. Praying he’d pass out and I’d never have to try and fail.

I don’t know what I thought, that if I did it wrong, Damian would not ever sleep?

I felt the same way last Saturday night. Terrified. Almost panicked. I think it has everything to do with that disaster of a weekend when he was a newborn. As if somehow any attempt I make will inevitably end in flood and tears.

Ridiculous on the face of it. I put this kid down for a nap every single day. I spend hours with him. I’m the center of his world. He’s long past spitting up and he hasn’t peed on me in months.

So what’s the fear?

I think it’s a feeling that I’m faking it, that I’m not a real mommy. Oh sure, I can play with Damian, comfort him and prevent him from divebombing the lawnmower, but when push comes to shove I won’t have it in me. Some major test of parenting will show me for the fraud I am. And because of that long ago weekend, my perverse brain has seized on bedtime as the ultimate test.

I somehow thought I had to get Damian to sleep the way Dan does, rocking for a half hour or an hour until the slithering and sliding stills and Damian lets himself fall into slumber. But I couldn’t.

I walked into the study with a wide awake Damian in my arms: "I can’t do this!" But Damian wouldn’t let me transfer him to his father, he clung to me like I was his lifeboat and Dan was the Titanic.

So I gave up. "If you’re going to resist sleep, kid, I won’t try." I put him in the crib. He popped up onto his feet, totally jazzed. Raced from railing to railing, started tossing blankets out. His stuffed fish sailed out of the crib next, landing on the soft pile of linens. He loves his crib, it’s a treat to get to play in there. (Weird kid, I know.) He was having a grand old time.

Same as that night back in April. I tried to rock/nurse Damian to sleep but it didn’t work. So with a helpless shrug, I set him on the bed and gave him toys. Watched and wondered at his capacity for wakeful play when I was so tired. And when his eyes finally drooped and he yawned, the rest was easy.

That’s what happened last Saturday night. After twenty minutes in an increasingly empty crib, Damian reached his arms up. I plucked him out, he snuggled into my shoulder. I rocked him. Nursed him. He drifted and dreamed, and I hoisted him to my shoulder where he finally stilled and slept.

Thank god.

Maybe I’m not such a hopeless mom after all. Maybe there really aren’t any secrets, it’s just a matter of finding the right method for any situation -- a method that works for you and your child. It’s more fluid than our pre-parenting imaginations ever allow for.

I did it again Sunday night, the same ritual (or non-ritual?) worked again. I’ve broken through the sleep barrier. But I missed my quiet alone time while Dan rocked Damian. And Dan missed his intimate time in the dark with an ever-sleepier, ever-cuddlier Damian.

Monday night we moved the rocking chair into the bedroom. Damian gave it a few curious sidelong glances. When Dan gathered Damian into his arms, Damian protested immediately, but when Dan sat down in the chair in the same room, Damian quieted, bewitched by the novelty and comforted by my presence.

He let Dan rock him for a song but then started to fuss and growl and give me longing looks. When he got what he wanted (a spot on my lap and a soothing nurse), he stayed put nursing and nursing until he put himself to sleep.

And that’s how it was for four nights. Damian had a cursory rocking with Daddy but still found a way to have my arms and my lap for his final descent into slumber. One night he was tired enough and trusting enough to fall asleep in Dan’s arms. Since then, though, he’s nursed himself to sleep sans rocking. He eyes the rocking chair: "uh oh, if I don’t fall asleep now, I’ll be rocked!" and diligently nurses until his eyes blink, blink again, and shut. His breathing evens out, and he finally drops away, completely relaxed on the nursing pillow. Dan gathers his son into his arms and carries him off to the crib for the first part of the night.

I have faith that things will get back on track. Maybe this is a way station in his path toward learning to fall asleep on his own. More likely it's just acute separation anxiety. It supposedly peaks at eighteen months, a week and a half from now.

For now we make do, acknowledging his needs and finding ways to ease him back into the routine. Much like with his bath fears, which he’s completely past now. I guess that’s our parenting style. I haven’t seen it anywhere in the baby books but it seems to work for us. And him, which is the only part that matters.

But it feels remarkably good to know I too can rock him to sleep if necessary. Another mystery of parenting vanquished.

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