Months ago, I started to write an essay about night parenting. It was one of those “we’re all in this together” and “in some ways we’re all just the same” type pieces. The crux of it was largely that regardless of your parenting style, if you are a parent, you have probably stared at nothingness with a crying child in the middle of the night. You have probably stolen a moment to look at the stars. You have probably felt lost and like there was no possible way you could do the Right Thing, and then hours later felt shocked and relieved that you made it through until the morning.
Somehow, we all survived the night.
“Yeah! You can whack those, with your plastic whale. It’s a new innovation. Called Whack-With-A-Whale.” My wife is saying to our infant, her eyes glazed over with a kind of sleepiness I don’t remember ever seeing in her, not even after our most intense nights of pre-parenthood partying.
I still believe in the piece. I still believe in the solidarity I now feel with other parents of very young children when I run into them at the ice-cream parlor and I say “how are you?” and they say “uh, tired” and then they laugh and stare vaguely off into the distance. I know them in those moments. Those moments are important.
But also everything has changed.
Two nights ago, we started sleep training.
“Yeah! You could try whacking it with different plastic things. I see where you’re going with this.”
It’s something I never really thought I would do, sleep training. It’s a complicated issue, and the version we are doing is approximately the most gentle option we could find (aside from the laughable “just do whatever you usually do to get the baby to sleep, but do it a little bit less every night!” option, which, if it worked at all, no one would ever google “baby sleep” at all, I’m sure), but I had naively assumed that we would fall in a wholly different camp. What camp exactly, we were supposed to be in, is unclear to me today, because I have hardly slept and my child is hitting two plastic toys together as hard as he possibly can. It’s just possible that I’m wishy-washy. Three months ago, I was certain that I would never ever try any version of sleep training. Two nights ago, I was certain that I would never be able to write about the experience.
Not this, I thought, I could never write about this. It’s far too raw, far too emotional, it’s like trying to write a poem about your leg as someone cuts it off.
I wanted to write about how the loneliness of the night brings us together. I wanted to write about the miracle that the sunrise is. I wanted to write about the things that we share, regardless o the many things that divide our families.
But honestly, after two nights of sleep training, that feels like bullshit. Everything feels so specific. Each pain is an individual pain. Each joy is specific to my family. Sure, in spirit there are those similarities. Doubtless other parents have also thought they had everything perfectly planned out, and then stood next to the crib with their partner thinking “we have nothing planned out, we have never planned anything, what is a plan, nothing exists, what is life, maybe we should give up.” But that’s not something I can really think about now. All I can feel is the bizarre combination of being so proud of my son and so sad for him (and myself). All I can think about are the tiny specifics of our little family.
They way he likes to sit on as many toys at once as possible, like a baby dragon.
The way my wife knows how much it annoys me when she calls the toy keyboard a piano, and how sweetly she corrects herself.
The individual sound of our individual kettle whistling to tell us that it is time to make the coffee.
We have the Rad Dad book, which is a collection of essays from the Rad Dad zine, over the course of it’s existence. Despite the fact that neither of us — my wife and I — identify as a “dad,” it is definitely one of my favorite parenting books. And in it there is this essay that starts with night weaning. Let me see if I can find it.
“Yeah you can whack me with that toy if you need to. I’m not here to stop you. Well I’m here to stop you from lots of things, actually, but that’s not one of them.”
Here it is. It’s called Inside vs. Outside, and it’s by Jeremy Adam Smith. I read this essay once while we were planning to get pregnant, once while our child was a newborn, and now I supposed I am holding the book in my hand, likely about to read it for a third time. It has been inspirational to me. Here is the quote, about why the author and his partner were still choosing to co-sleep with their baby at 21 months.
Why keep him in the bedroom at all? Why Not just put him in a crib and close the door?
Because we don’t want to. We like having him in bed with us. He’ll get his own room someday. There’s no rush. In the meantime, however, we don’t want him pawing at Olli’s breasts every hour on the hour from midnight till six a.m.
I was inspired by that. I was inspired by the bravery of parents simply saying “hey, we like co-sleeping, so shut up” rather than justifying their choice with a bunch of theory about why it was best and what it was doing and which expert agreed with them. Reading that allowed me to admit that waking up next to my son for the past three months was a joy — an absolute joy — and that part of the reason I was doing it could simply be “I like this.”
However, in my excitement about that bravery and honesty, I think I missed the point. And this is maybe what I’ve been trying to get to, nursing this cold cup of milky coffee, all morning. This is the space between those universal experiences of parenting (parenting is hard, children are adorable, making decisions about their well being is agonizing) and those intensely personal specifics (my wife and I are homosexuals, I breastfeed on demand, we practice baby led weaning, and as of this week, sleep training).
I admired Jeremy Adam Smith for saying simply that he liked co-sleeping with his son. But somehow I missed the point, and used that admiration to make myself try to like co-sleeping for longer than I did. At some point, the third time I woke up to the baby laughing and pulling my hair as hard as he possibly could, I had to turn to my wife and show a little bravery myself. I had to admit that, despite the joy of cuddling with a little baby who loved me, it wasn’t working anymore, and the good part was over.
“Maybe we could read a story. You wait here while Ma gets a book.”
Almost no experience is universal, and there are enough places on the internet trying to help you tap into the supposed universal experience of parenting. But maybe we can be kind to each other about our specifics (within reason), and hold each other up. Please be gentle with me this week. I am a tender wreck, a crumbling mother trying desperately to do the best thing she can for her child, and hoping that that one word — trying — will make all the difference.