Eric? Eric was born wanting to sleep. We fed and slept regularly from the first week of his life, and he would get up at night like clockwork. At three months exactly, he went down in his crib and slept through the night. He worked quickly through fussing before naps and contentedly played in his crib until I came in to get him after any sleep. His presence inspired a predictable bedtime in this house (8:00 PM), partly out of necessity. Even now, if he finds himself needing a nap, he will take himself upstairs, stretch out on his bed, and pass out. Eric, I have often said, is my champion sleeper. I haven’t really had to do a single thing. If he “cried it out” at all, it was so relatively mild that it barely registered as the traumatic event that can sometimes be for parents.

Eric loves his sleep, his bed, his room, and his night routine.

Katie, my beloved firstborn, has been the opposite. She resists sleep in much the same way I do, and has personality traits that make her more prone to worry, dependence, and in need of soothing. As a new mom, I had zero clue about the ways in which children sleep. I made decisions with her as a newborn that have rippled throughout the past six years of her life, decisions that were well-intentioned and based on what I thought was best for her and all the rest of us.

It takes some guts, it turns out, to share this parenting story. When it comes to parenting, I often think of one of my favorite Maya Angelou quotes: “I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.” If we are honest, this is true for every parent. We are all works in progress, dealing with little humans who contain a bevy of variables. I am most at home in my parenting when I think of it as one-part experimentation, one-part cheerleading, one-part boot camp, and one-part mama bear. I believe that no one knows my children better than my husband and I do, and no one can make better decisions about how to raise them than my husband and I can. Yet the art of parenting is the art of tweaking. When I make mistakes, I am both hard on myself and yet forgiving. I make sure to keep the responsibility on myself, too. Yes, parenting is difficult work—and therefore worth it—but I don’t make it a pastime to complain about my children. After all, I had the choice to make and live with them—they had no choice to live with me!

If you are a parent who has strong feelings about how children sleep—to the point of being judgmental—then this blog might not be for you. Or it might be. If you are a parent, though, like I am—one who constantly searches for how to make lessons easier for my children to learn, how best to communicate with them, and how best to modify my techniques to really reach them and help them be who they are meant to be—then you will likely identify with this blog entry in some way. For me, parenting is a process of trial and error, reflection, self-assessment, and trying harder. What I get right, I celebrate. What I don’t get right, I keep having a go at until I do get it right. To be a flexible parent, I think it is necessary to have equal measures of confidence and doubt. Knowing how to use doubt to get better results from myself actually becomes, over time, confidence.

So. My daughter. From the first week I could not figure out how to get her to nap in her bassinet. She nursed herself to sleep…about every hour of the night, until finally our pediatrician recommended a pacifier. Despite my attachment to those as a child, I never had any in the house for Katie when she was first born. As the weeks went on, my sleep deprivation grew more enormous and my instinct was to embrace the easiest route to self-preservation.We would fall asleep propped up in the Boppy in the cozy chair. I would catch cat naps on the couch with her on my chest while watching 3AM repeat episodes of Project Runway and as ironclad evidence of my sleep deprivation, episodes of A Shot at Love with Tila Tequila.

Eventually, I stopped nursing after three months (a decision by which I stand without regret and which saved my sanity), and she slept by our bedside. Never soundly, it seemed, but for finally for longer stretches at a time.

It came time for me to return to work. We tried “cry it out” one weekend. This child of mine can and would cry until she threw up. It would be near midnight, and I would be in her room changing crib sheets and starting laundry. I had to go back to work, so I gave up and put her back in our room. The night before I left her, I took her into bed with me to snuggle her and cried and cried while holding her hand.

If I could go back in time and give my new-mom self several pieces of advice, there would be several pieces of advice to give. By the time Eric came along, I had more confidence as a mother and more skill. I knew how to swaddle better. I knew I had to get him to maintain good sleep habits no matter what. I knew the secret of parenting, by then: believe fully in what you are doing, and they will believe it, too.

Within her first year of life, we tried “cry it out” a few more times. Every time, she cried herself into nausea. I wanted to help my stressed child, and I also wanted our adult sleep. I tried sleeping on her floor and inching out the door. I tried many of the strategies about which we read all the time as mothers.

At certain point, I went down the path of ease. We needed our sleep, and I took the easiest route there. I guess we did attachment parenting, by default. She slept with us until she got her big girl bed right before Eric was born. Sometimes I would move her out to the crib part way through the night, or if she fell asleep cuddling downstairs, I would start her in her crib so Bill and I could have alone time together. But she always, always ended up with us by the wee hours of the morning. Waking up with her was beautiful, too. We would sing and cuddle and tell stories. There are advantages to most situations in life, as well as drawbacks.

By the time she got her big girl bed, it was hop-around-all-night-for-Sarah in our house. I would either start there, and then spend time with my husband, and then end up back with Katie after one of her wake-ups; or I would find myself falling asleep while cuddling her there. The past four years of my life have been spent playing musical beds.

Enough. 

Am I governed by my child’s frontal lobe, or do I decide to take my rightful role and be the guide for her?

The natural result of taking better care of myself physically and mentally the past two years is that so many parts of my life come into sharper resolution as a result. In mothering myself, I find some of the secret to a better mothering of my own children.

And so two weeks and one day ago Katie and I had the “here is how bedtime is now going to be” talk. We’ve broached the topic before, but the difference is that I now have the confidence and philosophical conviction to back up what I say.

In taking the easy way through bedtime, I did not fully allow her to develop her ability to self-soothe, to look deep in herself and find power there. I did not let her have the chance—as I do, now, every day as a runner—to look at stress and fear and overcome them to find a stronger version of herself.

We also had a talk about my love for, and commitment to, and unification with, her daddy. I told her that I had been sending her a confusing message, and that I know now that putting us all in the proper places at bedtime is a way to create an even greater sense of safety for her. Mommy and Daddy are fully unified and nothing comes between us. Our house is under an orderly system. In that unification and order, a child may have greater trust that everything in the house is exactly as it should be. There is structure, even at night. There is a reduction of the chaos, and I have removed (as I told her) completely the awful burden on her shoulders in thinking that she has any say or control over the organization of people in the house—she does not. For a child who fears a lack of control, the removal of this burden was a godsend to her. It is amazing how much more at peace, in general, she has been these past two weeks.

And so, at age six, my child finally cried it out without throwing up. And it wasn’t horrible: more like a light fussing for two nights. When she saw that look of determination in my eyes, she knew she no longer had to worry about managing where we all slept and therefore settled in to the new routine. I wish I had done this awhile ago. Maybe the time is right now, because at six she has enough ability to talk this through with me. For two days, she kept repeating every reason I had given her, including that she needs better and less disturbed sleep so that her brain can grow and learn and integrate new knowledge properly. But maybe the time would have been right years ago, if I had just had the chutzpah.

Summer Bucket List #5: Clean up our sleep habits and remove all additional support for Katie at bedtime (except, of course, if she has a nightmare or sickness and needs a bit of normal care and cuddling), so that she may know what it is to be truly free and confident in her own abilities to comfort herself  and govern herself in a productive way. (She reads herself to sleep). Shift that support to my husband all night, and claim my own rightful place as a leader of the household who sets the standards of health (exercise, good sleep habits, and nourishing diet). 

In finding out how important it is to my sense of personal value to govern myself, I realized I could no longer keep  either of my children from discovering their own powers of self-governance. All this time I thought it was in her best interest to keep her from as much storm and stress as possible; yet my own journey has made me realize that, no, a natural and controlled amount of non-harmful stress at a normal rite of passage is actually a means to growth. Who am I to keep her from coming fully into her own? She needs to know what she can weather, so that she can love herself fully and, it is hoped, strive for self-actualization.

We are two weeks in, and we have a new normalcy and routine at bedtime. It is wonderful, and we are all free. It took me a long time to understand that enforcing this routine is in her best interest, as well as in all the rest of ours. It is a treat to reach out and feel my husband there all night. At last, we are all where we should be, and it is not on the child’s timetable (a thought to which I subscribed for a couple of years). It is on MY timetable, because it is both my privilege and responsibility to be a leader and guide to health in this household. A move that I thought would increase Katie’s tendency toward anxious behavior has actually reduced her presentation of anxious symptoms.

This was, by far, the heavy hitter, the big kahuna, the scariest item, the potentially hardest task on my summer bucket list. But if I can run a 10K at a 6:46 pace and overcome that fear and pain, then I can deal with the fear of having to do the hard—but what I believe to be right—thing for my child. There was a shirt in that Strawberry Festival 10K that resonated with me: “Do what is necessary, not what is comfortable.” If there is something in our life that does not feel right in the gut, we never are stuck and we can change it if we are willing to look at fear and do what is necessary. It is uncomfortable to rework bedtime routines, but I am thrilled that we have done it, and with love. No punishments, certainly, were necessary, and the rewards this time have all been intrinsic, which rewards should be (in my opinion). I am learning more about overcoming fear and inertia every day, and that understanding has evolved me as a person. When we really believe in the philosophy behind our actions, we can achieve even what scares us.

I may not have gotten it quite right for our family for six years, but I have gotten it right now. Ever onward, ever evolving…right?

 

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