Another weekend, another birthday party for my almost 3-year-old, another gathering of wall-eyed parents. The kids are now old enough to run off with loose supervision so we get to chat and inevitably, the conversation turns to restaurants and travel, the things we once took for granted. I'll mention a new place we've tried or a movie we've seen and every time, someone will say something to me with a level of wistfulness bordering on Chekhovian, "Oh, we'd love to be able to go out to eat, but our [insert name of 3-year-old] can't get to sleep without us. And by the time he finally goes down it's nine or nine-thirty and we're too tired to do anything. Then when he gets back in bed with us with the tossing and kicking us all night, well I usually end up sleeping on the floor or the couch. We know we should make him sleep in his own bed, but... " Then they shrug like, what can you do?
Um, Dr. Sears, I'm sorry, but that sounds like hell.
What happened to my generation? I did not see this level of masochism coming. I understand full well that we all had narcissistic parents, post-war babies of trauma victims who subsisted on rationed sugar and rationed affection. Our parents divorced en masse, were closeted if they were gay, left us to "find themselves" and smoked and drank -- not just through our gestations, but throughout our childhoods -- and this is just a quick snapshot of what pops into mind. It was awful -- I get it. But trying to keep your child in your bra is not the answer.
Shortly before my wedding, I went to see my Tibetan energy healer (see, now you know everything about me) and she said something very wise. Stephanie was impressed by my casual it's-just-a-party-with-a-bigger-dress attitude and said her clients frequently had nervous breakdowns before their big day.
"Things can only hold what they can hold," she told me. I love that. She meant that one party could not heal all psychic wounds and if you thought you could tulle your way into soothing every unmet need from your entire life you would be sorely, sorely disappointed. And make everyone around you nuts in the process.
Similarly, a kid can only hold what it can hold. We've all seen Blossom nursing her 25-year-old on the subway. Is she doing it for him -- because he "needs" it -- or because it fills her with a sense of security and purpose robbed of her as a working child actor? Does a 3-year-old need to be rocked to sleep or do you need to be needed that badly because your own inner 3-year-old still isn't sure if it was?
I read a great book when I was pregnant, Suzy Giordano's Twelve Hours Sleep by Twelve Weeks Old. (It was recommended by a well-rested friend.) She says it's our responsibility to teach our children many things. We of course expect to teach them to eat and sit up, walk, talk, say please and wait for the green light. But she says the very first thing we have to teach them, right out of the womb, is to self-soothe. That self-reliance and self-confidence needs to be rooted in the core of their being. That thrilled me. I want a daughter who believes that she has everything inside her to meet all of life's challenges and isn't waiting for some invisible hand to help her do something as simple as fall asleep.
I nursed her often and for hours, but I always put her to bed awake in her own room, and by 6 weeks, she was sleeping through the night. By 12 weeks, she was sleeping twelve hours. She loves her crib. To this day, I pop her in at 7:30 p.m. and kiss her goodnight. While I prep dinner, I listen to her on the monitor. Sometimes she just moves her animals around once and blacks out. Other nights she sings to them for awhile. Either way, I'm on with my evening so my husband and I can have a nice dinner together when he walks in the door. Babysitters love her because she's easy to put to bed.
In many ways I was lucky because I had been a nanny for so long. I knew the peanut phase was a blip and that the throwing-a-tantrum-in-the-Natural-History-Museum phase lasts much longer. I didn't need to hold her until she fell asleep because I was already prepping for the kayak trip on the Hudson I knew we'd one day take. I fully understood that life as a parent was only going to get harder when she got older, when she started walking, when she started taking her own diaper off and trying to play Bocce ball with her poop.
I also knew I didn't need to "prove" anything to her right out of the gate. What she will eventually remember is a few Halloween costumes I'm going to make years from now, baking Christmas cookies and, most importantly, if I show up at school events. If I am a force of yes in her life. And then she might like me if we eventually share the same politics and I don't, in a word, suck.
As I stand across from parents who sometimes spontaneously burst into tears they are so sleep-deprived and miserable, I am so grateful I knew to take the long view. And that really is the thing, Sears; I have yet to meet a parent of a child over 9 months old who isn't in some kind of agony trying to undo the attachment crap.
What happens at 9 months, you ask?
They start standing, holding onto the bars of the crib and screaming like banshees, at just the moment that the exhaustion finally seems to get the better of everyone. Nine months seems to be peak public crying time.
That also seems to be the moment that it dawns on a parent that there is no exit strategy. Sears' whole they'll-just-get-up-and-leave thing doesn't seem to be panning out. For the record, I've never heard of a kid who has.
Following that window, it's the marriages that really seem to fray -- some to the point of breaking. A recent divorcée said to me, "Well, of course, we never had sex anymore with the kids in the bed -- why couldn't he understand that?" Because I'm betting that was nowhere in your vows.
Another friend, who mainlines espresso all day to compensate for getting kicked in the back all night long, said to me no one has ever loved her like her son does. Unfortunately, she didn't marry him and his destiny (God willing) lies elsewhere. It's an unsustainable dynamic that leads to the kind of hellacious mother-in-law experiences we've all had. ("Why can't she let go?!") Hopefully she'll find some joy with her poor husband again -- her romantic runner-up.
So if you aren't a parent yet I leave you with this: Parenting is really fucking hard. So don't make it harder. Set your life up so it can be full of sleep, sex, movies, dining and travel, so that the marriage that produced the child is as healthy when that child trots off to the great world that awaits them as it was when you said, "I do."
Trade in the sling for a slingshot and think about the kid you want to shoot out into the world when you're no longer there.