Sleep when the baby sleeps

Alex fails to follow standard parenting advice.

A year and a half ago, I attended a baby shower for a friend. It was in her husband’s home town, and nearly all of the attendants were his family and family friends. I was the only person in the group who had a very small child (Silas had just turned 1). Most of the ladies were my mother’s age, and far removed from the day-to-day intensity of baby parenting. One of the activities at the shower was to write a piece of parenting advice for the mother-to-be. She had to read all of them and pick the best one, which would win a prize (they were anonymous). As she read, we all started to giggle. At least three-quarters of them said: “Sleep when the baby sleeps.” This might be my least favorite piece of advice to new parents, and people say it all the time. ALL the time. I hate it mostly because it presupposes that your baby ever sleeps. I heard it mostly from people who were pretty far removed from their baby-raising days: “Gosh, you look tired. I remember how hard it was to be a new parent. Remember, all you have to do is sleep when the baby sleeps!” That I did not punch several old ladies is a serious credit to my self-restraint. I know what they meant–that I should let myself rest, rather than cleaning the house or something, during the precious minutes when he slept. I did this, but it was never enough. He only napped for 45 minutes at a time, which meant that I was just winding down when he’d wake up screaming. Petra is, thank goodness, a significantly better sleeper, but how am I supposed to “sleep when the baby sleeps” now? It might as well be “sleep while the toddler destroys the house and lights himself on fire.”

My dear friend V is now expecting her first baby. I’m always sort of nervous for people when they are expecting their first baby, because there is no way to prepare them for what is coming. I’ve heard it compared to marriage, but it is NOTHING like that. When you get married, you’ve usually picked out a particular person, spent time learning his or her quirks, and decided that you can live with them. Having a new baby is a wildcard + genetics. You never know what is going to happen. Your kid might inherit every one of your partner’s traits that drive you up the wall, and none of his redeeming qualities. Your son’s coy, “Who me? Have I been naughty?” face might be identical to the one your little brother used to get out of everything for years, the one that enraged you, the one that made you celebrate his beard and hope he’d keep it because it’s impossible for a man with a big, red beard to make this face (hypothetically). It’s a good thing they are generally cute.

I’ve been thinking about all the stuff I wish I could say to her, and I’ve also been thinking about how there is no way to explain this journey to someone who hasn’t taken it. That said, here is my list of things I wish I had understood before I had my number one son.

  1. They come with their own personality. Your job is to teach them to work with who they are to become a productive member of society. I know that my kids look like clones, but they are so different in personality–and have been since day 1–that I literally do not see it unless I’m flipping through old photos and have a moment of asking myself if that’s Silas or Petra. Silas has aspects of his personality that will make him a great person–and he has other aspects that will dog him for his whole life. Petra is the same way, although it’s a little harder to pinpoint them in infancy. I keep thinking about my sister-in-law who has, since she was a baby, been one of those people whose actions and emotions have always been tremendous. She dislocated both of her own shoulders as a baby, and the story goes that it took five orderlies to hold her down while they set them back in. I literally can’t count the number of times she gave herself a concussion by moving too fast and not looking where she was going. Her rages were the stuff of legend. And yet. No one who didn’t know her ten years ago would believe it. Her mother worked with her, for her whole life, to teach her how to channel her energy, to be productive, to be polite, to look where she was leaping. She didn’t make her daughter any less herself, but taught her how to control her personality instead of letting it control her. I have another friend who was in the opposite end of the spectrum–she was so painfully shy that she couldn’t make eye contact with strangers. Her parents told her that shyness was no excuse for rudeness. She had to, at least, offer to shake hands and say “Hello.” She didn’t have to say much of anything else, but she had to at least acknowledge another person. That’s a model I hope to replicate with my own kids. I want to celebrate their individuality, but teach them to express their personalities in a way that doesn’t hurt other people (or themselves).
  2. You can lead a kid to bed, but you can’t make him sleep. All the sleep advice is stupid and conflicting anyway. There are two kinds of babies in this world: Ones who get more and more worked up when they cry, and ones who cry to release the last bit of the day’s energy and then go to sleep. People who tell you that “cry it out” worked for them have the second kind of baby. Know which one you are working with. No amount of “sleep training” could turn Silas into a good sleeper. Sleep was a challenge. If Petra had been my first, I would tell you all to get The No-Cry Sleep Solution. If your baby is sort of an average sleeper, this book has some great strategies. If your baby is like Silas, might I recommend this, instead?
  3. This too shall pass. Whatever it is, sleeping or potty training, or just generally being in a grump, it’s not going to last forever. When Silas was a year old and still not sleeping through the night, I found it helpful to picture Silas as a six-year-old, kissing me goodnight and then skipping up the stairs to bed by himself. No college student needs his mama to rock him (and rock him, and rock him, and carefully transfer him) to bed. For the record, Silas puts himself to bed and sleeps through almost every night, three years ahead of schedule. With both of my kids, the point where I really start questioning if I can handle a particular phase is the beginning of its end. In labor, they call this “transition.” It applies to the rest of parenting, too. I’ve also found that friends who have been there, done that, are an incredible asset. When everyone else was giving me sleep advice, my friend G just told me, “My son was exactly that way. There’s nothing you can do. He puts himself to bed now!” It was the best thing, and exactly what I needed to hear.
  4. Babies make what’s great about your relationship three times better…and what is bad about your relationship five times worse. Sleep deprivation + screaming + poop = stress. If you find yourself not liking your partner very much through all of it, don’t despair–it’s probably not you, and not your partner, but this new creature making you crazy. Don’t do anything drastic for a while. More likely than not, you’ll come through it and wonder why you were so angry at your partner.
  5. Babies love Bob MarleyDon’t ask me why, but it is true.
  6. Breastfeeding is harder than you’d think. I had a rough time nursing Silas. It turns out, you have to actually teach the baby to latch correctly. If it’s your first one, you probably don’t know how it’s supposed to look or feel. I sort of thought, “I’m a mammal. How hard can this be?” Hard, as it turns out. C, a lactation consultant, told me, “Commit to doing it for two weeks. It will get more comfortable after that.” Two weeks felt like a manageable goal, and she was right–it was more comfortable after that point. One other thing that helped was some lanolin that my step-mom brought for me. I wish I had known to get some before the baby was born.
  7. A baby can’t manipulate you.  Manipulation requires a theory of mind–the understanding that what you want and what I want are different things. Babies don’t have that. You might feel like they are messing with you, but just wait until they get big enough to do it for real. The difference is significant.
  8. You can’t spoil a baby. Just do whatever it takes to maximize sleep for everybody. Deal with the rest of it once they are big enough to talk.
  9. Parenting babies is not equitable. Sorry. You might have a nice, balanced, egalitarian marriage, pre-baby, but biology has no patience with your modern ideas of equality. In your average parenting dyad, the baby came out of one person’s body and that same person has the boobs. For the first year, roughly, parenting is more intense for the mama. Be aware of this, and don’t let these patterns become an unthinking default mode for the rest of your life. After the baby is a toddler, take some time to assess who is doing what and adjust it if it’s not what you would choose. But seriously, don’t even try to make it even for that first year.
  10. Dads can still do lots in that first year. Just because they don’t have the goods, it doesn’t mean they are ill-equipped to care for a baby. Make sure that the dad (or non-nursing parent, whatever) has a good baby carrier that he feels comfortable using. JC loves the Ergo, but hasn’t ever felt comfortable trying my various wraps and slings. JC is the person in charge of cutting fingernails, washing hair, and toddler bed time. Both the kids go to sleep more easily for him than for me.
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