Our bed has become a chalkboard of sorts. If you could peek into our bedroom in the wee hours of the morning, an aerial view would reveal a different letter formation every night. Last night, and most nights, you’d see a bold Helvetica H. Steven and I forming the parallel lines, and little Beckett completing the character with his perpendicular line across the middle, his head resting squarely on my stomach and his feet across Steven’s lower abdomen. After a few hours the letter changes. Now, an N as he rolls to his side, his face nuzzled against the top of my thigh and his feet searching for their favorite ottoman – Steven’s eyes, nose, or mouth. My half-dreams flip through their nightly rotations, always staying within the same themes: struggle under an unmoving object (rock, bus, building), or being on the losing end of a fight, many times ending with a roundhouse to the face K.O. by my opponent. On the rare occasion that our chalkboard forms a roman numeral III, I’m flying through unfettered blue skies, wind in my hair and clean air rushing through my lungs. Then, as backwards N takes formation, the storms roll in and I’m struck down by lightning, my nose cracked awake by the back of an oscillating head.
It’s not an ideal sleeping situation, and we didn’t start out this way. Like any good first-time parents, we brought our perfectly swaddled bundle of joy home armed with a plan. Brains full of strategy, we tag teamed on baby books and had schedules typed out like we were training a Navy Seal instead of a newborn baby. And like every first-time parent, we were humbled by how utterly unprepared we actually were. We had read the books, but our baby hadn’t. He laughed (vomited or pooed) in the face of our schedules (our actual faces), covered our plans in tears and snot, and guzzled our last shreds of dignity down with my breast milk. A baby cannot be conditioned like a Pavlovian dog – you cannot teach something to respond to a bell when the bell makes them cry and gives them gas.
In spite of our crippling failure, we received our gold stars for each of the lessons learned in year one –let go of control, do your best, it will get better, it is totally and most definitely worth it. And the biggest gold star of all – he at least still sleeps in his crib. We reached the top of the parenting mountain, we stood our ground, and as a reward we got to keep one last souvenir from our old life – our marital bed! Until we didn’t. Somehow, in the midst of teething, sickness, not eating, not sleeping – we cried uncle. A friend once told me that “parenting is just various levels of giving up” – you have to pick your battles. For us, the battle we chose to lose/win was sleep. The only way to make it through those endless days of work, tantrums and aggressive games of food airplane (OPEN YOUR MOUTH DAMMIT!) was to get a good night’s rest. And the only way we were getting a good night’s rest was with a toddler between us.
It started out slowly, which allowed us to continue our denial – he spent half the night in his crib, and the other half with us when he’d wake up around three am crying for mama. Then three am became two am. Two am turned into ten pm. Half the night in his crib became the whole night in our bed. I laid awake many nights, with his fingers up my nose or nails digging into my belly button, wondering where we went wrong. I grimaced thinking about how painful a ten-year-old’s kick to the face would be; I sighed imagining the hieroglyphics four kids in a California King would create. But then the positions became more bearable. I’d wake up to his head resting on my chest, his hand cradling my cheek. In the middle of the night he finds me to snuggle, sometimes wrapping his warm body around me and sometimes smashing his soft lips into my cheek or eyelids. And in the morning when he blinks groggily awake, he smiles at me and says “mama”, taking my face into his little palms. It is magical. And though I’m fully aware that I’m sliding down a slippery slope (on skis), I no longer think about sleep training, or books, or rules. I think about the little boy that will one day wipe my kisses from his face in front of his friends, who will no longer want me to walk him to the bus stop, who will eventually go off to college. Though I have so much of his life left to experience, there are still those fleeting moments that I’ll never get to experience with him again. So for now, we’ll continue our letter formations, and I’ll savor the tangled sleep with my baby.