A Season of Smothering

A Season of Smothering. Some times of parenthood are harder than others - even if they're something you love too. (Photo: Monkey with baby climbing on its head.)

Lying on the couch, I have a one-year-old sitting on my lap and pinching my face while a four-year-old is almost sitting on my head as he tries to twist my hair in his hands. I look up to my husband and only half-jokingly cry out, “Help!”

Sometimes, I feel like Max in Where the Wild Things Are, when the Wild Things are yelling “We’ll eat you up, we love you so!” Except the Wild Things are my children whom I love very much. While they aren’t actually wild monsters, their love back to me can feel rather smothering at times.

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The Saga of Transitioning from a Crib to a Toddler Bed

The Saga of Transitioning from a Crib to a Toddler Bed
Most three-year-olds are not still in cribs, having transitioned to toddler beds long ago. But in this case, Sprout is not “most kids.” He’s never tried to climb out of his crib, uneasy with scrambling down where there isn’t obvious hand and foot-holds. Because there was no great need, we put off the transition as long as possible. But with his third birthday passed, a potty-training blitz coming up, and preschool approaching, we figured it was time. It was only slightly more chaotic than we expected.

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This Too Shall Pass

This Too Shall Pass

Our little family is in a rough patch.

The sleep deprivation from being up for 30 minutes or (usually) more several times a night is starting to deeply affect me. Last night, there was barely an hour between when I would put Little Bird down and when he would start crying again. While I was running on adrenaline and optimism immediately after he was born, that’s faded. In the middle of the night, I’ve occasionally dozed off, awakening to the fear that I could have dropped him. While I blew through a couple of books in the beginning, I’m now too exhausted to do anything but check my social media over and over again in a soul sucking spiral. In the morning, I wake up with a sinus headache and a serious fog that I never really shake. I’ve had an on again, off again fever over the past two days.

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The Bedtime Toddler Blues

Sleep has never come easily for my son. As a newborn, he wouldn’t sleep during the day unless he was held. The moment just before his body touched the crib, his eyes would flutter open and he’d start crying. (“Sleep when the baby sleeps,” my ass.) He was seven months old the first time he slept through the night and over a year by the time he did so consistently. And that was only after a couple of traumatic evenings for all involved. In toddlerhood, he often sings and talks to his animals for a full hour before drifting off. But lately, there’s been a significant shift for the worse.

Toddler Bedtime Blues

None of this is particularly unexpected, considering my family history. Both Chris and I are night owls, as is my mom and his dad. I had night terrors as a kid, my mom had childhood nighttime seizures, and my dad sleepwalked until he was in his mid-20s. While it would be surprising if Sprout didn’t have any sleep issues, it doesn’t make them less exasperating.

In the last year, we thought we had made peace with his sleep schedule. Sure, he stayed up way past his 8:30 bedtime, but considering he wakes up past 7 pm and still takes naps, he got plenty of sleep. As he’s a bit of an introvert, it seemed like that time provided him the private, wind-down space he needed. It’s not like we had a way to force him to fall asleep anyway.

But in the last few weeks, our structure has gone to hell. The first thing to go was our bedtime routine. Normally, it goes: finish dinner, take bath, jump on our bed, get into PJs, read books, brush teeth, have a short conversation about the day, and say goodnight. Each part provides a balance between the boring bits (washing, brushing teeth) and the fun ones (jumping on our bed, reading).

While the routine has a lot of transitions, they only recently became an issue. Sprout has managed to found ways to extend and delay every one of them. From sitting in the tub long after the water has been drained to sprinting away every chance he gets, our bedtime routine has gone from 45 minutes to over an hour. Sometimes his delaying even starts before dinner, when he puts up a giant fuss about washing his hands. Shifting between activities has become increasingly difficult, but if we skip any of them – even allowing him to turn off the lights – there’s a melt-down as well.

The earlier the resistance starts, the more likely there is to be a snowball effect. Just when I think I’ve gotten him all chill, he remembers a grave injustice from 10 minutes earlier and gets upset all over again. All of my tricks from Happiest Toddler on the Block that used to work, like repeating what he’s upset about or promising it in fantasy, just piss him off more. There’s a constant sense of “What the hell is going to upset him this time and how do we deal with it?”

Tonight was a perfect example. Sprout was smiles and giggles until we wanted him to actually do his five jumps on the bed. (We would be fine with skipping them, but he would not.) We got to jump three when he randomly spit up some stomach crud. Chris turned our Green Bay Packers blanket over so that he didn’t jump in vomit, which meant the “Big G” was backwards. This was completely and utterly unacceptable to Sprout. He started crying and refused to jump. Both suggesting he’d do his final jump or skip jumps altogether elicited screams from him.

We finally carried him off the bed, where the angst continued on the changing table for several more minutes. I requested Chris intervene, hoping a change of scenery would help. It didn’t, although I avoided getting kicked hard in my pregnant belly while trying to put a diaper and pajamas on a flailing toddler. The rest of the evening alternated between him loudly expressing his displeasure, saying “I want a hug,” and sitting on my lap with his face in my shoulder. At 9 PM, I placed him in his crib, where I left after 10 minutes of urging him to lie down. Of course, this set off a new round of crying.

After running that obstacle course, all I want to do for the rest of the night is collapse on the couch. Lately, I’ve really wished that came with a glass of wine, but pregnancy has limited my indulgences to chocolate, ice cream, and decaf tea.

Previously, we were safe once he was calm in his crib. But now the resistance has extended far past his official bedtime. Recently, he’s taken to yelling “Mommy mommy mommy” from behind his closed door, sometimes for good reasons (like because he pooped) and sometimes for bad or pointless ones (like telling me “[Sprout] likes basketball” or asking me to tuck him in when he’s chosen to stand up). S

Sometimes it’s between the two. The other night, I went in after his “Mommy, mommy, mommy” suddenly became more intense. I found a bed full of ice cubes and the top to his water cup on the floor. “It’s broken,” he pointed out. I blinked, noticed that his toys were all at the other end of the bed, and asked, “Did you do this on purpose?” He responded, “No. Yes. Took top off and dumped all over.” At least he was honest!

If I was a stay-at-home mom, these bedtime issues would just be the crummy topping on the challenges of being home all day. But at least I would have the rest of the day – when he’s usually good-natured – to look back on.

Instead, this struggle becomes the majority of my weekday interactions with him. I have a fairly long commute, so I’m home at 6:15 PM at the earliest. That gives me maybe 45 minutes of playtime, dinner, and then the constant balancing act of bedtime. I don’t want to give in – and am often incapable of doing what he wants – but I hate both of us being miserable during what should be special time together.

So it just makes me feel like a crappy parent. Because of my commute, we can’t put him to bed earlier without sacrificing time together. Even though I honestly don’t think it’s over-tiredness, I still worry that it’s my fault somehow.

It’s especially frustrating because it reinforces all my worries about having a second kid. I guess it’s good that he’s still willing to stay in his crib and not climbing out, but it makes me even more concerned that he’ll start climbing out at the worst possible time. Furthermore, I’m already anxious about not having enough of my emotional energy to go around and then Sprout finds a way to drain it further. Because he was such a fussy sleeper, I worry that he’s going to wake up his brother and then his brother will start crying and then Sprout will start crying and then no one will ever get any sleep ever again.

I know like all things Kid, that this is a phase. I just really hope that it passes sooner rather than later.

Any suggestions for making bedtime go smoother?

An Open Letter to Parenting Experts

I believe in being positive, especially as a parent, but sometimes I get frustrated. I get angry when people are being oppressed, when someone is reinforcing prejudicial societal patterns, or when people are putting others in unnecessary pain. These Open Letters are either to the people making me mad or those suffering.

Dear writers of parenting books and articles,

I have a bit of unsolicited advice. You’ve given us so much over the years that it seems time to give a little back.

1) Don’t over-promise unrealistic results. Look, we know there’s lot of competition on the parenting advice shelf. In the age of Twitter, you have to catch their eye right away. Nonetheless, it’s nothing but sheer cruelty to guarantee “Teach your baby to sleep (in just seven days)” or “How to eliminate tantrums and raise a patient, respectful and cooperative one to four year old.” While those claims are clearly absurd to people with two brain cells available to rub together, parents that have been waking up multiple times a night for more than a year or are trying to tolerate whiny kids don’t even have that minimum available. (I say this as a victim of the former situation.) Giving false hope is just mean.

2) Don’t shame parents when your tactics don’t work. When you claim your advice will work for all kids, you imply that if it doesn’t work, it’s the parent’s fault. For example, a number of books and articles emphasize how very important it is that your infant both sleep exclusively on their backs by themselves as well sleep through the night for a specific period of time. But there’s a percentage of kids who will never do that! Good luck explaining “but the books says you have to sleep!” to them.

3) Acknowledge yours may not be the only solution. Everyone knows different tactics work for different kids, even in the same family. So of course, a family may need to draw on a whole toolbox of ideas, not just the ones in a single book. But too often, you allude – or even occasionally state outright – that using other methods makes the reader a Bad Mother.

4) Don’t assume everyone has a Leave It to Beaver middle-class nuclear family. Increasing numbers of families have diverse structures, with single parents raising kids on their own, grandparents helping out, same-sex couples raising kids, and many more combinations. Parents may have high or very low incomes. The primary caregiver may be a mother or father or not even a biological parent at all. Yet you often give advice that’s only helpful, applicable or realistic for a small portion of the population. You recommend absurd amounts of unnecessary baby gear, assume a broad variety of available childcare options (FYI, nannies and au pairs are not affordable for most families), assume the mom will be doing most of the work, and give advice only helpful to parents with 9 to 5 schedules. This structure makes the rest of us feel like we don’t matter or even exist.

5) Don’t recommend – nay, require – contradictory actions in the same book. My “favorite” example is from the tome of pregnant lady-shaming, What to Expect When You’re Expecting. The authors recommend to eat locally as much as possible. Then just a few pages later, the same book recommends pregnant women eat 4 servings of fruit a day, especially mangos. Unless you actually live in South America, that’s ridiculous. Some good copy editing will save a lot of parents some head-banging, and not of the heavy-metal kind.

6) Don’t use the word “should” to refer to a child’s behavior unless you’re actually referring to a developmental milestone. Modern-day parents get just a tiny bit obsessive about their kids hitting their milestones. These days the only things we can turn to to know if our kid is “normal” is other parents, our pediatrician, or parenting books. While there are certain ones that it’s important to meet, it really muddies the waters when parenting books just make up new ones. For example, there’s no set standard for when your kid must sleep through the night. There are some adults who don’t sleep through the night!

7) Never use the term “mother’s intuition.” Most moms arrive home and think, “What the hell do I do now?” The sole extent of my “inborn knowledge” was “Oh crap, my baby is crying!” I knew I should do something to calm him, but what I should do eluded me. Suggesting that I should have some magical ability to know what to do made me even more insecure. If parenting intuition exists, it’s from the slow, beautiful process of learning to know a child’s personality and unique traits. It’s much more helpful to reassure new parents that it will get easier over time as they get to know their child.

Now all of this might make me sound rather, well, motherly. But I’m pretty sure you can handle it. After all, you’ve given plenty of “shoulds” and “should-nots” to us.

Camping: Take Two (Year Old) – Harper’s Ferry and Brunswick Family Campground

I think I’m turning into the dad from Calvin and Hobbes. Except instead of our adventures “building character” for my kid, they are doing it for me! In our second camping trip, some things went very right compared to last time, but others went very, very wrong.

I tried hard to learn from last time, bringing both lower expectations and a few extra pieces of gear. Unfortunately, I repeated the very first mistake – look up where the campground itself is, not just the national park! As it turned out, the campground was literally two states over from our destination, Harper’s Ferry. As Harper’s Ferry sits on the intersection between West Virginia, Maryland and Virginia, thankfully it worked out to only a 20 minute detour.

My other efforts were more productive. We arrived there earlier, packed the car more efficiently, and set up faster than last time. We even had time the first day to head into town, eat ice cream, and gaze out over the meeting of Potomac and Shenandoah rivers, dotted with colorful inflatable rafts and tubes.

Shenendoah River with tubes and rafts

Burnt out alleyway in Harper's Ferry, WV

Not everything was quite so cheery though. Only two weeks ago, a fire ripped through several of the town’s historical wood and stone buildings. (Check out their GoFundMe page if you want to help.) A whole chunk of the block was black, charred and disintegrating, right in the middle of their tourist season. Rather than ignore it, we explained to Sprout both what happened and how people were helping each other recover. In particular, we connected it with the theme of LeVar Burton’s book The Rhino Who Swallowed a Storm, which has the theme of how friends can help each other heal after traumatic situations. While I don’t think he really understood the magnitude of what happened, it was good practice for future conversations like this.

Other parts of the trip also reminded me of both the value as well as the challenges of neighbors. Camping creates an easy intimacy, with everyone sharing the twisted perspective that it’s a really awesome idea to sleep on the ground protected only by a little fabric.

This camaraderie was doubly-intense in this particular campground, which didn’t have assigned campsites, only a shared space under a grove of trees with a scattering of picnic tables and fire pits. Sprout was an immediate point of connection, with fellow campers commenting on his cuteness and encouraging him to pet their dogs. A kayaking instructor putting boats into the river even chimed into my conversation with Sprout, saying that he started bringing his son with him in the boat when he was only 6 months old. But despite his encouragement, we were content with watching dogs fetching balls, wading in up to our knees, examining clam and snail shells, and spotting tiny fish darting about.

But not all of our interactions were quite so pleasant. It started with our neighbors on one side blasting Southern rock deep into the night, with a call out about every 15 minutes to “Turn it up!” I didn’t bother getting Sprout to bed until quiet hours were supposed to start at 10 pm. All the white noise in the world wasn’t going to drown that out.

At 10 pm, I held out hope when it paused momentarily, then lost it again when it started back up a few minutes later. When those people finally went to bed at 11, our neighbors on the other side picked up the slack with an enthusiastic game of beer pong and multiple rounds of the Happy Birthday song.

Normally, I’d be mildly annoyed but understanding. However, I was sharing a tent with a two-year-old who wanted to join in the fun and knew there was absolutely nothing we could do to stop him. Not long after I put him down and left the tent, Chris commented, “Well, there’s not much he can do but sit in there and play with his toys. At least until he finds the zipper.” Literally seconds after the words left his mouth, we heard a zip and saw a little blond head sticking out. So much for that plan.

I headed in there to lie down with him, to no avail. Chris eventually got bored and joined me, but all we got for our efforts was a toddler climbing on us like it was his own personal bounce house. Across the tent, over Chris’s legs, up his chest, plowing into my head, back to his own sleeping bag and around again. And again and again. It was a toddler rave, complete with uncoordinated movements and the drug of severe sleep deprivation. But I couldn’t blame Sprout for his shenanigans – after all, they were clearly having a good time outside! Unlike last time, when I nearly melted down myself, I just shrugged and laughed. (Even when Sprout imitated my tendency to call out to my husband in whiny frustration – he yelled “Chrisssss!” at the door. Of course, Chris thought it was hysterical.)

Once the party finally calmed down at 12:30, Sprout was still way too wound to calm down voluntarily, so Chris stuck him in the car and drove around until he finally passed out.

Camping should be celebratory – of nature and people – but I do hope it’s not quite that celebratory in the future.

The Night We Finally Did Cry-it-Out

So far, this winter has been absolutely bonkers. Coming off of hosting Thanksgiving for both sets of parents, we drove to Pittsburgh for my work, and then the week after, I was off to Denver on another work trip. In between, we had two kids’ birthday parties and a puppet show. Needless to say, this seriously messed with Sprout’s schedule and head. Unfortunately, it had the worst consequences at night.

In September, I truly believed our sleep problems had come and gone. After the chaotic schedule that was our vacation, we had settled into a regular rhythm. We had one tough week where I would let him cry for five or six minutes at night, go in his room, hug him for a few minutes, put him down, and repeat until he fell asleep. But once that week ended, he’d curl up in bed clutching his stuffed Figment and sleep through until the morning.

Then came the molars. Known as the most painful, unpleasant of all teething, the resulting headaches prevented him from falling asleep on his own. When the Oragel wore off four hours after his bedtime – always around my bedtime – he would wake up screaming. Hating that my baby was in pain, I’d pick him up and cradle him on the big chair in his room.

Of course, now that I had broken the routine (again), I was doomed to repeat history. Even when his teeth weren’t bothering him, he’d wail like a banshee when I tried to put him in his crib. I tried the “every five minutes” tactic, but he just got angrier each time. I’d finally acquiesce, settling down in the chair so he could fall asleep on my lap. In the middle of the night, he would wake up and expect me to hold him on my lap, just like at bedtime. Waking up once a night soon turned into waking up twice and soon enough we were back to the hellish schedule we had months ago.

I tried different tactics to varying degrees of success. We slept on the couch, which worked once. One night, I brought him into our bed. That worked twice before he decided it was more fun to crawl on our heads than sleep between us. Unlike kids that just want a parent in close proximity, he specifically wanted me to hold him in my arms sitting up. (It seems like Lydia over at Rants from Mommyland had the same problem.) Despite the absurdity, I was willing to put up with it until December’s chaos was done. We would start over in January.

Then I left on my Denver trip and it really went to hell. Sprout was very unhappy about daddy putting him to bed, even with my mom visiting as back-up. One night, he woke up at 3 AM and screamed whenever they tried to put him down – for more than two whole hours. Unfortunately, my return didn’t improve the situation. One weekday, I had to go to the office the next morning after being up in the middle of the night for two hours.

At that point, Chris declared the situation unsustainable and unacceptable. Sprout was no longer an infant. He had the capability to fall asleep independently – he had previously and still did during naptime. He even had some comprehension of other people’s needs and the fact that we need to avoid hurting people. We needed to set some boundaries and teach him that mommy is not his personal pillow.

Unfortunately, we only saw one choice – cry-it-out. While variations on the Sleep Lady technique had worked previously, they just pissed him off now. If possible, we wanted to avoid him degenerating into angry rabid honey badger mode. He would certainly be angry if we ignored him, but at least he wouldn’t think we were taunting him.

I hate, hate, hate the idea of cry-it-out. I had sworn that I would never, ever do that to my child. That I couldn’t possibly listen to him cry like he was in pain. That I wouldn’t let him stand there like an abandoned orphan.

But then I did – and it was terrible.

Even though I could hear him through our walls, I still kept the monitor on at night. I cringed at every cry. I wept into my pillow, asking Chris, “Why are we doing this? He’s scared, he’s sad, he’s lonely!” He’d reassure me that we were doing the right thing, we had tried everything else, Sprout was choosing not to sleep and he was just throwing a major hissy fit. Most importantly, he told me that Sprout still loved me and that I loved him.

The first few nights were the worst, with him yelling on and off for more than an hour at times. All of us were strung out on sleeplessness and stress. It took about a week – with part of it away from our house – before we restored our previous status. The first night he went down with minimal fussing, I released a huge breath. The worst was over and we would all be the better for it.

Every night is a new challenge, a new opportunity. I know there are some nights he’ll still wake up. Once he’s consistently sleeping through the night, I’ll go in to comfort him without making a routine of it. Once he switches to a toddler bed, I can definitely see him climbing into our queen-sized bed and squishing us. But I am never ever using that chair as a bed again.