Walt Disney World Week: What I Learned About My Family

Last week, we returned from Sprout’s first trip to Walt Disney World. Normally, I wouldn’t bring a kid that young, but my in-laws are hard-core into it and volunteered to pay for the entire trip. So off we went to see the Mouse.

Now, I’ve been to Disney World as an adult, but nothing could prepare me for visiting with a small child. It becomes an entirely different experience, rife with its own set of joys and frustrations.

Here are a few of the things I learned about my own family along the way:

1) How little sleep my son can survive on.

One of my main areas of concern was getting Sprout back to the hotel for a daily nap and his normal bedtime. Due to extenuating circumstances, that plan went out the window almost immediately. While we managed some lengthy stroller naps – one was a full two hours – most days had very short naps and a bedtime at least an hour past the norm. But despite this shift, Sprout was mostly good-tempered. As long as he had something to look at (which there almost always was, being Disney World), and had enough time to walk around, he was pretty chipper.

2) The difference between listening to someone complain about the challenges of bedtime and experiencing them firsthand.

Sprout is not a good sleeper. He hates going to sleep and bedtime can end up being 45 minutes of him yelling at me in Baby. I’ve explained this to my in-laws, but I don’t think it set in until the night they put him to bed. While they had put him to bed at our house before, vacation radically upped the excitement level. From patting on the back to classical music, they tried every trick they knew of, only to be foiled by a loud whine the second they closed the door. They finally got him to sleep after nearly an hour. While I felt bad for them, it was a relief to see that it’s not just us he’s pain about when it comes to bedtime.

3) Sometimes folks need more comprehensive instructions than you would expect.

My father-in-law volunteered to put Sprout to bed one night so the rest of the adults could go out to dinner at a restaurant he didn’t like. As Chris and his sister came out pretty great, I figured he had the basic baby wrangling skills covered. Unfortunately, it had been far too long since he had changed a diaper. As such, he didn’t recall Cardinal Rule #1 of diaper changing – have everything ready before taking the diaper off. Even though he strongly suspected there were poops present, he failed to get the wipes out beforehand, leaving him without the needed resources. Instead, he said something hand wavy about “rinsing him off in the tub” and left it at that. Ewwww.

4) Don’t read the news while you’re on vacation.

While we were relaxing in the room, I happened to read a post on local news blog Greater Greater Washington. Unfortunately, this particular post mentioned that there had been torrential rain at Baltimore National Airport. In fact, a number of vehicles swamped and became totalled – in the parking lot we parked in. So I spent the whole week worrying that we might not be able to start our car when we got home. As it turned out, nothing was wrong. I wouldn’t have even known there was a problem if I hadn’t read the news post.

5) How rewarding it is for your kid to enjoy something you remember fondly from your own childhood.

Being a giant nerd, EPCOT was one of my favorite parks as a kid. I really loved the Journey into Imagination ride and its mascot, the purple dragon, Figment. I had a little stuffed version of him that was worn out from hugging. So I was thrilled when Sprout enjoyed the Journey into Imagination ride, looking around at the bright colors and funny sounds. He was also really engaged by the activities afterwards, from the squares that played instrument noises when you jumped on them to the machine that changes tone when you wave your arms. And perhaps most importantly, his face totally lit up when I bought him his very own Figment.

6) Respecting your kid means sometimes giving them something they want even when you know they won’t like it.

I’ve believed in this as part of my overall philosophy of respecting my kid as a person, but never had the chance to put it into practice. So when Sprout pointed to my curry noodle soup, I hesitated over giving it to him. It was a little too spicy for me, so he certainly wouldn’t like it. And he didn’t – he spit it out and batted at his tongue with his hand. But you know what? Maybe he would have loved it!

7) How much a kid can grow up in 10 days.

I’ve believed for a long time that travel can help lead to incredible personal growth. It exposes you to new cultures, natural and crafted beauty, and challenging situations. However, I would have never guessed that it would be true for a kid as little as Sprout. But it certainly seems like our trip sparked that growth in him.

The first full day at Disney, he decided he no longer wanted to hold my hand when he walked, motivating me to buy a “toddler tether.” The rest of the trip, he wandered around with Chris or me in tow.

In addition to mobility, he also wanted to do things that mommy and daddy do. Suddenly, he decided he wanted to push his own stroller instead of ride in it. A few days later, he kept whining and pushing his plate away, so we thought he was done eating. We finally figured out he was still hungry – he just wanted to eat the whole tacos, not the cut-up ones. Now, whenever he’s complaining and I can’t figure out why, I just start to think, “Is this something ‘grown-up’ that he wants?”

But perhaps his social growth has been the greatest. Sprout has been charming folks at restaurants now for a while, but we hadn’t seen the extent of his ongoing nature until this trip. He waved and said hi to almost everyone around us in line, on the bus, and at restaurants. He even walked up to people in the airport in the middle of conversations and would start jabbering away at them as if he was a natural participant – even though he isn’t speaking many recognizable words yet!

You Know You’re a Sleep Deprived Parent When…

My son is not what you would call a good sleeper. He’s far from the worst, thank God, but I’ve spent a fair number of hours in his room in the middle of the night. My night vision has gotten substantially better over the last year from practice. I scowl at those lucky bastards who say, “My child slept through the night at six weeks.” At 13 months old, we still consider it a good night when he wakes up once and falls back asleep within 10 minutes. So I know of which I speak when I talk about lacking sleep. In fact, every single one of these has happened to me!

You know you’re a sleep-deprived parent when:

  • You dream about not being able to sleep.
  • You sleep more soundly on the train into work than in your own bed.
  • You consider it a major accomplishment to have only a single caffeinated beverage during the day.
  • You know how to (kind of) sleep sitting up on the couch with a toddler sprawled out on you.
  • You find it hard to sleep without white noise because you’re so used to hearing it over the baby monitor.
  • You can apply oral-gel with your eyes closed – literally.
  • You have a justified fear of falling asleep on your feet and toppling over.
  • Sleeping until 8 am sounds scandalously luxurious.
  • 4 am seems like a perfectly normal time to be awake.
  • You are just So Damn Tired!

Two is Sometimes Better than One

I never babysat as a kid, so taking care of someone else’s children is rather foreign to me. Nonetheless, I accepted the challenge when my friend suggested a baby swap between Sprout and their daughter. Basically, we’d babysit their four-month old one afternoon while they went out and they’d do the same for us a few weeks later. While I was happy for the offer of free babysitting, I was actually more pleased to have the opportunity to help them out. They’re moving out of the area soon and I wanted to give them some downtime, something already in short supply when you’re a new parent.

So two weekends ago, we were in charge of the care and feeding of not just one, but two kids. From our previous conversations, we knew their daughter was a much better sleeper than Sprout was at that age, able to nap in places other than someone’s arms. We also knew that she’s a pretty easy-going baby, but as 4-month-olds don’t have a lot of specific personality traits, not much else. They left us with milk, diapers, a few tidbits of advice, and well-wishes.

Even though we’ve been through this stage recently, it’s so easy to forget how much knowledge you lose and how fast kids change. I now feel bad mocking my parents (even though it was gentle) for not remembering certain things about babies. I was less than a year on and I already felt lost!

Not long after our friends left, we promptly remembered that barely-beyond newborns communicate everything through crying – loud, high-pitched crying. While Sprout’s vocabulary is still limited to “Mama,” “Dada,” and “Hi,” he has variations in his sounds and other ways to communicate. Even his cries vary, from an annoyed whine to a distressed wail. Although our friends said they could tell the difference between their daughter’s cries – short indicated being tired, long indicated hunger – we were at a total loss. When you hear your own kid constantly, you hear all of the little variations, but to us it sounded like one long waaaah.

We were also reminded that baby girls will definitively let you know when they need their diaper changed. In contrast, Sprout could be wet forever and not care. He’s only just now starting to communicate when he’s poopy. Usually, we just check him on a regular basis and watch his facial expressions. But our little visitor certainly let us know – loudly – when she needed to be changed. Although our friends had packed several diapers, we went through them quickly!

We also ran through her milk faster than anticipated. Our friend had packed three bottles, saying, “I think she’ll only drink two. If she drinks all three, call us and we’ll hurry back.” She drank all three by 5:30 pm, even though they weren’t due to be back until 7! On one hand, we didn’t want the baby to be hungry, but on the other we didn’t want to interrupt their dinner. To avoid rushing them too much but still let them know about the situate, we decided to wait until 6 to call.

Her sleep schedule turned out to be just as unpredictable as her eating. Sprout has had a specific nap schedule for months, so we’ve lost some familiarity with the randomness of near-newborn sleep. Much like me, Sprout would nap forever if we let him, but he would also be up all night – not an optimal situation. Even when Sprout slept at random times, he would only fall asleep nursing or on the bottle. In contrast, our friends’ baby didn’t typically fall asleep on the bottle, forcing us to guess when she was tired, as opposed to hungry. So my rocking and singing skills returned again as I struggled to remember the introduction to House at Pooh Corner.

But not everything was feeding and napping. The times when she was awake and not crying were quite delightful, as we watched the two kids interact. We pursue opportunities for Sprout to play with with other kids, but most of the time, they’re older than he is. He’s the youngest baby at our church and most of the kids at our neighborhood park are much older. This was the first time he’s interacted with a kid substantially younger than he is. At first, he was curious. We’ve already taught him how to be gentle when he touches others, so he wasn’t too rough. (And when he seemed to be going in that direction, we quickly separated them.) He seemed to realize that she’s smaller and more helpless than he is and didn’t expect much of her as a result. Chris and I have a theory that although toddlers see babies, they think of them more like moving toys than people. Sprout did get a little jealous when I was holding her at first, but was reassured as soon as Chris started playing with him. Once he investigated the situation and realized she couldn’t play with him, he got bored.

Taking care of both of the babies at the same time gave us a taste of what having two children would be like. While we could never have two kids so close in age unless we had twins, we do hope to have another kid while Sprout is still a toddler. His generally positive reaction was reassuring, even though his relationship with a sibling would obviously be different.

Looking after her also reminded me how diverse even the littlest kids are. Although the broad strokes of taking care of her were the same as they were with Sprout, the details, from diaper changing to sleep, were really different. Just like with him, we had to learn and adjust on the fly.

Lastly, this experience made me very glad that when I take maternity leave again that Chris will be at home with me. Besides it not being as boring, I can’t imagine taking care of a newborn and a toddler simultaneously (or even more challenging, newborn twins and a toddler like one of my friends has!). I may go back to work earlier than I did with Sprout, but at least those first few months will be easier. Having that second adult around will also allievate a lot of the potential sibling jealousy, as Chris could play with Sprout while I would be with the new baby.

I was glad to give my friends some time alone, but I was also quite content with giving her back. We have our hands plenty full with managing one kid at the time being!

Firsts for the Fourth

While America celebrated Independence Day over the July 4th weekend, we celebrated a number of firsts with Sprout.

My in-laws visited for the holiday, eager to spend time with Sprout before our August trip with them. They saw the trip as a bit of a “practice run” for Disney, testing out how he’d do with a variety of new experiences.

The first was staying up far past his bedtime to watch fireworks. He had actually seen fireworks before, but he was only two weeks old at the time. Then, we couldn’t bring him anywhere crowded because he hadn’t received his vaccines yet and I couldn’t muster much effort anyway in my sleep-addled state. So we just walked over to a pedestrian bridge less than half a mile away to see the town’s show half-blocked by buildings.

In contrast, this year we trekked up to lovely Frederick, Maryland, which hosts a huge 4th of July celebration at its city park, complete with bouncy rides, bathtub races, tons of food trucks (not the fancy ones), and a big fireworks display. Despite the other entertainments, the very first thing I noticed was how retro their playground was. After reading so many stories about how playgrounds are becoming overly safe to the point of monotony, it was refreshing to see metal slides and a merry-go-round! They even had a sand pit, where Sprout had his first feeling of sand between his toes as my mother-in-law helped him walk through it. Later on, we visited the petting zoo exhibit, where he got up close and personal with some goats. While he was mostly curious about them, it didn’t help when the farmer wrangled the baby goats out of the enclosure without a warning, causing all of the kids – human and not – to freak out.

After wandering around, we settled down to wait for the fireworks. With Can’t Stop Believin’ played by an adequate Journey cover band as our soundtrack, I tried to keep Sprout from wandering onto other people’s blankets and stealing their stuff. Just as he was experiencing new things, I too had to lighten up a little. As the culinary choices were limited, I tried to feed him some quesadilla (cheese has protein!), but he was totally uninterested. Instead, he managed to find his appetite for my Italian ice, slurping it down. Since he hadn’t eaten any dinner and we were outside any resemblance of a normal schedule, I let him eat as much sugar and red dye as he wanted. To quote my mother-in-law, “It’s July 4th!”

Despite missing his afternoon nap and the fireworks starting more than an hour after his bedtime, Sprout managed not only to stay awake until the show but more impressively, be in a good mood. He would have been a disaster if we had been at home, but there was enough people to look at that he forgot how tired he was. He even held out throughout most of the fireworks, watching them with the intense gaze that he’s turned to everything new since the day he was born. It’s a look of: “This is fascinating, but I’m not sure what to make of it yet. I’ll gather more information.” That was, until the finale. The continuous and overlapping booms put him over the edge and he burst out wailing. Fortunately, once the display was over, he calmed down and promptly fell asleep in his stroller despite the obstacle course-like path back to the car.

The next day, we continued the festivities by visiting a local outdoor mall that has a train ride, a carousel, and paddleboats. In my family, the mall is best known for the place where we did slow walking laps around the pond to induce labor when I was three days past my due date. Needless to say, this time around was much less stressful. To see how Sprout would potentially handle rides, my mother in law wanted to bring him on the carousel. Chris sat Sprout on a horse, holding on to him from the side, while I rode an eagle next to them. Much like with the fireworks, Sprout’s expression was observant without being outwardly happy. I have a suspicion this is going to be a common look at Disney. While he didn’t smile, I think he enjoyed it – he certainly knows how to let us know otherwise – and I suspect he would become much more obviously joyful as he got used to it. He was pretty impassive the first time we pushed him on the baby swing at the park, but now he grins in response.

That night, my in-laws got to be the guinea pigs for another first – the first time someone other than Chris or I put Sprout to bed. After a lot of bedtime drama that involved Sprout whining loudly at me for more than a half-hour a night, Chris recently switched to putting him to bed. But it would be a whole different challenge for someone else to put him down. Would he be worried that we weren’t there? Would he cry and reject consolation? Would he want to continue playing with Grandma and Granddad? Whatever happened, we wouldn’t be there to find out, gallivanting around D.C. baby-free. We bar hopped, going from one to watch the World Cup to another to play chess and skeeball. We wandered downtown, popping in a candy shop with adult confections, watching a street dance / acrobatics group that half-failed at their tricks, and listening to a jazz band on a corner in Chinatown. We finished the night with dinner at a fancy restaurant, eating Fruits de Mer and fois gras. The time was just for just the two of us, where there were no dishes to be done or baby monitor on in the background. It felt like a big sigh of relief. Fortunately, bedtime went just fine, at least according to my in-laws. They didn’t elaborate and I didn’t ask for additional details.

The last day of their trip, we trekked to the town pool. Sprout loves splashing in the bath, but that’s quite different from even the kiddie pool. After slathering him up with enough sunscreen to let you walk on the sun, we put him in a disposable swim diaper and headed off. Much to my surprise, his shorts were already soaked when I lifted him out of his car seat, five minutes later. Lesson learned – disposable swim diapers are designed to allow pee to flow through, not hold it in. Ick.

Despite this knowledge, I still waded into the kiddie pool, holding Sprout’s hand so he could walk. He was hesitant at first, looking up at me for reassurance. I’m constantly telling him not to stand up in the tub, so I’m sure he was confused by me encouraging him to walk through water. But once he caught on, he thought it was great, combining bath time with his current favorite activity, leading us around so he can practice walking. The fun only increased when they turned up the little fountains. Of course, he chose the one that had another kid at it who wasn’t interested in sharing. To avoid a showdown, I finally picked Sprout up and relocated him to a different fountain. Even when the kids were all at their own fountains, they kept eying each other and wondering what was so awesome about the other fountain that the other kid was using it. I spent an absurd amount of time at the pool as a kid, so I hope this is only the first of many visits.

From fireworks to fountains, Sprout had an eventful Independence Day weekend.

All the world is made of faith, and trust, and pixie dust. – Peter Pan

I’ve been working to win back Sprout’s trust since I returned from my work trip two weeks ago. Since then, he’s been somewhat skeptical that I wouldn’t leave him again. While Chris and I connected on FaceTime every night, seeing Mommy “in the box” just wasn’t the same as being in my arms.

When I first arrived home, Sprout’s reaction was subdued. It was close to his bedtime and Chris hadn’t been able to play with him much because he was sick, so Sprout was already in a bit of a mood. When I lifted him out of his car seat, he hardly cracked a smile. Certainly not the enthusiastic welcome I’d hoped for.

The next morning, once he realized I was back for good, his whole attitude changed. Then it became All Mommy, All the Time. When Chris was holding him, he’d reach his arms out to me. If I was present, I’d be the only one who could comfort him. If I was in the same room and not paying direct attention to him, he’d soon make sure I was. While I dislike Family Guy, I started to realize how true the bit where Stewie just says “Mommm, Mommmmmy” over and over again is. In general, his clingyness was getting really annoying. But because I appreciated Sprout’s need to feel attached to me and be reassured, I tried to be there mentally and physically for him as much as possible.

Of course, the worst was at night. At first, I tried to pick up where I left off on our sleep routine. When I left, he was able to fall asleep completely by himself with a little bit of babble-whining. After needing to go in and reassure him several times the first night, I realized I needed to back up a few steps on the sleep training. I think he associated me leaving him alone in his room with me Leaving Him. So I went back to sitting next to his crib with my eyes closed, present but not engaged. While we played the up-down game more than I would have liked (Sprout stands up, Mommy puts him down, Sprout stands up again, repeat up to 30 times), he eventually got used to the idea that I’d still be there when he went to sleep.

While we gradually worked our way back to a level of independence at bedtime, his reactions in the middle of the night have been far more unpredictable. While I was gone, he actually slept through the night a couple nights, much to Chris’s relief. The first few days after I returned, he either slept through the night or only woke once and went back to sleep after a reassuring hug. This calm lulled us into a sense of security and then his sleep schedule totally fell apart. He would fall asleep at bedtime, but then wake up in the middle of the night and not go back to sleep for hours at a time, no matter what we did. If I was holding him, he wouldn’t cry, just look at me with his big blue eyes. Nursing, rocking, holding – none of it worked. By training him not to rely on any of these methods, we seemed to immunize him against them being effective. And if we put him in his crib by himself – especially if I put him in his crib – he would start hard crying. As I really don’t believe in cry-it-out, it was horrifying. I either had to listen to my baby scream or not go back to bed – either way, I wasn’t getting back to sleep. I chose not to go back to bed, dragging Chris in for reinforcement. Because he takes much longer to fall back asleep than I do, I hate having to wake him in the middle of the night, but I didn’t have a choice.

We thought we had moved beyond this last week, but then Sprout got a cold and it reared its ugly head again. A few nights ago, I was so desperate that I tried to bring him into bed with us, but he was even less interested in sleeping there than he was in my arms. Instead, he thought it was playtime and promptly pulled Chris’s hair. I ended up sleeping on the couch for three hours with him in my arms.

As I respond to him during the day and night, Sprout’s feeling of security in my presence should continue to increase. In the meantime, I hope that we’re past most of the growing pains.

Raising Sprout

Gardening has been on my mind a lot lately.

Last weekend, we visited the White House Garden, during one of the two days a year they open the gates to the general public. While Chris had previously been there for a sustainable food event in culinary school, I had never been. Although I was temporarily confused by the presence of tulips in the Rose Garden (roses are out of season), I enjoyed seeing the location of so many big announcements. I eagerly peered around crowds for a view of the White House kitchen garden and tried not to be stung by an occupant of the White House beehive. Meanwhile, Sprout was completely uninterested in the plants. However, he was enamored with holding on to the black lacquered security fence. No accounting for taste!

The next day, I worked in my own garden while Chris played with Sprout on the lawn. I planted sunflowers, arugula, chives, and peanuts, all of which are new to my garden this year. Next week, I’ll be transplanting my seedlings and sprouts of tomatoes, peppers, melon, beans, peas, and squash.

Because everything relates to parenting for me, I started thinking about how starting seeds is like parenting: you need to build good soil, be willing to get your hands (and everything else) dirty, and provide gradual transitions.

I believe a gardener’s job is more about cultivating good soil than growing plants. It’s all about creating the right conditions – plenty of light, the right amount of nutrients, the right amount of water, and the right temperatures. Not too little or too much of any one element. If you’re thoughtful about where you place your garden and prepare the soil well, even a large garden doesn’t need they much upkeep.

Just like I can’t actually make the seeds grow, I can’t and don’t want to have complete control over my son. I want him to develop at his own pace, without rushing or pressuring him. I want to model and create the circumstances around him that inspire a love of learning, enjoyment of nature, and compassion towards people. I see a child’s ideal soil as lots of hugs, physical and mental space to explore, play with kids of various ages, time spent outside, exposure to arts and music, and quality time with parents and other caring adults. While parents should try to provide as much of this as possible, they can’t do it alone. Fortunately, we have wonderful parents ourselves, a strong church community, activities offered through the town, and friends that support us. As with a garden, we hope a thoughtful approach and hard work up front will pay off later in a capable, caring kid.

In both cases, building good soil involves getting your hands dirty. My gardening style is literally earthy – I’ve always enjoying playing in the dirt. I don’t wear gardening gloves because they make me feel clumsy. Sometimes rather than use a trowel, I scoop potting soil out of the bag with my hands. After I garden, my hands and nails always have dirt ground into them.

Similarly, you can never escape the mess as a parent. Sprout has peed on me, sneezed ground bison on me, sprayed tomatoes and beef on me while blowing a raspberry, wiped snot on my shirt, and caused me to get poop on my hands. He has bit me on the nipple, knee, and arm. I’ve wiped drool off of his chin more times than I can count and have already committed the ultimate mom sin of using own spit to clean his face. (I swore I never would!) I’m far too familiar with the sticky pink goo that is Ora-Gel. I’ve looked like the walking dead after near-sleepless nights. I’ve been in my pajamas far too late in the day and changed into them far too early in the evening. Not that I was ever fashionable, but pumping and nursing drive a surprising amount of my wardrobe choices. I happily sit in the grass, watching Sprout rip up weeds and inspect leaves. Getting dirty is what we do around here.

Lastly, I think we need to respect the cycles and transitions of nature and children. When you raise seeds in early spring, you need to harden them off before you transfer them to the soil. Inside, they stay one temperature with consistent watering and light. If you take them from that controlled environment and plant them outside without first exposing them to the elements – sun, wind, temperature changes – they go into shock. They then die or are weaker than they would be otherwise. Like the baby plants, kids also need to be at first very protected then slowly exposed to the real world before adulthood. That small amount of exposure and gradual transition makes them far more resilient in the face of difficult situations.

Approaching change as a series of slow transitions works for less dramatic changes too. While it took about six (hard) months, our sleep training approach of moving from nursing to rocking to holding to being present and then to laying him down by himself has paid off. We made it through with a minimum of crying (albeit a lot of whining). Now, he’s asleep within 10 minutes and usually only wakes up once a night. Similarly, we think he’ll do pretty well when we go to Disney World this summer because he’s used to the busyness of the city and crowds of people. While some people refer to these in-between steps as a crutch, I would rather supply him with a crutch and transition away from it than have him fall hard on his face at first and be discouraged from trying again.

While most of the plants in my garden only last a season, how I treat Sprout will last a lifetime. Thankfully, he’s pretty forgiving and there are always more opportunities to get down and dirty.

Guest Post on Cycling and More Good News

I have a contributor post over at the local smart growth blog Greater Greater Washington on the progress my town has made over the past few years on improving our bicycle-friendliness. We still have a lot to improve on, but I’m really proud of what we’ve done as a volunteer for our bicycle committee.

Check out the post: In Rockville, a quiet bicycling transformation takes place.

In totally unrelated good news, Sprout has fallen asleep in his crib (as opposed to in my arms) for three days now! He once fell asleep once in his crib while Chris stepped out of the room to wash his hands post-diapering, but that was a total fluke. In contrast, this shows the slow transition is paying off. In other, other good news, Sprout has learned to clap on his own. As of today, he actually recognizes the word “clap” and will excitedly bang his hands together when you say it. Needless to say, I’m a proud mama.

Wonderful, Awesome, Amazing – But Not Perfect

“He’s perfect” has been my mom’s refrain about my son since the day he was born. While I adore my child, I wince every time she says it. It makes me want to yell out, “He isn’t!” Because to me, perfect is confining and static, the opposite of my vibrant, growing baby.

Imperfect isn’t bad, just flawed. It’s challenging, offering us space to evolve. Imperfections connect us so that we can fill in the gaps of each other’s weaknesses.

I haven’t always held this attitude; it took decades for me to adopt. I’m a recovering perfectionist. My mom tells a story about me as a baby playing with a shape-sorter. After several minutes of fitfully cramming a shape in the wrong hole, I violently threw down the toy. While I became less physical about it, I maintained a philosophy that said, “If you’re going to do something, you should Do It Right.” Unfortunately, my version of “Doing It Right” meant I held impossibly high standards that even I couldn’t meet. A fear of not living up to my potential lurked in the background, a monster that could erase my hard work and expose me as a fraud.

Entering parenthood, I realized that this mindset just wasn’t going to work. Contrary to the parenting guides, there is no One Right Way. There’s Right for Now or Not Too Bad or The Best that I Can Do. Parenting is a slick, ever-changing thing, like one of those water worms that slips out of your hands. Every time you think you finally have a grasp, something changes, whether it’s your child, the situation, or the expectations.

Pursuing perfection locks you in, denies you the fluidity you need. One of my favorite parenting books, Babies in the Rain, compares raising children to a dance. In this duet, the child leads and you follow, always working together. But if you focus exclusively on following the rhythm, you turn it into a series of stilted steps. I know how unhelpful this perspective is in music; my jazz teacher was always telling me to experience the emotion rather than only paying attention to the beats. His response frustrated me at the time – how can I “let go” if I can’t even get the fundamentals right? But now, I can only think of how paralyzing this attitude would be in parenting.

Personally, the biggest challenge to my perfectionism has been sleep, that intimidating foe. At first, I approached the “sleep through the night” goal the same way I approach every major goal – by creating a individualized, step-by-step plan. I formulated a approach that started with not nursing my baby to sleep and over time, shortening the period of time I would rock him. Then I would move to holding him in my lap and eventually not needing to pick him up at all as he fell asleep peacefully in his crib. Hilarious.

His first cold presented the initial obstacle, and then the second and third ones came along. As I would do anything to help him (and me) get some rest, not nursing to sleep went out the window. Some nights he mistakenly falls asleep nursing and I don’t have it in me to wake him up. We’ve finally gotten to the point where he can fall asleep in my lap, but not until after several minutes of violently fighting it. Tactics that work one week stop working the next. And teething keeps finding a way to interrupt our progress.

In response, I’ve started shrugging my shoulders and carrying on. What else can I do? He doesn’t know or care that I have a plan. I want to follow the lead of my partner instead of dragging him around the dance floor.

Besides restricting your flexibility, pursuing perfect also blinds you to beauty. It catches you up in a whirlwind, never allowing you to see how much good you already have in your life. A recent article talks brilliantly about how “leaning in” ala Sheryl Sandberg, otherwise known as believing you can do everything if only you try hard enough, has made the author miserable. In the past, when I’ve tried to be perfect, I’ve just stressed myself out.

Fortunately, I’ve been more content post-baby than I’ve ever been. I love spending time with him, watching him just being himself. If I was preoccupied with being perfect, I’d be vacuuming the carpet instead of watching him peer under it with glee. (What can possibly be so interesting under there?) I’d be horrified with him biting the restaurant’s granite tabletop rather then giggling at his questionable taste. I would have been worried about his lack of progress when he was only crawling backwards instead of taking photos of him happily stuck under his crib. I wouldn’t let him grab or gnaw on his books’ pages and so not experience the joy of him learning to turn the pages on his own.

These days, besides the doctor’s appointments and other logistical requirements, I have just a single parenting goal. My husband, paragon of laid-back approaches, permanently added to our weekly To-Do list “Raise [Sprout] to be a good person.” Not perfect, just good.

I love my son too much to see him as perfect. And I love him too much to try to be perfect myself.

He Holds the Whole World on His Back

The Sleep Turtle is our bedtime friend.

I started the world’s slowest sleep training routine several months ago. We’ve worked up to Sprout falling asleep in my arms without nursing or rocking. However, he would only do so after squirming and crying for a good 15 minutes. Listening to him cry and getting whacked in the arm and chest were both pretty painful.

About a week and a half ago, the idea came to me to let him play in his crib with the Sleep Turtle before sitting down with him. We had introduced the Sleep Turtle (a stuffed nightlight that projects stars on the ceiling) at the beginning of the sleep training as a transitory toy. However, I only let it play for a couple of minutes before putting it away and picking him up. With this new approach, I left him in his crib with the Turtle and sat down on the nearby chair. Unsurprisingly, he didn’t fall asleep on his own. Instead, he played with it for 10 minutes before he started to cry. But the real benefit came once I picked him up. While there was a bit of squirming and whining, he passed out in only a few minutes. It was clear that the turtle helped him calm his busy, ever-engaged mind and body. It’s been working well – with a few exceptions – ever since.

While there are versions of the same nightlight that use other animals, I find the Turtle a particularly appropriate choice. Several cosmologies, including Native American, Hindu, and Chinese traditions portray the universe as balanced on the back of a World Turtle. The idea of stars streaming out of the back of a turtle – even if they’re shifting between green, orange, and purple – is magical. Those stars transport the whole universe into your room, bringing something so distant close and intimate. 

In fact, sitting in that dark bedroom with him, it feels as if the whole universe is right there in that little space. As if only the whole world would be okay if only he’d fall sleep. These moments block everything else in my life out, that little bundle of needs demanding my full attention.

The World Turtle reminds me of the story of an old woman at an astronomy lecture. Afterwards, she told the lecturer that she believed the world rested on the back of a turtle, to which the scientist said, “What is the tortoise standing on?” In response, she states, “It’s turtles all the way down!” While most people use the phrase to refer to the infinite regress problem (“the chicken or the egg”), Real Live Preacher, one of my favorite bloggers ever, uses it to talk about faith. Faith is knowing that everything you do balances precariously on the back of a turtle and another turtle and another turtle – and that’s okay. He says, “Faith is measured breathing in the face of uncertainty. Faith is turning your heart to faithful living when your mind has reached the end of its rope. Faith is the choice you make when you face the darkness.” Parenting is the most uncertain, challenging, and sometimes dark thing I’ve ever done. I’ve needed more faith in myself and God as a mother than I’ve ever had in my life. I rely on faith in my skills even when I don’t feel like there’s proof. I rely on faith that I am doing the best I can. I rely on faith that love is really enough. The world may rest on the back of a turtle, but in parenthood, it’s love all the way down.

Goodnight, my Sleep Turtle. At bedtime, my son’s little world – and therefore mine – rests on your back.

Who Needs Sleep?

“Who needs sleep?
Well, you’re never going to get it
Who needs sleep?
Tell me what that’s for
Who needs sleep?
Be happy with what you’re getting
There’s a guy whose been awake since the Second World War.”
– Barenaked Ladies, Who Needs Sleep?

I used to think my baby was a good sleeper. Now? I take back anything I ever said to that extent – I was clearly jinxing myself.

Sprout has never slept much during the day. Even in his first month, he slept no more than 12 or 13 hours daily, when the average baby sleeps at least 16 hours. Although I was nervous, our pediatrician reassured us that some kids just need less sleep than others. Nothing to worry about, especially because he’s a particularly chill kid.

Unfortunately, when he did sleep during the day, it tended only to be on my lap. When I tried to put him in his crib, he would open his eyes just before his head touched the mattress. I ended up stuck on the couch in “baby jail” quite a bit.

But things started getting better in month three, when I returned to work. Sprout was waking up only once during the night and rousing for the day around 7 AM. My husband, Chris, who is a stay-at-home-dad even figured out how to put him down for naps twice a day.

At month four, we decided to start a gentle form of “sleep training.” First, I would start rocking Sprout to sleep during bedtime rather than nursing him to sleep, so we had multiple options for sleep inducement. Then, rocking him to sleep, I would slowly decrease the amount of time between when he closed his eyes and when I put him in his crib. By stretching this period out over months, it would in theory teach him to fall asleep on his own without resorting to “cry it out” methods. Despite getting off-course when he caught his first cold and having one night of cranky annoyance, I was able to rock him to sleep in less than 10 minutes by the end of last week.

Then this weekend came and went in a blurry disaster. For three days straight, he has woken up every two hours for no apparent reason. I want to start moaning “braaainssss.” Potentially, this might be a brief phase. After all, this post from Pregnant Chicken points out “babies are constantly changing” and this other post from Sweet Madeline says, “There is no rhyme or reason or explanation!” But there’s also the fact that my mom recently informed me that I woke up every night every two hours for the first two years of my life. Even considering that possibility nearly brings me to a Darth Vader-type despair.

But my sleep-addled mind has come to two conclusions.

First, that you cannot treat a baby like a project. Babies refuse to follow Gantt charts or timetables. This is logically obvious – I know my son is a little person with his own little personality – but very difficult to accept, especially at 3 AM. I’m a planner by nature; I love crossing things off my to-do lists. But Sprout does and will continue to do things on his own time and I have to respect that. While establishing schedules is good, I have to make space and not rush the natural unpredictability of childhood.

Perhaps more importantly, I’m already learning that I can’t protect him from everything, even now. Although being sleepless myself is terrible, watching him toss and turn is even worse. Much of the time, he’s crying in his sleep, which then causes him to wake up. Watching him strikes fear into my own heart because I personally suffer from terrible, vivid nightmares. Although I don’t remember them consciously, I had night terrors as a toddler. I think I sometimes unconsciously deprive myself of sleep so that I don’t remember my dreams. Even though I have no idea what’s going on in his head, I worry that his imagination is causing pain rather than joy. And if it is, now or in the future, there’s absolutely nothing I can do about it. All I can do is hold him and tell him how much I love him, and accept that it’s enough.