Sometimes, the greatest discoveries happen at the hands of completely accidental ineptitude. Alexander Fleming was basically a brilliant slob who discovered penicillin because his petri dishes were dirty. Thanks, pig! Christopher Columbus brought about the European colonization of the Americas (for better or worse) by totally cocking up an exploratory voyage to Asia. Good for you, bonehead! And then there’s Daddyo and me, who finally made and implemented a decision on how to night wean our boy by forgetting to turn the baby monitor on. Well done, morons!
Boyo is nine months old and until three weeks ago, was still waking up multiple times in the night. Daddyo and I took turns going to soothe him, trying not to pick him up, trying to stick to a 60 second lullaby or shushing and a couple of thumps on the back (something I’m glad I don’t have to do in front of anyone, because truly, my boy likes a good, solid, are-you-sure-about-this thump. A gentle pat simply won’t do.) Good intentions must thrive on sunlight, because in the middle of the night, resolve dissolves into a desperation to do whatever it takes to just get back to sleep. Having made the decision that our bed is ours and his bed is his, we never bring the baby in to sleep with us, but more than a few nights were spent on the couch or in the guest bed, just trying to rustle up a few more zzz’s for everyone. Nighttime can be brutal.
My friend CE, whose son is almost exactly a year older than Boyo, told me once that it is her belief that every single challenge of early parenting has its roots in sleep deprivation. I think she’s right. It really is the insidious source of the woeful whitewaters of new parenthood that we are all navigating, trying desperately to keep our little craft upright. Not having enough sleep shortens fuses, sucks energy, and dims the light of hope that hard days won’t turn into hard weeks and months and lives. Sleep is the great equalizer and without enough of it, the delicate internal balance that new parenthood requires is incredibly elusive, turning even the most confident mother into a blithering, blubbering bewildered mess. Nine months of doing the best we could without the most important tool in our arsenal was quite enough. Daddyo and I decided we would have to book a padded room in the local nuthouse or else we had to take back the night.
As a first step in Operation Take Back the Night, we did some basic research into sleep training methods. We read about progressive waiting and rapid extinction and were leaning towards progressive waiting, because to be totally honest, we just couldn’t wrap our heads around simply putting Boyo to bed and not going back in until morning. (Plus, seriously? It’s called rapid extinction?? Come on.) So, okay, we had a rough plan and a weekend picked out to put it into action. Go us!
Yeah, go us. Friday morning dawned and at the first flutter of my heavy eyelids, I realized our bedroom was far too bright considering it was the first time I had tasted consciousness since passing out the night before. The clock read 5:05. I jumped.
Daddyo: [sleepily] You okay?
Me: It’s 5:05. Did you get up with the baby in the night?
Daddyo: Um, no. Did you?
[A pause while we considered whether it was too early to dance a jig of glee.]
Me: We better go see if he’s alive.
He was! Alive and still asleep. A miracle! Our boy had slept through the night on his own just a single day before we were to implement Operation Take Back the Night. Just as we began to clap each other on the back for having such a brilliant baby, we realized we hadn’t turned on the monitor in our room before we fell asleep. We had accidentally employed rapid extinction and left Boyo to work out his nighttime issues on his own. And apparently, he had. Knowing that the method of sleep training is not as important as committing to it once it is employed, we scrapped the progressive waiting plan and focused our energy on allowing Boyo the time and solitude to soothe himself back to sleep. We did that by keeping the monitor off and putting our faith in the universe that our boy would be safe and rested when we woke. Instead of a weekend of slogging through the nighttime doubting of daytime intentions, we slept, greedily and solidly and without incident.
That was three weeks ago. We haven’t turned the monitor on at night since and I have slept more in this time than I have in over a year. I drank in great gulps of sleep, going to bed earlier and earlier until I finally said to myself, “If you go to bed before 7:30 again, the Retirement Police are gonna knock on your door and drag you off to Shady Acres.” I couldn’t get enough and I was surprised to find that even with all that extra sleep, I still wasn’t waking as refreshed or feeling as though I had slept enough. I suppose when you are as deep in a sleepless hole as a new mother is, it takes a while to climb back out of it.
Our accidental parenting victory was not without its emotional fallout, however. I had some pretty serious guilt to sit with and sift through. I had a hard time not knowing what kind of night Boyo was having, imagining him spending tearful hours wondering why his mother had abandoned him, alone and in the dark while she selfishly and carelessly slept. Even in the face of a parenting victory, I felt like a failure. And worse than that, I felt like a cruel and selfish mother. Even when my dutiful head tried to talk some sense into my discomfited heart, it couldn’t find words powerful enough to break the spell of guilt. Once my guilty heart started to interfere with my newfound sleep, I reached out. My girlfriend KUD (who along with a handful of other mother friends are partially responsible for my still being sane and Boyo still being alive) talked me off the ledge, reminding me that although no mother is perfect, I am the perfect mother for my child. No one else could mother Boyo better than I because he is mine and I am his. What works for me is what works for him. Her reassurances helped me realize that I am simply putting my own oxygen mask on first, and as I have committed to doing just that for the entirety of my motherhood, I let go of the guilt.
Boyo sleeps for close to twelve hours now, and Daddyo and I sleep close to eight. My guilt has receded, my patience is restoring, and my energy is waxing like a harvest moon. We took back the night and we are flourishing. All of us. Sometimes, even we new parents get it right.
Even if it’s completely accidental.