I never gave much thought to my “parenting philosophy” except in the weeks after we found out we were pregnant but before we found out the gender of our child. And all that really entailed was parroting Chris Rock’s much-quoted belief that your only job as the father of a girl is to keep her off the pole.
The stripper pole.
So naturally we had a boy and I had to throw that sage advice out the window and start from scratch. Which never really happened. Weeks of pregnancy passed and then came the birth and then the whirlwind of the first few weeks and then hitting our stride as parents and then changes, changes, more changes. And amid all that, no serious thoughts about overriding parenting philosophy. Love him, protect him, make sure he’s fed. That’s about it.
Then this week happened. The human-child shunned sleep, the dog-child started treating the kitchen counter as his own personal buffet, cries and whimpering could be heard emanating from the walls of our apartment at all hours… first, the boy wanting comfort in our (once large-seeming) queen-size bed, and then the dog, spooked by fireworks, jumping up for his dose…and to top it all off, I got a new electric toothbrush and encountered surprising difficulty in 1) keeping it from attacking me, 2) preventing toothpaste from spraying out of my mouth and showering everything within a 10-foot radius, and 3) keeping Colleen from laughing at me. And, at some point, amid the blur of sleep deprivation, dog hair, and dried, mint-flavoring I looked in the mirror and thought: what kind of zoo is this? Maybe I need a plan.
Colleen put it best: every night this week has been like a drunken binge, and the next morning we’re just trying to piece together what happened. Where did you sleep? Did you sleep at all? What were those noises I heard at 3 a.m.? Were they happy or sad? What happened to all the diapers? So basically like “The Hangover”…with Watson playing the role of the tiger.
Our primary task has been trying to figure why Deck hasn’t been sleeping well. 3- or 4-hour stretches have become up-every-30-minutes screaming stretches. And frankly, I think we misdiagnosed the problem early on and violated the “first do no harm” principle. How? We stopped swaddling him. In the middle of a “leap” (in which he’s supposed to be learning new things and acting more fussy and needy regardless) AND in the middle of the 4-month sleep regression (in which he’s supposed to have more trouble staying asleep when we put him down during REM sleep…which is basically all the time). We–being the loving and attentive parents we are–took away his security blanket when (likely) he needed it most.
It seemed like a good idea at the time. He’s outgrowing his sleep sack. He’s expending a lot of energy trying to get out of it (and often succeeding by early morning). And he’s this close to being able to roll from back to belly on command, which is when the experts (of which there are many, self-proclaimed, on the interwebs and googlenets) say you should stop swaddling a baby.
So we put him in a fluffy duck outfit with his arms out and his legs mobile and thought: maybe this will help him sleep better. It didn’t. Looking back, I should have just pretended I was teaching him to ride a bike. You can’t expect to go from training wheels to the Tour de France overnight. Why did I expect that with sleep? Weird as it sounds, Declan has to LEARN to sleep. And just because he slept well four weeks ago doesn’t mean the conditions are the same tonight or tomorrow. I realized this week (in a half-comatose, half-caffeinated epiphany) that my job as a teacher doesn’t just start around school-age. It starts now. With tasks as building-block-basic, as rudimentary, as getting him to keep his body still enough to sleep.
Teaching him how to do that if an inexact science. He shoots his arms out, startled…I slowly move the arms back to his side. He starts to fuss and twitch…I place a hand on his belly, gently keeping him in place. He starts L.O.S.ing, as Colleen calls it (losing our shit)…I pick him up, rock and pat him, and then in a few minutes we start the process over again.
If I learned nothing else from my dad’s 1995 computer screensaver, at least I know this: I’m supposed to keep a long-term perspective. Even when I’m sleep-deprived and the dog is misbehaving and I am unable to work a toothbrush.
Which brings me back to parenting philosophy. I realize it’s my job to help Declan learn to do the things he wants (or needs) to do for himself. Right now, it’s sleep. One day maybe it’ll be riding a bike. Or math. Or dance. Or swinging upside down from a tree (but not a stripper pole) while eating bananas. What I know, I’ll teach. What I don’t, I’ll learn. Or else I’ll find someone who does know. And, above all, I’ll try to remember that teaching is not for those seeking instant gratification. It’s more long-and-winding-road than straight line. And what seems like failure in this moment is more likely progress… as long as we keep plugging away, keeping our perspective long-term.
So… this weekend, as Declan neared the end of his “leap”, we put him back in a modified swaddle and guess what? He slept well. Really well. Why? Who knows? Maybe the swaddle. Maybe our teaching and encouragement. Maybe it was just time. The lessons, as always: babies make no sense and parents need to stop worrying so much.