Her Bad Mother

Wednesday, April 5, 2006

Of Socrates and sleep

The ancient Greeks had a word to describe the condition of being at a loss: aporia, άπορία, from a poros, which means, roughly, to be without a passage or a way. It is to be without direction, without resources, to have no way out. It is ordinarily used in a philosophic context: the Socratic stance is the aporetic stance, the assertion and demonstration that one does not meaningfully know what one thinks one knows; that one is, in fact, at a loss with regards to the thing that he thinks he knows, and so in the condition of aporia. From this, it is hoped, one will be filled with the desire to pursue knowledge of that thing (and, if one is truly philosophic, the desire to pursue knowledge more generally and fully.) Aporia, then, from a Socratic perspective, the perspective of the philosopher, is a good thing.

From the perspective of the new mother (whose aspirations to philosophy took a baton to the knees with the birth of WonderBaby) the condition of aporia, in its most mundane, prosaic form – the form of “WTF?” that rears its ugly head when you realize that whatever it was that you thought you knew about sleep/breastfeeding/shit/whatever has been reduced to the most shadowy and mistaken opinion and is now hindering your laborious climb out of the Cave of Ignorance that is new parenthood – sucks hard.

This Bad Mother doesn’t have the time or the inclination to savour the philosophical condition of aporia. Bad Mother has no interest in elenchically interrogating the nature or character of sleep as it pertains to babies. Bad Mother would very much like to smack hard any character – even if that character is a voice in her own head, which admittedly makes smacking difficult, if not impossible – that tells her that real understanding comes with knowing that she does not know. Because Bad Mother needs more sleep and she needed it yesterday. (Which explains why Bad Mother persists in refering to herself in the third person and driving herself and her three readers slowly but certainly insane.)

Which is to say: I've spent a great deal of time looking for that elusive knowledge, the Secrets of Babycare, that wisdom that will light the way out of the cave and out into the sun-drenched world of predictable schedules and consistent and abundant sleep. I've been looking for a Way Out.

I haven't found it. But stay with me.

So we’ve had a few rough nights - very rough nights - recently. The whole sleep thing suddenly, although not entirely unexpectedly, went tits up: WonderBaby outgrew, literally overnight, both her bassinet and her swaddle. And her Bad Parents, despite all of the fretting and hand-wringing about whither the swaddle, did not have a plan in place for adapting to these new circumstances. What used to work, and all that we thought we understood about baby sleep, has been revealed as nonsensical, useless crap. Welcome to Mommy Aporia.

Oddly enough, sleep conditions during the recent Royal Tour had been unexpectedly excellent: WonderBaby slept blissfully in her odd little hotel crib (which, as I noted last day, did not resemble a crib so much as it did a cage in a zoo. Or a shopping cart.) And she napped easily between Royal Visits, even going so far as to indulge in a little swaddle-free napping.

But we had only been home some hours when the crib-sheets hit the fan. Her bassinet had clearly shrunk in her absence, so it was decided that she move to the crib. This seemed an excellent plan, as she had slept so well in the hotel crib. That is, it would have been an excellent plan but that her own crib, despite its decidedly un-shopping-cart-like construction and plush bedding, was deemed by WonderBaby to fall short of hotel standards. Cue screaming.

After a flurry of swaddling and shushing and nursing, WonderBaby settled, only to awake a few hours later, having unraveled her swaddle. So WonderBaby was re-swaddled and re-settled, only to unswaddle herself again a short while later. The swaddle, clearly, was being rejected. Freestyle settling was attempted, and failed: WonderBaby would drift off happily, unrestrained, on the bed, only to immediately awaken and flip out when transferred to her crib. So it was that she was relocated into bed with her Bad Parents, where she slept soundly - unswaddled but firmly cuddled - for the rest of the night.

To which we might say: all’s well that ends well. Whatever works, right? If WonderBaby sleeps best in the bed, then let her sleep in the bed and a good night will be had by all. Not quite. There is not quite enough mattress real estate on a queen-sized bed for two adults and one unswaddled, off-the-growth-chart baby who insists upon practicing her floor routines while sleeping. It only takes one well-aimed kick to the boob from a tiny unswaddled foot to drain all of the charm out of co-sleeping. (Yes, bearing witness to the cheery baby grin than accompanies the robust baby fart first thing in the morning mitigates the unpleasantness of being treated like a floor mat throughout the night. But only just. And that happy experience can be had simply by bringing baby in to bed in the morning, after all parties have had a restful sleep in their own beds.)

We were, in other words, determined to persist with the swaddle-free crib sleep. So over the next day and night, we rolled with the baby punches, persisting with the crib and refusing to fall back on the swaddle. And it seems – seems – to be working: WonderBaby sleeps, this very moment, a sound, unswaddled sleep in her crib. As she did for a full five hours last night. Not a full night, but a good stretch, and desperate sleep-deprived parents who have been at a serious loss as to how to cope with an apparently high-sleep-needs baby will take what they can get.

It hasn’t been easy, and I expect that the next few days will continue to be challenging. But there is progress. And where there is progress, there is hope.

Four things that seem to be making a significant difference:

1) We replaced WonderBaby’s crib mattress with an extra-extra-firm model. She spent most of the first four months of her life sleeping in a bassinet with a very firm base, with only a plush chenille blanket, well-tucked into the base, for padding. The original mattress wasn’t nearly that firm (it was, in fact, somewhat springy), and we speculated that she just didn’t find it comfortable. So we bought the firmest mattress that we could find, and she settled into the crib last night without a complaint.
2) We're allowing for some controlled fussing-it-out. We tried some crying-it-out, but under the new sleep conditions this seemed to be counter-productive: the crying would escalate and WonderBaby would inevitably flail herself awake. But a little bit of patience with the fussing – hovering nearby, ready to put a steady hand on a frantic little arm or gently stroke a furrowed brow – seems to be working. WonderBaby goes into her crib awake but sleepy, and wriggles and mumbles for some minutes before settling down. If she starts getting upset, we soothe her, and she settles back down. But we ignore the mild fussing, and this seems to work.
3) We've temporarily moved our mattress into her nursery. This probably seems crazy, but it’s working for us. It was meant to facilitate the transition to the crib – her bassinet has been in our bedroom from Day One, and our nightly sleep ritual moves from bath to nursing and cuddling in bed to putting drowsy WonderBaby in bassinet beside the bed. The idea of moving the mattress was to keep as closely to that sleep ritual as possible while WonderBaby adjusts to the other changes. But it’s less a sleep-ritual aid for WonderBaby, though, than it is a sleep-shortcut for me: sleeping nearby allows me to respond more quickly and easily to her middle-of-the-night demand for boobies. It’s very crowded in the nursery right now, but it’s temporary: once everyone has settled into the new swaddle-free, crib-centric sleeping arrangements, Bad Parents will move back to their lair.
4) The Husband has taken over the night shift. This is the big one, the thing that, I think, has made and will make all of the difference: once WonderBaby has had her midnight feeding, I retire to the sofa in the living room and the Husband remains. There are two huge advantages to this. First – and foremost – I get extra sleep (which, among other things, affords me the strength to get through the days with a more wakeful WonderBaby, whose naps have become abbreviated in the absence of the swaddle). Secondly, it seems to be our best bet for lengthening WonderBaby’s nights. I’ve always tended to wake up at any and all sounds emanating from WonderBaby’s sleep zone, but the Husband is very well-practiced at ignoring her completely unless she cries. By removing me from the room, and so removing the possibility of me waking her with preemptive feedings, we figure that there will be more opportunity for WonderBaby to soothe herself through her periods of light wakefulness. And so far this seems to be the case: once I've left the room, everybody stays down. (And did I mention about how I get extra sleep?)

Again, this is all entirely experimental. We know that we will continue to face challenges, that some of the above strategies may be misguided, that they will fail. We’re totally winging it, going with what works, with what is practicable, with what feels right. It's all that we can do. But by doing so, by following our guts and acting on our well-considered instincts, I feel that we’re gaining something, that we are no longer entirely at a loss. And maybe, just maybe - lack of sleep aside - coming to love this whole messed-up, mapless journey. We're in this together, the three of us: this is family. Blind, fumbling, loving family. I don't know why, but somehow the 'blind' and the 'fumbling' seem to have everything to do with the 'loving' and the 'family.'

So I still have no idea what the fuck we are doing, but I’ve come to understand (however reluctantly) that I cannot simply think my way through the challenges that new motherhood throws at me. Motherhood – parenthood – is, I think, all aporia. And it is not the aporia that can be met by philosophy. This aporia is a condition that can only be met by the gut, and the heart. It's the no-way-out that you come to love because you love - with whatever difficulty - the struggle that defines what's within.

It's taking some time, and some work, but I'm coming to understand it. I think.


Blogger kittenpie said...

we all just wing it through this part, my dear, and probably not really well, either, given the sleep-deprived fog we are in!

We also put a futon in pumpkinpie's bedroom when we moved her to her crib, and eventually started leaving after the 2:30 waking, then when she was sleeping a bit longer, after the 12:30 walking, and finally, blissfully, spending the whole night in our OWN BED!!! And we got a white noise maker for her room, which seems to help for us too.

Good luck getting through this trying time - it's a tough uphill climb, but it feels SO good when you make it. And you will. Someday.

4:22 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As a fellow college professor, I have to say:

I have never seen so many big words in my life. LOL.

Okay - I have my dictionary out now.

I love your intellectual analysis of this whole thing and as a fellow analyzer of ALL THINGS big and small, I hear you.

So, here's my reply.


It's okay.
Whatever works.
You need sleep.
She'll adjust.
She won't be sleeping in a swaddler, your bed, etc. her whole life.
It will pass.
This is all I know.

4:25 PM  
Blogger Chicky Chicky Baby said...

As a woman who went through that whole sleep...
trying to find an appropriate term
Where the hell is that dictionary? Screw it...
... that whole sleep thing with my daughter a scant 7 months ago I still twitch at the thought of all the luxurious trips to the land of Nod that I missed. But I'm here to testify that sleep will come. Oh, yes. It will come. And when it does you will regain some of your intelligence back. Because clearly, as this post shows, you are lacking in the smarts department!

My head hurts.

4:45 PM  
Blogger Sandra said...

It sounds like you and your husband are doing exactly what you said - meeting your aporia by the gut and the heart. That's all we can do. Every baby is different and every blind, fumbling, loving family is different too. If I've learned anything it was that all the well intentioned advice, poorly written baby books and over analysis that I considered wasn't nearly as useful as just following what "felt" like the best solution for us. WonderBaby sounds like she has a great mom (and a smartie pants one too). Wishing you good sleep...

6:21 PM  
Blogger ninepounddictator said...

Aww, see I read this, and I'm away from my Dictator for four more days, and I'm jealous that you get to be with your baby, even through fitful nights....Can she get any cuter?

Also, I can honestly say, it took me about 7 months to "get" my baby.

you're doing just fine. Better than fine, it seems to me.

7:27 PM  
Blogger Christina said...

Sounds like you've put together a good plan for the moment.

See, one of those things that no one tells us as moms is that parenting books are fucking useless. Each baby has its own quirks, and you simply have to figure out what works best for you and the child.

For us, the firm mattress was also a must. I also recommend a fleece crib sheet (wonderful, wonderful invention!) and a white noise CD. E-mail me and I can give you a good recommendation for a CD that we still play every night for Cordy.

10:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

doooode, you can't be jealous of Juniper sleeping through the night. You guys are working it out, and our kid is FOURTEEN months old. You're way ahead of our game.

10:40 PM  
Blogger Moxie said...

What Wood said. The only real secret of baby sleep is time.

But you're about 5 steps ahead of the game by knowing her so well. Great call on cutting short the CIO when you figured out she's an escalator. Great call on using the FIO when that doesn't bother her. And stupendous call on moving the mattress into her room. You will be thieves in the night, stealing yourselves back to your own room, before you know it.

I hope you're loving your couch as much as I'm loving mine.

10:44 PM  
Blogger scarbie doll said...

You do what you can to get by. And just when you think you have them figured out, they change on you. So good luck with that. We co-slept for three months in the Queen full-time, and we'll still resort to that from time to time but it's not fun anymore now that Nate likes to sleep perpendicular to us. No room in the queen for an "H".

As for unswaddling, try the Gro-Baby bag. I think that's what it's called. It's this sleeping bag thingy that goes on over pjs and keeps them warm and cosy -- no swaddling, or unswaddling involved. Might be just the thing for the long haul.

12:07 AM  
Blogger The City Gal said...


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11:23 AM  
Blogger GIRL'S GONE CHILD said...

great post. We never had the sleep issues but I can relate nonetheless. It's pretty unbelievable that through all the everything parenthood throws at you, you can look at your child and love them the way you do. It's kinda life affirming.

12:48 PM  
Blogger Miguelita said...

I love the way you put things.
And you are right, it is ALL about doing what works for you.

We had two bassinets in our bedroom for 3 months until I realized that I was the problem. I would hear the slightest stir from the babes and try to remedy before they *really* woke up. Turns out I was just *completely* waking them up. Moved them into their room and voila - they slept a 7 hour stretch.
You do forget the aporia once they start sleeping through the night. Otherwise the race would die off from lack of sleep.

1:32 PM  
Blogger Gina said...

Your writing cracks me up! I understand some of your stuggles, but I love how you describe it so perfectly. How did you learn to write so descriptively? Marvelous reading here, lady!

2:20 AM  

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