When it is 5:00 in the morning, you like to be held tight, like this: Head up on my shoulder, little booty supported by one arm, and back supported by the other. I press my mouth against your head and hum every song I can think of, softly, slowly, hoping that will lull you back to sleep. When it is midnight and you’ve unexpectedly woken yourself—by tooting or smacking or by an errant finger to the eye—you like to be held in the cradle position, high and tight. Then as I step, I let my heel hit the ground with a little jarring, to give your head just a bit of a jiggle.
Remember this when you have your own kids: The secret to putting a baby to sleep, or back to sleep, is not to force it. Instead you have to create a way to let sleep overtake her. It’s like waiting for a baking cake to brown on top or your cup of steaming chocolate to cool enough to take a drink. It’s the feeling of running up a steep hill and knowing you must go just a little more and a little more. It’s tentative sips and strenuous strides. You’ll see what I mean later.
You’ll understand everything, in time.
But now I turn off the lights. I open the window to let the cool air in, and I begin to walk and walk and walk. While I do this I “shhh” loudly to drown out all the noise around us—the traffic, the laughter in the other room, your fussy protests—until you’ve quieted down. Then you’re ready for the music. Neil Diamond works best, Norah Jones is a close second, and Christmas carols will do if I run out of material.
I’m not much of a singer, and I can never remember all the words anyway, so I’ll sing “Maisy, Maisy” in the gaps or I’ll just hum the melody. Sometimes, it’s not even the melody, just my interpretation of what the melody could be or should be here in the dark with my baby.
When it’s late enough and I think I’ve walked enough, I dance my favorite steps. The waltz is a logical choice—dum, dee, dee, dum, dee, dee—but if I’m singing Elvis, the two-step works better. If your eyelids are being particularly stubborn and you really need some jiggling, I do the cha-cha-cha.
Then your eyelids begin to droop. Your breathing becomes shallow, almost silent, and your head becomes heavy and begins to melt into my arm or my shoulder or my breast. Your arms become floppy and your legs rubbery. Sleep has almost enveloped you.
This is my favorite part.
I look down at your face, so calm. Any frustration or fear of the day has drained. Your skin is porcelain; your round, relaxed cheeks like peaches, and your little lips form a perfect triangle. Sometimes they quiver and the corners jerk into an unconscious smile that quickly plays across your face and disappears. Then you sigh in gratitude, in trust, in complete comfort.
I feel like crying. I flash forward to ten years from now, eight months from now, two weeks from now, even ten minutes from now when you will no longer need me to walk you, to comfort you. Soon you’ll be able to put yourself back to sleep, and later I will no longer be able to give you all the peace you need.
Lately I’ve been singing “The Way You Look Tonight.” I keep repeating the same line over and over again, mostly because it’s really the only one I know. But also, it has acquired new meaning in the middle of the night. I look down at your little round face and your big unblinking eyes looking back at me, wondering what we’re doing walking back and forth at 4 a.m., and I sing softly, “Some day, when I’m awfully low, when the world is cold, I will feel a glow just thinking of you, and the way you look tonight.”
All the books say that I should share “nighttime parenting”—that the surest way to avoid “mommy burnout” is to let Daddy do some of the late-night walking. That I’m the one who has to nurse you, but I needn’t be the one to change you or to hold you until you fall asleep again. But the luminous love I feel for you, the gift I can offer you through the simple act of walking, does not burn me—it gives me a warm, glowing happiness I refuse to share. I know it will elude me soon enough.
Mothers will brag, “My baby slept from 9 to 6,” or, “My baby barely stirs at night.” And I do the same thing. I sigh and say, “Oh, Mae woke up three times last night,” or, “I’m really tired—someone didn’t sleep at all last night!” What I want to say is, “I had the loveliest time with Mae last night. We danced and danced,” or, “Mae was so cute last night, I must have kissed her little buttery cheek seven zillion times.” But I don’t. All mothers keep that time—the hours when it is just me and you—a secret.
QUESTION: What commonplace task can you find beauty in?
CHALLENGE: List two beautiful things inherent in one of the seemingly mundane, unpleasant tasks you have to do this week.
Originally published in Midwifery Today.
Edited by Kat Tilby and Katie Carter.
Image from Shutterstock; graphics by Anna Jenkins.