I think growing up in the 70s and 80s made me feel as though I’d be less of a woman if I didn’t go out and conquer some male domain like banking or truck driving. Motherhood was for the girls who didn’t have (a) guts, or (b) imagination. But a tenth-grade course in world religion and a little half-baked Buddhism also steered me toward the belief that we don’t really exercise that much control over our destinies. My father got really exasperated with me at the time, asking me why I was such a fatalist. I had an annoyingly negative belief in fate, a “why bother trying?” sort of approach, which accounted for an uncharacteristic slippage in grades and pretty much assured that I wouldn’t get into the college of my choice. However, during a hastily arranged interview at Connecticut College, I was able to use this belief to my advantage:
Admissions Guy: “So, why do you think you’re here?”
Me: “It’s fate!”
And so I got into college after all.
It took a little maturity to become a reasonable and positive fatalist, to believe that things are handed to you for a reason so take a moment to extract the lesson. Just like there’s a reason I was fired from my job, a reason I’m sitting here blogging, a reason I married Jack even though I was scared to death of commitment, and a reason I had Jackson even though I never thought I was meant to be somebody’s mom.
And a reason we had a night from hell last Friday. Jackson went to sleep at 9:00 p.m., then woke up crying at 11:00. (Odd, because he’s been sleeping though the night for three months.) I nursed him back to sleep, then he woke up crying again at 1:00 a.m. I knew he couldn’t be hungry, so I steeled myself to do whatever I had to do to get him back to sleep without becoming the human milk machine. It took about 30 minutes of quiet perseverance, but he finally went back down at 1:30. Then at 1:45 he was up again.
T. Berry Brazelton says that babies experience cognitive leaps (such as learning to sit unassisted, learning to grasp small objects) that often disturb their established sleeping patterns, and that you just have to bear with them as they adjust. Adults and babies both have four-hour sleep cycles; at the end of the cycle you’re sleeping really lightly and may be prone to waking if something’s already on your mind (e.g. something your boss said to you, or the fact that you’ve just learned to roll over from your stomach to your back and wouldn’t now be a good time to see if you can do it in the dark?). But you need to teach a baby to put himself back to sleep and not to depend on you, or you’ll be helping him back to sleep for a very long time.
So there was no way in hell I was going to nurse him at this point, and he was wide awake, so I read to him, changed his diaper, rocked him, walked him, and finally got him back down at 2:45. I thought that he must be exhausted by now (I was), but no, he was up again at 5:00. After a half an hour of crying and walking I was starting to wonder if he was really sick, but eventually he went down and stayed down until about 7:30, at which point Jack woke up fresh as a daisy and said, So, how’d you sleep?
The next night, I heard a squawk about 5:00 a.m., got up, picked him up, he drooped on my shoulder, and in five minutes he was out again. Hmm, I thought, maybe he’s learned something?
Sunday morning I put him down for a nap and I stayed in bed reading the paper. After ninety minutes I was thinking, Wow, what a tired little baby! After two-and-a-half hours I was thinking, He’s probably lying there bright blue and that’s the end of that. So I tiptoed in and there he was, lying on his back, sucking his fingers and looking out the window. Enjoying a little alone time.
The point of all this hopeless blather is that maybe we were given that awful night for me to step back and let Jackson take another small step toward independence, toward growing up and learning that he doesn’t always need me if he wakes up at night, though I know there are times ahead when he will. After all, we’re just here as scaffolding for him until he can stand on his own, in every sense of the word.
Big, warm, strong, loving scaffolding.
* * * * *
I know it must seem like I’m a ninny about Philip Levine, but this was on the Writer’s Almanac on my birthday and I loved it so much.
On My Own
Yes, I only got here on my own.
Nothing miraculous. An old woman
opened her door expecting the milk,
and there I was, seven years old, with
a bulging suitcase of wet cardboard
and my hair plastered down and stiff
in the cold. She didn’t say, “Come in,”
she didn’t say anything. Her luck
has always been bad, so she stood
to one side and let me pass, trailing
the unmistakable aroma of badger
which she mistook for my underwear,
and so she looked upward, not
to heaven but to the cracked ceiling
her husband had promised to mend,
and she sighed for the first time
in my life that sigh which would tell
me what was for dinner. I found my room
and spread my things on the sagging bed:
and bright ties and candy striped shirts,
the knife to cut bread, the stuffed weasel
to guard the window, the silver spoon
to turn my tea, the pack of cigarettes
for the life ahead, and at last
the little collection of worn-out books
from which I would choose my only name–
Morgan the Pirate, Jack Dempsey, the Prince
of Wales. I chose Abraham Plain
and went off to school wearing a cap
that said “Ford” in the right script.
The teachers were soft-spoken women
smelling like washed babies and the students
fierce as lost dogs, but they all hushed
in wonder when I named the 400 angels
of death, the planets sighted and unsighted,
the moment at which creation would turn
to burned feathers and blow every which way
in the winds of shock. I sat down
and the room grew quiet and warm. My eyes
asked me to close them. I did, and so
I discovered the beauty of sleep and that
to get ahead I need only say I was there,
and everything would open as the darkness
in my silent head opened onto seascapes
at the other end of the world, waves
breaking into mountains of froth, the sand
running back to become salt savor
of the infinite. Mrs. Tarbox woke me
for lunch–a tiny container of milk
and chocolate cookies in the shape of Michigan.
Of course I went home at 3:30, with
the bells ringing behind me and four stars
in my notebook and drinking companions
on each arm. If you had been there
in your yellow harness and bright hat
directing traffic you would never
have noticed me–my clothes shabby
and my eyes bright–; to you I’d have been
just an ordinary kid. Sure, now you
know, now it’s obvious, what with the light
of the Lord streaming through the nine
windows of my soul and the music of rain
following in my wake and the ordinary air
on fire every blessed day I waken the world.