“Why?” I inhale deep, trying to tap the deepest reservoir of my patience, which runs pretty thin at this hour. “Because it’s dark outside, it’s late, it’s when our bodies sleep.”
“My body hurts,” he whispers. “My leg.”
And then he starts mewing, like a wounded cat, louder and louder.
“Shhh,” I hiss, hoping he won’t wake my wife.
I can’t see his face in the dark, so it’s difficult for me to tell whether his pain is the truth, or a tactic that he hopes might bring mommy, or both. Either way, it’s aggravating, because there’s not much I can do to help him. A quick check reveals no bumps or scrapes, so if his leg does indeed ache it probably does so because he’s growing.
In the way that time warps in the wee hours, I’m not sure how many minutes go by – Ten? Twenty? An hour? – before he’s whispering in my ear again, wanting a sip of water.
These nightly needs are why I’m in bed next to him.
I’ve written about Felix’s current crop of sleeplessness before, and since then his wakings have only escalated. Co-sleeping seems easier than jumping up and down through the night, calming him down, resettling him into the covers, and then sometimes falling asleep while patting his back, trying to convince him that it’s alright, he’s safe, he can close his eyes with no worry; he’s home. If I’m in bed with him then my wife sleeps through the night, Felix goes back under faster, and I’m better able to comfort him without becoming fully awake myself. Most nights, anyway.
Not many parents talk about how the sleeplessness of the newborn can extend into their earliest years. It’s a rough six months or so, I remember being told, and then they normalize, no problem. You’ll be back to sleeping through the night in no time! As if a toddler never wakes up with leaky diapers, or from bad dreams, or complaining of growing pains, or in need of a drink, or screaming with night terrors.
Turns out, the more I ask around, the less standard kids’ sleeping patterns seem to be. Many parents go through elaborate bedtime routines to get their children down, or stay with them for some time after tucking-in, patting their backs, singing to them, or otherwise consoling or cajoling them into la-la land. And others, like me, end up climbing back into bed with their kids, even at a late age. (My son will be 4 in May.)
I used to judge the co-sleepers the way I used to judge parents who brought their babies into bars. Then I had a kid, and realized that there is no science to sleep. Some kids fall from consciousness to slumber with ease. Others require more ritual. (I’m in this category myself.) Still others find it challenging no matter how much ritual and coaxing you provide. Even with me in the bed, Felix bolts upright almost every night, a cry escaping his lips, or a call for help, before he realizes that I’m there, next to him. This isn’t something I encourage, I never tell him he needs me for sleep. Nor is his nighttime desire for Daddy something I talk about in the negative. I don’t want him to feel any guilt about it.
Nights when he seesaws in and out of sleep with frequency require cool and calm, as my frustration begins to boil into anger the more he reduces my forty winks. I try and remind myself this won’t be forever, he won’t want me to sleep with him in college. And then there’s the nighttime pleasures of snuggling next to his small, warm body, stroking his hair, feeling his gentle breath on my neck. “Is it ok if I cuddle with you, Da-da?” he often coos. Who can say no to that?
We set up an imagined path for ourselves at parents, a way that things should go, behaviors – like co-sleeping – that we say, “No, that’s not for me.” But all that flies out the window in the face of the actual child you have, and his or her needs. Our children are living beings, as varied and unpredictable as the shape of trees. Some need different kinds of care, than others. And who are we to deny them that?