How to (not) Explain the Afterlife to Your Toddler

Last night was my turn to put Maya to bed. We still haven’t quite gotten to the point where we can read her a story, tuck her in, give her a kiss and leave the room. That night I reminded her that soon she would be a big girl and mommy would be able to leave the room and she would go to sleep all by herself. She replied “But I don’t want to be a big girl mommy!” We went through a few rounds of her trying to get my attention, with me responding either with silence, or with a robotic “I love you Maya. Go to sleep.” The last time we had this battle of wills she started crying saying “Mommy I have a stinky finger! Mommy I have a stinky finger!! I need to wash it! Mommy? Mommy!!? MOMMY!!!! My curiosity beat out my resolve. “Maya why do you have a stinky finger?” “Because I put it in my bum.” Faaaabulous.

After several minutes of silence, I started to plan my escape. All of a sudden I heard her little voice, sounding like she was on the verge of tears. “Mommy I don’t want to grow up because when you and Daddy grow up I will still be a kid and then I won’t have a mommy and daddy anymore.” Part of me was impressed by her ever more cunning strategies to procrastinate going to bed. My curiosity, as it often does, won again. I responded. “Maya that’s a long way off. Mommy and Daddy will be here for a long time.” “But when I die I won’t be able to play with Pinky Bear anymore. And I won’t have my bed anymore. And I won’t live in this house anymore!” she wailed. I thought, “Where on earth did this come from?” quickly followed by “How the heck do I respond to that?” I had not yet prepared for this level of awareness about death. I was sure I would have at least a few years to prepare satisfactory for these types of questions. I was on the spot.

“Maya I’m sure Pinky Bear will be with you. He’s your best friend. He’ll always be with you.” That did not appease her. “But I won’t live in this house anymore and I want to live in this house forever! And I won’t have my mommy and daddy anymore.” she whimpered. I tried to think of a suitable response. It didn’t help that I do not have the standard answer that religion often supplies. I didn’t believe in heaven or hell. The concept of reincarnation felt a little too esoteric for a three-year old.  

I thought about my own beliefs about what happens when we die. My beliefs were not taught to me explicitly, but rather were revealed to me.  It was during a wilderness program called Guiding Spirit (which I’ve written about before in previous posts). We were camping in a place called Ghost River in Alberta. When the First Nations lived there it was known for giving people powerful dreams or visions. One night I had a terrible nightmare. In it one of the program’s teachers was behaving in a childish and cruel way. I woke up terrified. The dream stayed with me the entire day, leaving me with a terrible feeling. I decided that I needed to dig a bit deeper to understand why it was clinging to me. I went into my tent, closed my eyes and started to meditate. As I re-created the dream I felt the same panic and helplessness. Instead of running from it though, I kept my eyes closed and let the vision guide me where it wanted to go.

All of a sudden, it was like a window had opened in my mind. I could see the entire universe, bathed in brilliant darkness. In the middle was a sphere of moving light and energy, glowing as if it were on fire. And there was a little speck of light that was making its way to the massive orb. I knew that I was that speck of light. It reached the sphere and was absorbed. At that moment I felt the most incredible and complex emotion I have ever experienced. I was overcome with a feeling of homecoming, reunion, joy, relief and love. It filled my body. It overflowed. Tears of joy streamed down my face. As the feeling ebbed, it left me with a sense of deep peace. I have since wondered if there is a word for that mix of complex emotions, and the only English word I can think of is ecstasy. But I don’t really like that word. Maybe there is a better one in Italian. Or French.

That experience resolved the intense longing for something I could never quite define, a longing I had felt for most of my adult life.  It also provided me with an answer to what happens when we die. We go home.

Several years later I was talking to a good friend that I met in law school. I called him my spiritual advisor. He is an Orthodox Jew and one of the most amazing (and hilarious) men I have ever met. At one point in the conversation he asked me about my beliefs. I took a moment to think about it. “Oh! I remember!” I said, and then proceeded to tell him what was revealed to me at Ghost River. I had not told anyone about that vision. He found it quite funny that it took me a moment to remember my beliefs. His beliefs are as familiar as his own skin. What struck me was what he said next, that what was revealed to me was very similar to the teachings of his faith. I wondered if that coincidence was meaningful.

As I sat in the dark, listening to Maya’s whimpers, I recalled that vision.  I tried to explain that when she dies she goes home and sees all the people she loves, but was interrupted by her wails that Great Grandpa won’t get to play with her anymore. Trying to explain to a three-year old that death is like being welcomed home might be a bit too abstract. Her sadness about her Great Grandpa not getting to play with her brought tears to my eyes. He had died of cancer the year before at 91 years of age, just after celebrating his 70th wedding anniversary. We had been able to spend a week with him a few months before he died. It was the first and last time Maya would meet him.

I picked Maya up out of her crib. She snuggled next to me in the big overstuffed chair in her room. Tears fell from my eyes as I reminded her that her dreams were magical. If she wanted Great Grandpa to play with her again, all she had to do was ask him to come and play with her in her dreams before she went to sleep. Then, when she was fast asleep, Great Grandpa would come and play with her in her dreams. “But what if he doesn’t come in my dream?” she cried. “If you ask him to come play with you in your dreams, he will come Maya. Your dreams are magic. Anything can happen in your dreams. You can fly in your dreams, you can breathe underwater, you can swim with whales and dolphins. Just ask Great Grandpa to come and he will.”

She was quiet for a moment and then tearfully said “Great Grandpa will you please play with me in my dream tonight?” We sat together in that chair, with her nestled under my arm, leaning against my chest. Within minutes she was fast asleep. I let her sleep there beside me, soaking in the weight of her body. I marveled at the conversation we had just had, wondering what had all brought it on.

It was the next day that it came to me. She had seen Cinderella several weeks before and wanted me to tell her the story over and over. Each time I told it a bit differently, but that day I had started from the beginning. In the beginning, Cinderella lived with her father because her mother had died, and soon after her father died as well, leaving her alone with her mean stepmother and stepsisters. I hadn’t realized how dark the older Disney movies were until I started watching them through a 3 year-old child’s eyes. Many of them feature a parent dying or a child being kidnapped. The newer ones seem positively sanitized in comparison. Was it a bad thing, I wondered, to expose her to death this young?

The next day I waited to see if she would raise the subject again. Instead she told me proudly “Mommy I heard you leave my room last night and I went to sleep all by myself and I didn’t even cry!” Ah toddlers.

How to Survive the Toddler Years – A Mini-Survival Guide for Parents

Today is my daughter’s third birthday. As I was listening to her dad put her to bed tonight I overheard her say “But I don’t want to be three Daddy. I want to be two again. Next year I will be three okay?” I have noticed that lately she has wanted to play “baby” quite a bit. She will lie down on the floor with her feet and hands in the air making cooing sounds. Then she will show off for me how well she can crawl. After a minute she will announce that she just learned to walk. It drives her dad a bit crazy, but, having worked as a counsellor for several years, I know all too well what is fueling this “regression”. The simple truth is this: change is scary.

We, as adults, might think of all of the changes she is facing as progress, and rather exciting progress at that. We applaud each time she masters a new task and tell her what a big girl she is. But toddlers are no different than we are as adults. Change makes us all a bit nervous. Adults, as a general rule, do not do change well. Think back to the last time you decided to lose weight, or quit your job, or eat healthier, or quit smoking. If you are like most people, before you actually attempted any of those things, you likely spent a good chunk of time in ambivalence; that lovely place where part of you wants to change and the other part is decidedly not as excited by the whole prospect. So instead of changing, we hem, we haw, and we list three good reasons not to change. Then after months or even years of this hemming and hawing, we decide we’re really going to do it this time. And we do it!  We’re off and running for a few months until we mess up or drift back into old habits.

When I think of how many changes my daughter has experienced in the last few months, it’s no wonder she wants to re-visit being a baby. In the last month alone we weaned her, as gently as possible (it did not turn out to be very gentle), from nursing and her bottles. A few short months ago she started big girl swimming lessons where mommy doesn’t go into the pool with her, but instead watches from the sidelines. We’ve been talking to her about getting her a big girl bed; which will mean that instead of sitting quietly in her room with her until she falls asleep, she will go to sleep on her own. Then we told her that she would be going to a big girl pre-school in the fall, which will mean that daddy won’t be there with her. When I think about it, being a big girl doesn’t sound exciting at all! All of it seems to involve letting go of something that makes her feel secure. Of course it’s scary. Of course she wants to regress back to being a baby where mommy and daddy were always there with her.

But there is also that part of her that wants to take the risk of growing. It is that part that I see at her swimming lessons: once her little hand leaves mine and she takes those first few steps into the water towards her teacher, I no longer exist. I see her joyous smile after she emerges from dunking under the water after slipping. I hear her tell this story with pride over and over, “At swimming lessons I dunked my whole body in the water when I slipped!” It is that part of her that I see at the playground when she climbs up a tricky ladder, slips, and then catches herself. “I’m okay mommy. I caught myself!”

It is a delicate balance, as a parent, to honour both of these parts. Our own fears can invite us to pay too much attention to her fears and insecurities and stifle the part that wants to take a risk. On the flip side our own impatience can invite us to stifle those valid fears and push the change before the child is ready. What has helped to remind me to be more compassionate to her ambivalence, is to draw on my own experiences of ambivalence and the process I went through to overcome my own fears.  I try to live the mantra “Be what you say.” If I want my daughter to have the courage to take risks and overcome her own fears and ambivalence, well then I better darn well be able to do it myself. Hence my other motto, “Do something that scares the shit out of you on a fairly regular basis”.

My favourite example was a 20-day canoe trip on the Clearwater River in Northern Saskatchewan as part of a guiding course. River canoeing was thrilling, but very dangerous. People die canoeing rivers all the time. To paddle a river safely takes skill, skill I did not have confidence that I even possessed. On this trip we were learning to be guides. The river we were paddling was a class two river, while we would only be certified to lead a class one, which was much less dangerous.

It was near the middle of our trip that it was my turn to be the guide. I had been dreading it. My experiences of guiding our hiking trips thus far had not gone smoothly, apart from the meals I prepared. That morning, as got everyone up, I tried to portray an air of confidence.  But in reality I was filled with anxiety.  I felt completely incompetent. This trip was supposed to be as traditional as possible, no fancy stoves or freeze-dried food. That day, of course, it snowed. Starting a fire to cook breakfast for our group of 20 was a nightmare. It was not a good start to the day.

My co-guide for our paddle that day was my friend Vicki. She took the stern of the canoe, and I was in the bow. The role of the person in the bow was to follow the orders of the person in the stern. When we came upon a set of rapids, we instructed the group to paddle to the shore so that we could plan our line down the rapids. The goal was to avoid tipping at all costs. The water was very cold and there was a real risk of hypothermia. To paddle the rapids safely we needed to plan how to paddle the rapids, what strokes to use and when to use them. Vicki and I made the plan and instructed the group on how to navigate the rapids. Each canoe made it through following our directions. I felt a small burst of pride – our plan worked! Finally, it was our turn. Everything was going well until Vicki misunderstood the signals from our instructors. Instead of slowly paddling backwards, which everyone had done successfully, she changed her instructions and yelled at me to paddle forwards at full speed. I could hear the panic in her voice. I knew it was not the right call, not what we had planned, but my job was to obey. “Paddle harder!” I heard her yell. I felt helpless to do anything but obey her. We struck a rock and the canoe slowly overturned. I felt the icy October water hit my body. Then I did what I was trained to do. I rescued the canoe and started swimming to shore with it. My instructor had to yell at me three times to let go of it and just get to shore. Once there everything went into full alert. I had to get out of my wet clothes to prevent hypothermia. Someone had to find me dry clothes as my pack was in the water. Someone else had to start a fire. I could tell that Julian, one of the instructors, was worried. I felt like a complete idiot.

That night I made dinner for the group. Dinner was usually my strong point. That night, however, I ran out of food before everyone had eaten. I scrambled to make another meal, knowing that people were cold and hungry. Once I had served everyone, Julian noticed that I wasn’t eating. I told him that I wasn’t hungry. He asked me if I was the type of person who didn’t eat when I got stressed out. I said yes. He gently told me to eat. I listened. Later that night I walked as far away from everyone as I could. I cried and cried. The day I was supposed to prove myself was a disaster. Everything had gone wrong. At least, I thought to myself, the next day I would go back to being a follower and not a leader. Tomorrow would be better.

When I woke up the next morning I was told that we were staying there for the whole day. When I asked why I was told that we were staying because they recognized that I was scared shitless. We were going to spend the day going down the same rapids over and over again until I regained my confidence. My heart sank. If there was one thing I did not want to do, it was go down those rapids again. I heard later that when I got into the canoe with Pat, our other instructor, my face was white with fear. What I remember most about that day was Pat’s determined gentleness. He knew I was scared to death, but he also knew that I could do this. He never sounded discouraged, or impatient, or frustrated. He showed me that even paddling in the bow, I had more control than I thought I had had. We paddled down those rapids together over a dozen times. The last time we went down we did it with me in the stern, barreling right down the middle at full speed through the waves and filling the canoe with water. I was calm and breathless from joyous laughter.

Later that evening, I found myself bawling again. But this time I wasn’t alone, and it wasn’t from despair. I was surrounded by people and felt a strange mixture of joy, sorrow, love, relief and gratitude. They had seen me. They had really seen me. They saw my fear and my courage and they had honoured both. They didn’t berate me for being afraid, but didn’t support me in that fear either. They supported me through my fear with compassion and a belief in my abilities. I will never, ever forget that.

That is the memory that I hold on to when I see my daughter struggle with her own ambivalence. I see my daughter. I see her fear and her courage and I honour both. I have compassion for her fear. I honour it by comforting her and holding her close to me. I tell her that I know that feeling discouraged and disappointed and sad feels yucky. I tell her that I am here for her. I tell her that she’s my little baby. But I also honour her courage and her desire to grow. I gently push her towards her goals and clap with pride when she tells me “I did it mommy! I did it all by myself!” I say “Of course you are!” when she reminds me that she is not a baby or a little girl, but a big girl now. I want her to feel seen. I want her to know that I love and accept and honour all of who she is, her fears and her insecurities as well as her courage and abilities and strength. I want to see her barreling down her own rapids, breathless with joyous laughter.

 

How to Mess Up the Weekend with your Toddler in 5 Easy Steps

As a full-time working parent, to say that I look forward to spending the weekend with Maya, who will be three in a week, is a massive understatement. I cherish the time I get to spend with her. Saturdays are special time just for Maya and me, so that Dad, who stays home with her during the week, can finally get some work done. Sundays are our family days. This past weekend, however, it was special time with Maya all weekend long. I should have realized, from experience, that it is not wise to place high expectations on things that are likely to fall far short, things like an entire weekend with your toddler. In hindsight, there were several things that I did that messed up my weekend. You can learn them too! Here they are, in five easy steps.  

1. Have ridiculously high expectations

It is difficult not to do this. I cannot help but look forward to the weekend and envision everything going perfectly well: a perfectly behaved child who listens and immediately complies with all commands and requests; a child who asks for nothing, but when given something remembers to say thank you; a child who is gracious and humble; and most importantly a child who gives me random hugs whilst telling me she loves me. We walk hand in hand, skipping along through the day like Mary Poppins. The sun shines a little brighter for us. Flowers bloom as we walk by. Birds and small animals come right up to us to say hello. That was my hope. I forgot to factor in two important things, however. One, she had just gotten over a fever a few days previous, and two, she was, after all, a toddler. High expectations are just a recipe for tears and disappointment.  

2. Go to places where they will legitimately expect treats, and then deprive them

As per Maya’s request, on Saturday we went to the Vancouver Aquarium. After perusing the fish on the upper floor, we went to where the real action is, the play area at the bottom, where Maya can take a large stuffed seal and pretend to nurse it back to health. After about an hour of this I dragged her away so that we could go outside. It was the first sunny day we had had in days and I wanted to take advantage of it. Being a weekend parent means that I am not as familiar with schedules as I should be. This is coupled with the fact that I have an organization deficit. If I remember to eat during the day it is a small miracle. I often come home from work ravenous and irritable, having forgotten that bodies and minds need sustenance to function properly. When I was the full-time parent, I was quite proud of myself that Maya and I had made it through a day, properly fed. It was quite an accomplishment. 

But I have not been her full-time parent for almost a year now, and my awareness of her routine has faded. By 11:30 she was starting to get irritable. She was probably starving. I sat her down near the beluga whales and took out the snacks that Dave had prepared. I forgot, of course, that the last two or three times we had been there she had had a slice of cheese pizza. And a juice. What did I have with me? Water and slices of cheese, apple, and ham.

Maya has amazing recall for an almost three-year-old, and remembers every single pattern of behaviour. These become her routines. If we deviate from these routines, she will protest. Loudly. “Mommy I want cheese pizza and a juice!” “Maya, mommy brought nice snacks that Daddy made us. Look we have cheese slices! And ham! You love ham!” I reply. She ups the volume. “Mommy I want cheese pizza and a juice!!!!” After several minutes of this, with the pitch of her whines getting higher by the second, I try the scolding tactic. “Maya we are not having pizza and juice. Now I want you to stop this or we’ll just go home right now.” This was followed by howls of despair. When your toddler is having a mini meltdown in public, it really is difficult to ignore the fact that people are watching you. If you don’t calm your child down immediately, you can hear the judgment “Look at her! She doesn’t even know how to be a parent. If that were my child well let me tell you…”

I ignored the real or perceived judgment and took her in my arms. I used the tactic that works best with me. A calm voice and a dash of creativity. “Look Maya!” I said excitedly, “I bet those seagulls over there would love your ham and cheese snack! Why don’t you show them how good it is?” And she calmed down and started eating her ham and cheese, while the seagulls watched from a distance. I was quite pleased with myself. Which leads me to step number three.

3. Ensure your toddler returns home wounded

Just as Maya was happily enjoying her snack and wondering when we would give the seagull some of her cheese, a gull took flight and flew right towards her. I stared at it in shock as it swooped right in front of Maya and tried to take the cheese right out of her hand, biting her finger in the process. I was so shocked that I barely reacted, except to say, “Maya watch out!” which was completely and utterly useless. It was another parent who had the sense to shoo the gull away. Maya, of course, burst into tears, with the cheese still in her hand. I did my best to comfort her, but I knew, immediately, that I had lost. I had lost all credibility as a person who could make things better. If anything I was the one who invited the gull to attack her for her cheese snack in the first place.

I took her into the line for the cheese pizza. The only battle I won was that she settled for water instead of juice. Wound or no wound, I wasn’t paying $4.00 for a juice for the love of god. I asked an employee if they had some kind of bacterial wipe or handwash. The gull had broken the skin. I was pretty sure that gulls beaks were teeming with all kinds of exotic bacteria that were now making their way into my child’s bloodstream. I may have made it sound worse than it was. Two first aid attendants rushed over with a gigantic first aid kit. Seeing that there was no blood, they got on the walkie-talkie, “It’s not a Code Two, just a Code One.” One sighed, with relief or disappointment I couldn’t tell. But in between bites of her cheese pizza Maya got two bandaids and a sticker. I wondered if they had a sticker for “worst parent ever.”

4. Only visit playgrounds where no one will play with your toddler, no matter how cute she is

The next day I couldn’t decide what we should do. It was going to be a beautiful day and I wanted to go to the beach. I had hoped to go to Crescent Beach, where I had spent my summers growing up, but we had quite a late start to the day and it was a long drive. We settled on a beach closer to home that had a playground. Maya LOVES playgrounds. I love watching her interact with other kids. Her eyes light up when other kids play with her and she smiles the most wonderful smile that is reserved for the pleasure she gets from playing with new friends. Knowing she will be an only child, watching her can be an emotional experience for me. I am always so happy when other kids play with her.

But this time, no matter how hard she tried, the other kids ignored her. It didn’t help that she tries to play with kids a bit older than her, or that all of the kids seemed to come to the playground in pairs, not needing or wanting a third. I watched with distress as Maya’s attempts to join in the play were rejected. She is so good-natured that she kept following these kids, scampering after them, saying “I’m coming!” so that she could go down the slide with them, never noticing that they weren’t really interested. For whatever reason, that day, watching her broke my heart. I felt like weeping. I am weeping now as I write about it, and wept earlier today as I told a male colleague about it. He was mortified that my tears just kept coming. I couldn’t stop them.

I struck up a conversation with one of the moms of the child that Maya was following and lost sight of her. I peaked around the corner to where the stairs were, and saw her. Her mouth was open in a silent cry. I ran towards her and saw an indent in her forehead. Within seconds it grew into a terrible, giant lump. It made me wince just looking at it. As I held her and walked to the bench, one of the dads told me that she has slipped on the metal steps. It looked like she hadn’t even the time to brace herself. I held her and did my best to soothe her. She cried and cried. But, being a toddler, within a few minutes she was fine and wanted to go back and play. Luckily all of the older kids, that I now wanted to throttle, had left. There was a little girl with her mom. Maya went right up to her, and she looked up adoringly at Maya. Maya took her hand and led her to the slide and we all went down together.

It finally looked as I might have turned the corner on the weekend, but no! Any semblance of redemption was eliminated by the fifth and final step.

5. Make sure your toddler does not nap under any circumstances 

We have been experimenting with Maya and her nap schedule. There was a period of time where she wasn’t going to bed until 9:30 or 10:00 at night. I would put her to bed, then walk from her room to mine and go right to sleep. No time to myself. It was intolerable. That is when Dave and I had “the talk.” His eyes widened in horror when I told him we should take away Maya’s afternoon naps. “I’m not ready for that yet!” he exclaimed.

So we experimented. The days she didn’t nap she went to bed at around 7:30 and wasn’t all that grumpy. But there were some days where she still needed it. Desperately. Saturday was one of those days. Of course because we were out for the entire day doing fun things, napping was not part of the schedule. We had recovered from the seagull incident and had relocated to Second Beach, with the best playground in the city. There were lots of kids there, and Maya found friends easily.

On the way home, Maya fell asleep in the car. I had asked Dave to meet us at the shops so that we could pick up a few things. I figured he could use a nice walk. He found us in the parking lot and got into the car. Maya woke up. She was not happy to see her daddy. She screamed the entire way home. She screamed and thrashed when I got her out of the car. She screamed when we got into the house. She wanted juice. Dave brought it to her and she almost kicked it out of his hands. She screamed for juice again, and again thrashed wildly when he tried to give it to her. She struggled to get out of my arms but then screamed if I wasn’t holding on to her.

Normally, in situations like this, I would use my super powers and have the situation immediately under control: super powers being my boobs (see Bye Bye Num Nums for a more detailed description). But my super boobs were out of commission. Dave and Maya had gone to Ontario for 10 days and when they returned, I had tried, as gently as possible, to let Maya know that mommy didn’t have num nums anymore. That first night she arrived home was terrible. After a long day of flying and time zone changes, she settled into my arms all set to nurse. I tried to remind her that mommies don’t have num nums forever, and she wailed in reply, “I don’t want to be a big girl mommy!” After several minutes of her hysterically trying to withdraw my boob from my bra, we both sat in the big chair in her room and cried. She finally fell asleep with me stroking her hair saying, “You’ll always be my baby sweetie pie. Mommy will always be here. You’ll always be mommy’s baby.” The next morning she protested slightly, and that was it.

But that Saturday, I would have given anything for those super powers. I had never seen her like this, completely unable to calm down. I was at a loss. Then I remembered how terrible it is to have feelings like these that are completely out of control. I had felt like that before. It was an awful experience. I felt a deep sense of compassion for how horrible she must feel. I contained her thrashing as best I could and cooed to her “I know it’s really hard to have these yucky feelings sweetie. It’s really hard to feel all of these yucky feelings. I know. Mommy is here and we’ll just wait for all of these yucky feelings to go away. I know it’s hard sweetie. We’ll just wait.” This seemed to do the trick. She quieted down and eventually drank some juice. Then she was back to my loving child. Sundays “no nap tantrum” was thwarted by the arrival of my friend Jeremy, who Maya adores, particularly because he drives the same Triumph Bonneville as her Uncle Jason.

As I took the sea bus to work this morning, I couldn’t figure out why I was in such a terrible mood. It was a gorgeous sunny day. Flowers are blooming while the rest of the country is under a thick blanket of snow. I should feel good. But I felt miserable. It was when I started weeping while talking to my mortified colleague about the playground rejection incident that it hit me. The weekend I had so looked forward to wasn’t perfect. There were some terrible moments in there, moments where I felt like a failure as a parent. There were moments that were heart wrenching. I know that part of it is that I’m not there for her the majority of the time. I need to grieve those bad moments. Because when I do, when I look at these moments with compassion, the magical moments appear. As we were driving home Sunday, after a weekend of emotional highs and lows, a part of my dream weekend did come true. Maya said to me, out of the blue, from her car seat in the back, “Mommy I really love you.” I really love you too Maya.

Ahhhhhhhhhhh bedtime

It was my turn to sit in the dark. Dave and I trade off who will sit in Maya’s room until she falls asleep and we can safely slip out. Tonight was my turn.

We have actually been quite fortunate with Maya’s sleep. Within a few months, Maya was mostly sleeping through the night. I’m guessing that sleep patterns are at least partly genetic and thankfully Maya inherited our sleep genes. We both LOVE sleep. A lot.

In the few months after she was born and before she started sleeping for long chunks at a time, we were up, as most parents are, every few hours. Dave was very sweet. Each time Maya would wake, he would get up, change her diaper, then pass her to me and I would nurse her back to sleep. He was working full time, but insisted on getting up each and every time she woke up.

Dave, however, does not function optimally without sleep. After several weeks of this it was wearing on him. He became, how shall I put this, a rather large grump. One night I suggested that he could sleep in the spare bedroom and get a full night’s sleep and I would take care of the nightly changing/feeding. He replied “Nope! I am her dad and it’s important to me that I support you. You shouldn’t have to do this alone.” What was I supposed to say to that?

The next time I offered, I added, gently, “But you know Dave, it is also supporting me if you get a good night’s sleep because you’ll feel better (i.e. not be so grumpy)” But he was insistent. And true to his word. Every single time she woke up, he would get up with her, change her, bring her back to me and go to sleep. I nursed her, in the dark, and counted the minutes it would take for her to fall back asleep again. Usually it was 20. It often felt like 20 hours.

She slept in a bassinet attached to our bed until she was almost 6 months old and the transition to her crib was seamless. We were able to put her to bed awake at nap times and she would put herself to sleep. “What amazing parents we are!” I thought. Ha! This all changed when she learned to stand. I have noticed that each time we think we have a handle on this parenting gig, Maya changes the rules. We adjust, develop a new strategy. Just when it is working and we’re feeling smug, she changes them again.

We, admittedly, did not follow the recommended strategies advanced in all of the sleeping books. Once asleep she slept so soundly that holding her in our arms until she dozed off didn’t feel like a chore. We both know that she will be our only child, and we are very aware that her childhood will be fleeting. So we submit to her pleas to hold her. When she was teething and woke in the night, Dave would take her into the basement and sleep with her, so as not to wake me. He would say “She’s my little baby and how much longer am I going to be able to hold her in my arms and cuddle with her like that?” We were often weepy in those moments… possibly from lack of sleep.

Now we’re at the stage where she can put herself to sleep again, but insists that we stay in her room with her. We still give her a bottle before bed (I’m sure that’s another huge no no), read her the same bedtime story, give her a snuggle, and put her in the crib. Then one of us leaves, the other turns off the light and tries to get her to go to sleep. She is a pro at prolonging the inevitable. We must tell her stories. She loves ones about when we were little, but doesn’t understand why I don’t know Dave’s childhood stories, nor he mine. She really loves the story about when she pooed all over Dave when she was a baby. Dave or I will tell her the story and she will laugh and say “That’s so funny! I pooed all over Daddy! I was laughing wasn’t I mommy! That’s so silly!”

Other nights we have to change that fact and focus on the poo on the walls as suddenly pooing on her Daddy makes her cry “I didn’t poo all over Daddy!” and I will respond “No you’re right, you just missed Daddy and the poo went all over the wall. Isn’t that funny?” It actually shot out like it was under enormous pressure when Dave was changing her diaper. Dave screamed a truly horrific scream and my mother, who was staying with us, thought Dave had dropped the baby. “No mom, don’t worry, Dave and the room are just covered in poo. Go back to sleep.”

Thankfully Maya has moved on from the poo story and now prefers to hear stories from our childhood vacations. Once those are done, she will find any number of ways to avoid sleep. I will tell her “Mommy is going to sleep now. You can talk to your toys but mommy will be asleep. I love you Maya. Have a good sleep” and she will reply “I love you too Mommy.” Then she will sing “Hallelujah” (KD Lang version) to her Pinky Bear, or, if I’m lucky, the chorus of Pokerface by Lady Gaga. There will be silence. Then she will make sure that the yucky painter guys and the yucky spray guy and Swiper won’t come in her room. If she hears a squeak of the chair she will say “Mommy don’t leave!”

After 10 minutes when I’m sure she is asleep and I am preparing for my escape I will hear a whispered “Mommy I love you.” My resolve to keep quiet and stay “asleep” will disappear and I will whisper “I love you too Maya. Now go to sleep please.” A few minutes later… “Mommy I need a towel.” “Why Maya?” “My hands are wet.” “Why are they wet?” “I put them in my mouth.” “Maya wipe them off and go to sleep please.” A few minutes later… “Mommy I have snotties. I need a Kleenex.” And so on, and so on, and so on.

Most of the time I am impressed by the amount of patience I have, although there are times when I feel like there is something inside me that is trying to escape my body and is pacing like a caged animal, preparing. Those are the nights that I am determined to end these ridiculous shenanigans right here and now! 

But there is order in our chaos! This is the preparation for the big girl bed and the big girl nighttime routine. This is how I have envisioned it in my mind. We will get her into her big girl bed, read her a story, tuck her in, kiss her good night and then LEAVE THE ROOM. It will be glorious! But, to tell you the truth, I’m not in a big rush. The nights I spend in her room, alone in the dark, are strangely meditative. I have come up with some amazing ideas in that dark room. And at no other time of the day do I get, out of the darkness, a whispered “Mom I love you!”

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