I barely slept a wink last night, as I was preparing to get up at 4:00 am to gather a rowdy band of 17-year-olds and drive them to a bus for a weekend in New York. They had planned this trip by themselves, and it was an exciting foray for them. I was happy to sacrifice a night’s sleep and see them off. I’m paying for it today, but I know that I’ll get to bed at a reasonable hour tonight and will be fine by tomorrow.
But years ago, when I had infants, the thought of sacrificing a night’s sleep after living with babies who didn’t sleep was horrifying. Not sleeping yet again was just too horrendous to contemplate. Just about every person who has taken care of a baby has lived through the indescribable pain of not sleeping for days, weeks, months, sometimes years on end.
My oldest son, after his first month of life confusing night and day, settled into a routine that still brings chills to my bones. He would suckle and fall asleep around 10:00 pm; then he would wake at 2:00 am, and proceed to consider it playtime until 5:30 or 6:00 am. Every. Single. Night. For two months.
It was summertime, and we would sit on our porch swing, waiting for the newspaper to be delivered and for the sun to rise. Only then would he settle back into sleep for a few hours.
I have never been so tired in my life. The physical pain from the lack of sleep was excruciating. I could barely see straight, let alone enjoy the moments with my new baby. Life was nothing but nursing, changing diapers, dozing, and then nursing again. I thought it would never end. I didn’t know how I would go back to work. I didn’t know how I would ever enjoy my life again.
And then, magically, as if he knew that my maternity leave was just about over, precisely one week before I was to head back to work, he slept through the night. Six hours. Just like that. And he did it the next night. And the next night. And the next.
Soon, my baby was a champion sleeper. Not only did he take two-hour naps in the morning, he would take four hour power naps in the afternoon, and still go to sleep at night for six or seven hours. Those marathon afternoon naps last well until he was nearly five years old.
And today? Given the chance, he has been known to sleep until 3:00 in the afternoon. Just try to rouse him before noon.
My other two babies were so easy in comparison. Three or four months of getting up once in the middle of the night for a quick feed, slurp, slurp, la-di-dah, ten minutes and they were done and they went back to sleep (in their own crib) until morning. I barely had to open my eyes. After having lived through the first, I felt like I had been given a gift of epic proportions.
Well, apparently my younger two children are French, because they had such an easy time “doing their nights” (fait ses nuits).
I am in the middle of reading a book that my Current Mom colleague, Stacy Feuer, wrote about several months ago, “Bringing Up Bebe.” It’s all about how the French raise their children to be more polite, more patient, better eaters and better sleepers than American children. I don’t usually read books about rearing babies anymore, since I am long past that stage, but it practically jumped off the library shelf.
I feel like I’m reading an affirmation of my parenting style, which I’ve always characterized as something akin to benign neglect. I have often felt to be a bit out of sync with many of the parents around me in my high achieving, high pressure, high hovering community.
The French, apparently, believe that raising a baby (and ultimately a child) should not be an Olympic sport, and should not overtake the new mother’s need for adult conversation, sit-down meals with her husband (in a restaurant, no less,) the opportunity to wear her Louboutin heels and even spa time. According to the author, Pamela Druckerman, an American ex-pat living in Paris, French mothers believe deeply in the baby’s ability to manage its life according to the parents’ needs from the very beginning (or almost the very beginning.) The polar opposite of American-style parenting, where baby’s every need is attended to. Immediately.
One of the French mamans’ secrets is “The Pause.” “The Pause” is the French way of stopping to listen to the baby to determine whether he is really waking up, or just shifting in his sleep. “The Pause” helps a French mother figure out whether her baby is really hungry, or whether she is passing a cranky moment and can wait until “gouter” – 4:00 pm, or the official snack time for all French babies.
In fact, there are never baggies filled with Cheerios and Goldfish in French mothers’ Hermes pocketbooks for emergency snacking. There are four set times that the French eat, 8:00 am, 12:00 noon, 4:00 pm and 8:00 pm, and there is little, if any, deviation. In fact, most French adults don’t even indulge in the gouter, and prefer to wait until the 8:00 dinner hour. (this clearly makes me French too, since I can’t seem to get dinner on the table any earlier than 7:30 pm these days, what with my longer work days.)
So The Pause, combined with regimented but manageable eating habits inculcated from the start, seem to conflate to allow French babies to fait ses nuits – do their nights, or, as Americans understand it, sleep through the night – from as young as two or three months. And to be less whiny about (not) eating in between meals. The author also marvels at young French children sitting in restaurants, not fidgeting, not whining, and definitely not scarfing down chicken nuggets while the adults are waiting for their food.
I fell down on the snacking issue when my children were little. I was as likely as any mother at the playground to have some crumbling Goldfish in my diaper bag and later, my own purse. My children were allowed to snack (and still are) but they are now also required to sit down at the dinner table and eat the dinner that is made for the family, or else they need to make their own. No double orders, no personal chefs. By the time my youngest was about five years old, I was done with the second shift of dinner making and I believe that this has had a beneficial effect on our family.
There’s no reason to bash American parenting norms here – that’s not what I’m getting at. But what I found so fascinating about reading “Bringing Up Bebe” is that much of what I thought I was doing wrong when I had babies – well, it seems I may have been doing it right. Aside from those first two horrible, sleepless months with my oldest son, my babies learned how to sleep and have always slept in their own beds and through the night. I think I must intuitively understand “the Pause” – and have spent a lot of time listening to see if I could understand what my children need, rather than running to their sides to soothe them before I know.
As my children have gotten older, and particularly in the past couple of years, I have been very attuned to placing my own needs and priorities in proper perspective, and not always allowing my kids’ needs to trump mine. I have things I want to do, work I want to accomplish, places I need to go. While it’s important to me that my children needs are attended, I am determined to make sure that my menu of needs and desires also sits high on the priority list.
How very French of me. Now if I could only find a way to afford to do it all in a pair of Louboutin heels, the world would at last be on its proper axis.
photo by paul goyette via Flickr