Ever since we moved Ingrid out of our bedroom and into her crib last fall, I'd been sitting in the chair next to the crib until she fell sleep every damn night. Sometimes this took five minutes, some terrible times it took well over an hour. If I left the room before she was asleep, she cried inconsolably.
So I stayed, counting it, on my more optimistic days, as an opportunity for rest and meditation if not a good way to get anything very productive done during the evening. On the worst nights, I could barely fight my antsiness and frustration at needing to spend so much of the night sitting there quietly in the dark. I would gape with bitter, active jealousy at friends’ casual mentions of their simple and bounded bedtime routines.
One evening almost three weeks ago, I sat in the chair for 20 minutes as Ingrid chattered, rolled, and examined her toes. She showed no signs of being ready to fall asleep soon, and I had a list of things I wanted to do downstairs. And I just decided, in the space of about 30 seconds, that she did not need me in that chair and that she would be fine if I left. So I stood up, very gently told her, “Mama’s going to go downstairs now. You’ll be just fine. You can listen to the music box and snuggle with your animals. Goodnight.” And I left, and she cried for about three minutes, and then fussed a little, then and then didn’t make another peep until morning.
Lots—lots—of transitions have happened this way for us. Night weaning. Moving to the crib. Leaving her for the first time in a church nursery with people she barely knew. It’s always the same: weeks and weeks of (my) fretting about it, wishing she were ready, despairing that she showed no signs of being ready, limping along doing things the same old way and getting more and more worn down by it. Then, suddenly deciding things must change, steeling myself in anticipation of unhappy, gutwrenching toddler mayhem and getting, instead, almost cheerful compliance from Ingrid.*
I’d like to think that this pattern comes from some uncanny motherly ability on my part to tell precisely when Ingrid’s ready to make one of these big moves. And probably it does have something to do with my being in tune with what she can take.
But more than that, I think things keep happening this way because, though these are changes Ingrid naturally becomes more ready to accept as she grows older and more independent, they aren’t things she’d ever naturally suggest on her own or even accept if I gave gentle hints and nudges about them. She can only do them by following my lead. To be ready to sleep without nursing, fall asleep alone in the room, stay for an hour with new people, Ingrid needed to see that I was certain she could do those things and certain that she needed to.
I have no problem with being in charge when it comes to tormenting the cat or eating dirt or wearing clothes in public or sitting down in the shopping cart. But these things—the sleep, the separation—mostly benefit my own sanity, not necessarily Ingrid’s well-being (except – importantly – the well-being that comes from having a sane mother). I'm surprised at how hard it's been to prioritize that, and how long it's taken me to see that the "cold turkey" method is sometimes the only way to get things done.
This seems like a good time to point out that at times I have been known for being pretty smart. I have just about every brainy credential you could ask for, but darn if parenting hasn’t totally humbled me again. What a revelation: Sometimes things work a lot better for us all when I take charge.
*Except for night weaning. Nothing cheerful about that transition, and some truly blood-curdling screaming.