Bedtime Tango | Minna Dubin

I never thought I’d be one of those parents who let their baby sleep in their bed. It’s a little too “all in the family” for me. And like many people, I worried, “What if I, like, roll over on the baby?” But in December my son Oscar emerges from my body and joins my family, and in no time, our bed.

Surprisingly, I love it. Having him in bed with us is beautiful. It is a picture.
Every time he shifts in the night, I open my sleepy eyes, see this sweet warm bundle and think, “There he is!”

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By week three, Oscar only wants to be on top of me –

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 – and I’m so high from the hormones that are still surging through me and the seduction of this hot little body that needs me that I don’t even mind.

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At night we lie tummy to tummy, our joined forms rising and falling with our breath, his body the double-time melody to my deep and steady bass.

Soon Oscar begins to learn skills, like smiling and ninja kicking and projectile pooping. Like all mothers, I’m sure my son is very advanced. But I quickly learn by the middle of month two that sleeping is not one of Oscar’s many talents. Our picturesque “whole family in the bed” thing wears off. His father, Ben, is a light and fidgety sleeper and unfortunately, it seems, so is Oscar. One wakes up the other every few minutes, making me the buffer between my twitchy boys.

In month three our bed looks like this:

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I lie on my left side curved into a moon sliver. Oscar is on his right facing me, curled into his own tiny semicircle inside the arc of my body, my breast in his mouth, the top of his head nestled against the soft underside of my bicep. We are two C’s – big and little. Each time Oscar awakens, I roll him over my chest to the other breast and we reassume position. We dance this bedtime tango all night long. On the other side of the bed is Ben: silently clutching the bit of space we leave him with his long straight body, forming an elegant and uncomplicated lowercase L.

Eventually, Oscar’s kicking and squirming become so strong that between that and the constant wakings and feedings, I am up every other hour. Ben is lying there, and I am alone, all alone, awake, and miserable. I don’t want this little C between my L and me, not even for one more night, and in the morning I cry, “That’s it!” Ben says, a little afraid, “Yeah, sure, whatever you want, whatever you need.”

So we ship Oscar off to his crib, all ten feet away in the dining room. At night I breastfeed him until he’s asleep in my arms, then I slowly get up, tiptoe into the dining room and lower him gently down into his crib. And it works! For two hours.

I try again, and it doesn’t work. I bounce him on the yoga ball until he is limp against my chest. I place him carefully in his crib, creep back to our room, close my eyes.
“Waaaaah!”

I try again. Sometimes it takes three tries, which add up to an hour, and if that won’t work then I breastfeed again, because of course by this time he is hungry again. Now he is only sleeping for 45-minute increments, and instead of getting seven hours like before when he was in the bed, I’m getting five or four or even three.

Being awake for more hours than asleep in the middle of the night feels surreal…and also very hungry. By 2AM it has been eight hours since dinner. I am wild for cereal, bananas, and dark chocolate. A year later, this lifestyle will result in many cavities but that is another story. During the midnight-to-4AM breastfeeding sessions, there is a point when I go so far beyond tired that I feel wide awake. I nurse and watch The Good Wife on my laptop through one earbud. When I notice Oscar has fallen asleep on me, I actually debate if I should put him down and go back to bed or finish the episode. I need to find out if Alicia gets it on with Will!

The next morning, coffee and Extra Strength Tylenol battle with my hangover-like sleep deprivation headache. Throughout the day I think manically cocky thoughts like, “I got this.” The next minute, Oscar is asleep in his stroller, and I’m lying next to him on the grass in Golden Gate Park, sobbing into the phone to my friends or family, “I’m so tired.” I hear them try to mask the worry in their voices as they cheerfully tell me, “It’s temporary.”

Because we’ve all heard it before, right? Being a new parent is exhausting. But none of that talk prepared me for the craziness and total despair. But “consistency is the key,” everyone says, so we keep it up for a week. One night towards the end of this week, after what feels like a thousand failed feedings and bouncing sessions, we hear Oscar’s cry from the other room. I must have punched my fist into the mattress, because there’s a soft swish of sheets as Ben turns to me and asks, “What do you need?”

Through the weary fog of 2AM darkness, these big questions have become common. Usually, it’s “What should I do?” and usually the other says, “I don’t know.” We have never said the words, “I don’t know” more than in these first three months. You never realize how infuriating that phrase is until it’s the middle of the night and one partner is feeling totally useless and hopeless and asks if he should (something) and you say, “I don’t know.” And he snaps incredulously, “Well should I?!” And you scream, not caring about the neighbors or the baby or anything, “I don’t know I don’t know I don’t know! What do you think?” And he responds, “I don’t know!”

But on this night, when Ben asks me what I need, I don’t say, “I don’t know.” I know. Quick like a light I just say it, strong and sure like a thick crack of thunder: “I need to not be his mother.”

In the morning, I awake with that incantation sitting bitter and shameful on the back of my tongue. I’m afraid to look Ben in the eye, not wanting to see his disgust or disappointment staring back at me. When I finally dare myself to look, all I see is exhaustion. I look down at my baby, hoping to show him somehow that I didn’t mean it. That I want to be his mother forever. Oscar looks back into my big, searching eyes and gives me his gigantic open-mouth smile. I burst into tears, so grateful I haven’t tempted fate or woken the graves of some angry nighttime gods, which I know sounds crazy, but with a week of no sleep, I could be a believer in anything.

The next night, we bring our little C back into bed. “He sleeps through the night?” you ask. No, no he doesn’t. He wriggles and kicks, and I flip him back and forth and I groan and sigh and huff and puff, and Ben and I add a few more to the I Don’t Know Mountain growing under our bed.

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But in the morning and every morning, Oscar welcomes the dawn with his twinkling eyes and his erupting open-mouth smile. With the rising of the sun, we lose our letter shapes and become a messy, tired pile, full of yawning and laughter and Oscar’s shrieks of delight – which must have magical powers, because every day they erase the night.

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Minna Dubin
is a writer, educator, and public artist in the Bay Area. She writes about her life and shares it so it feels a little less hard and a lot more funny. She is the founder of #MomLists, a Bay Area guerilla public art project on the struggles and surprises of early motherhood. When not chasing her toddler in circles around the dining room table, she is eating chocolate in the bathroom while texting.Headshot by Andria Lo.
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