Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Finding the Heart of the Story

Over a year ago, I received a small grant from 4Culture, a King County organization, to work on a writing project about an old friend and neighbor of mine—and the story of how I inherited his cabin. On Sunday, November 21, from 2:30 – 4:30 p.m., at the Northeast Branch of the Seattle Public Library, I will read excerpts from this project, discuss its evolution, and offer a free writing workshop to those who would like to stay on and participate.

I’ve written on this blog about Els, Frank, and the cabin before in posts titled The Gift and Love Letters, but here I will give you the gist of the story. I grew up in the house next door to Frank and Els until I was ten, when my family moved a mile to the north. Frank was a sailor, a merchant marine, a loner, an avid fan of literature, and a generous soul. Els was a writer, a philosopher, a baker, a painter, a community activist, and a lover of children. Their marriage was not always the happiest, especially since Frank was often at sea for half the year, but together they lived in a small cabin on a wooded double lot in Northeast Seattle for over forty years. They never had children of their own.

Els died in 1999, and Frank died in 2006. That spring I would learn that he had left me their house. We had become good friends over the years, but Frank had never hinted that he was considering leaving me such a huge gift. Over the next couple years I would proceed to clean and sort through decades worth of treasures that Els and Frank had collected at sea, along with boxes full of letters that they’d exchanged during their many years apart. In 2008, my husband and I were finally able to move into the cabin, and since then I have continued to sift through Els and Frank’s vast collection of slides, log books, letters, and artifacts left behind, absorbing countless intimate details from their lives.

When I applied for the grant from 4Culture, I imagined that the heart of the story would be focused on the process of inheriting their cabin and things; the strained dealings with Frank’s relatives; and the legacy and weight of the possessions that we each collect and pass on. But as I’ve continued to dig deeper into the artifacts and letters. I’ve begun to realize that what I once thought was the heart of the story is perhaps only the back story, and that the true trajectory of this story is still being lived out as my husband and I and our seven-month-old son begin to imprint our own roots in this cabin, and as I continue to read Els and Frank’s letters which prompt me to reflect on the myriad dimensions of these things that we call family, home, work, longing, and purpose.

I devoted much time during my pregnancy to this project, especially to reading the letters. Now, the time has come for me to present to the public what I have accomplished during the year and a half that has passed since receiving the grant, and to thank 4Culture for the role that they have played in helping me giving birth to this book-in-progress.

I invite you to join me on Sunday, November 21, from 2:30 - 4:30 p.m., at the Northeast Branch of the Seattle Public Library, where I will first give a reading, and then, around 3:30 p.m., offer an informal writing workshop for those who would like to stay and write. I will offer prompts for you to free-write from—focusing on the themes of our loved ones, homes, and possessions—as well as an open space for us to share.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Holding Still

Recently, I’ve started holding my son for at least one of his naps. It started as an attempt to get him to sleep longer. Cedar had started waking up from his naps after as little as fifteen minutes, and then he wouldn’t go back down. After this happened enough times, I decided that it was worth it to me to just hold him, even if that  meant I couldn’t bustle about and attend to all the chores on my list.  Restful daytime naps are crucial for babies (and moms), especially since they affect how well babies sleep at night.

Holding Cedar in my arms, I can usually get at least an hour out of him since babies sleep best in warm, womb-like, contained spaces. Often, he’ll still wake up after the first thirty-minute sleep cycle, but after he opens his eyes and sees that I’m still with him, I can quickly jiggle him back to sleep. First, I’ll swaddle him, then bounce him on the ball, and once he is asleep, sink slowly back into our big, soft orange recliner, his head nestled in the crook of my left arm. I’ve learned to get everything ready before I start this routine—I make a cup of tea, get a snack, my journal, book, phone, a glass of water, my date book, and anything else I might want, and place these all on the table next to the chair. Sometimes Cedar will sleep for as long as two hours in my arms, and for these formally unheard of napping marathons, I am ready.

When he was a newborn, I spent a lot of time wearing Cedar in a wrap as he slept. But I also heeded the advice from others that if I wanted my baby to learn to nap by himself, I should practice putting him down. In fact, it could come as a relief to do so, since a newborn is otherwise glued to your breast practically every waking moment. Because of this, there was a part of me that’d come to associate now holding my baby as he slept as somehow “a step backwards” from the original goal of getting him used to sleeping alone. But, thankfully, this was only a small part of me, and the greater part of me has been able to remember this ritual for how precious it is.

One of my Facebook friends, someone I barely know, wrote to me after I gave birth that she has often wished she could hold her grown son again, just once, as a baby. Even though many have remarked on how quickly this time goes, her comment stuck with me-- her desire to remember her son as the newborn that he once was—that all of us once were. Now, each day, I am reminded to pause again, even in the midst of my exhaustion, to pause and stare at my son’s face as he breathes, and to take deep breaths myself as I center myself in one place.

I also love how our new napping ritual creates the space for me to journal more or read. These are activities that I used to do all the time, that felt as essential to me as food and water, but that mostly eluded me in the months following giving birth. Now, Cedar’s weight in my arms is like my anchor.  If I wasn’t holding him while he napped, I’d still be flitting around doing dishes or answering emails for half an hour, and before I’d know it, he’d be awake again. But while holding Cedar, I must give up the desire to be “productive,” and instead, take this time to nurture myself. Now, when it often seems like I have given up so much of my former life and routines, I have reclaimed this one sweet, reflective pocket of time. This time that is essential. This time that holds me still.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Sleeping With My Baby

Sleep has not been great lately. Cedar has been back to waking every hour or two, nursing for ten minutes or so, then going back to sleep before eventually, inevitably, the pitter-patter of his kicking feet, the squirming of his slowly-breaking-free-of-his-swaddle body, the twisting/turning of his head (we call it the Stevie Wonder—“doing the Stevie”), or else just his soft insistent eh-eh-eh cries alerts me that yes, indeed, he’s waking again, and I’d better roll over and feed him or else he’ll just get louder and keep me up longer.

Ah, sleep. Ask virtually any new parent and they will tell you how we are obsessed with it. How much sleep we and our babies are getting, whether they are sleeping through the night, how long they nap and when and how often, how to get them to nap and sleep longer and fall asleep on their own, and when we can expect things to change…and change again.

Cedar was a “good” sleeper the first two or three months, only waking once in the middle of the night. Then, everything changed, progressively getting worse until we arrived at the awful waking-every-hour stage, which catapulted me from doing fine, even great, into sleep-deprived and on the edge. A lot of his waking I attributed to gas. I went on an elimination diet, his gas got better and his sleep did too-- for a while. But now, I don’t know what to attribute these recent days of frequent waking to. Gas might still be a culprit, especially since I’m now reintroducing foods and finding out what he’s sensitive to. But night waking might also just be his habit or mode of operation now, too. I can’t say for sure.

When sleep initially improved from Cedar waking every hour or two, to every two to three hours—I was thrilled. I could live with this. I could get through my day without feeling so exhausted that I was leaving burners on or forgetting to buckle seatbelts. And more than this, I had enough energy again to actually do things like read and write.  Waking every two to three hours still is not great, of course, and I was reminded of this when talking to friends whose babies were sleeping through the night. But at least I was imbued with a new sense of hope-- things were getting better. Once we were through with this diet, if things didn’t continue to improve then I could employ some kind of sleep training techniques. Everything comes and goes in phases. We had just survived a hard one, and were moving into an easier one. Hurray!

For the most part, I still feel this way, despite the last few days of bad sleep. I still feel hopeful that Cedar’s gas and allergies getting better, and conversely, his sleep is improving, as is my ability to take on more. For a while, I felt we were catapulted back into “survival mode”—that is, just focusing on trying to feed ourselves and nap during the day to make up for the bad nights. Everything else had to wait. “Survival mode” is what most of us were doing during the first month or so after childbirth. Ideally, we should be well beyond that by now, but sometimes, I guess, you regress.

I remember that first month like a dream. The long nights of waking and feeding for hours at a time. How toasty we kept our bedroom at night to keep Cedar warm enough without having to use a lot of blankets, and with the door shut to make sure our cat stayed out. In fact, for the first two months I slept in my bathrobe so that I would not have to pull any covers up around my upper body. That way, I felt safe sleeping close to Cedar in our bed. I wanted him to be able to hear his mama’s breathing while he slept, to feel safe in this new environment outside the womb, to trust that he was taken care of and all his needs would be met.

From the beginning, I couldn’t imagine putting him in a bassinet or anywhere else that was removed from me at night. My husband and I had anticipated sleeping with him, buying a king-sized bed before he was born so that we’d have plenty of room as he grew bigger. Partly, the decision was practical—we only have one tiny bedroom, so there was no logical place for a crib. But mostly, it was based on the reading I did, the people I talked to, and my own intuition that told me I wanted to sleep with my baby. I was relieved that when at the hospital the nurses, too, seemed to think that this was the logical place for a newborn to stay day and night—next to his mother—and that no one tried to warn me that I would suffocate him if I didn’t put him in the bassinet.

I cherish the memory of those first nights sleeping next to Cedar. How tiny his body was then, how fragile and new. How quickly he took to my breast, instinctively knowing how to root, and then feed. We practiced side-lying feeding then, because I’d had a cesarean and thus could not sit up to feed him, and ever since then this has been our preferred position. It’s so easy and relaxing to lie down and feed, although in the beginning he needed help getting in the right position for a proper latch. Now, it’s old hat of course, and that boy can find my nipple in the thick of his sleep from a mile away.

Although many people I know choose to sleep with their babies (and some planned for this, whereas others fell into it to their own surprise), as a whole, it is still somewhat frowned upon in American culture where giving your baby his own crib and room—sometimes from the very first day—is the norm. People have all kinds of fears about parents smothering their baby with their bodies or with the covers, and although such tragedies have happened, they have usually been a result of an irresponsible parent’s negligence—such as going to bed drunk—versus the actions of a cautious, aware parent. The research I did showed me that bed sharing with your baby was safe, when done right. In fact, some studies showed it to be even safer than using a crib with regards to reducing instances of SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome), because mother and baby are so attuned to each other’s breathing. (Of course, you can find the opposing statements as well.) But in any case, it’s a personal choice that can be safe, and many more parents do it than you’d think, either because they like it, or because they find that they and their baby sleep better that way.

I love sleeping with Cedar. In the beginning when he was smaller, I admit I was a little paranoid about it, but then I was more paranoid about everything. Now, I still mostly sleep facing him so as to stay more attuned to where he is. But I never worry about rolling over onto him, because my body is so aware of his presence. My senses have been in hyper-alert mode ever since giving birth, attuned to his slightest motions and cries, and this alertness does not turn off at night.

But sometimes, I do wonder if I’d be sleeping better if he wasn’t in our bed. At night, I wake to his movements and noises even when he is not fully awake himself, and it is hard to just lie there and listen to his half-asleep rooting or crying when I know that a quick “nip” of the boob will bring him back to deep slumber. So I feed him, and we go back to sleep quickly, and now, I’m afraid this has become his expectation—again and again and again.

This has then led me to also wonder: if he were in a crib in his own room, would he really be “waking every hour or two,” or is he not actually even waking half the time, and would he learn to go back to sleep on his own easier if he did not smell, sense, and know that I am right there by his side? As much as I still love having Cedar in our bed now, will I one day regret not transferring him to a crib while he was still young enough to not more actively protest? When Cedar is, say, a year old, will my mama friends all have babies who have been soundly sleeping through the night in their cribs for months, whereas I’m still struggling with the same night waking patterns? I can’t help but wonder.

I’ve told myself that if it gets bad enough, that I would consider taking extreme measures and trying out a crib. But the problem is, I don’t want to. For one, it’s not practical; it would mean putting a crib in the living room and either having to tiptoe around in dim lighting once he goes down, or putting him down in our bed and transferring him to the crib when we are ready to go to bed, which sounds like more trouble than it’s worth. And secondly, I believe the literature that says that bed-sharing can help foster wonderfully secure children who are just as independent, if not more so, than their crib-sleeping peers. But mostly, I would miss having him in our bed. I would feel terrible casting him out of it prematurely. And I’m not sure I have the conviction or resolve to put us through a trying transitional period, for uncertain, and possibly worse, results. If it went badly at first, I’d be tempted to pronounce right away that it wasn’t going to work.

I know I would feel similarly about the Ferber approach to letting your baby “cry it out.” (Putting your baby down awake, then going in to soothe and calm him when he cries, but not picking him up or feeding him, and over time gradually increasing the amount of time that you wait before going in). I have a low threshold for hearing and letting my baby cry without responding right away, and I’ve heard that it can sometimes takes weeks of long bouts of crying for this approach to “work.” Some think that your baby can lose his trust in you. I cannot say if this is so, and I do not want to judge people who go the Ferber route because I know what sleep deprivation feels like. I think the “cry it out” approach can work for some babies and parents, but not for all. I seriously doubt it would work for us. I would give the methods in Elizabeth Pantley’s “The No Cry Sleep Solution” an in-depth try first. If those didn’t work, I ultimately wouldn’t rule out some modified version of Ferber. I am resistant to the idea of it, but I’m also trying to keep an open mind.

In Pantley’s book, she asks readers to, before embarking on her sleep training tactics, first honestly ask themselves whether they deep down, really feel the need to change their baby’s sleep habits, or whether their desire to implement change stems more from other people or society’s messages about how their baby “should” be sleeping. Are your baby’s habits truly something you need to change, or is it actually manageable and okay for you? I think this is a great question to consider. When Cedar reached the waking every hour or two cycle for weeks on end, this is when I felt it was really unmanageable for me; this is when I got so tired and spacey that I felt depressed and incapable of doing anything but just get by. But when he is “only” waking every two to three hours (which he is now, again, since I started writing this post a few days ago), this is manageable, especially since I know how much worse it can be. True, I would LOVE for him to sleep for even longer stretches, but for me it still would not yet be worth employing a method of sleep training that I have an inner resistance to.

For me, sleeping with Cedar right now is worth the doubts and questions I have about whether we could be sleeping better if he were in a crib. Why? First of all, simply because it feels right to have him in there with us. It felt right in the beginning, and it continues to. I love waking up in the morning and seeing his eyes staring at me, then seeing him break into a smile as I smile. I love then unswaddling him, and cuddling or playing with him quietly in bed as our family of three slowly transitions into wakefulness. I love the ease of lying down next to him to nurse him to sleep, without then having to risk waking him up with any transitions of putting him down. And I love the sense of belonging we are creating as a family. He belongs with us, we are one-- day and night, no separation.

We sleep together like a “wolf pack”-- and here, I borrow a friend’s analogy. She was one of several I talked to about co-sleeping before we decided to go this route, and I remember her saying that what really cemented the decision for her was when she read how humans are the only animals that don’t sleep with their babies. I found this fascinating. Yes. Why don’t we? Well, in some cultures they do. But I think in our culture we have become so focused on what is convenient and how to encourage babies to be more “independent” so that they needn’t intrude as much on our busy lives. I don’t mean to say this in a judging or incriminating way towards those who don’t co-sleep, because I know that: a.) this is the accepted way we do things in the U.S., so most people don’t think twice about it, and b.) we all need our sleep, especially if you need to get up and go to work to support your family, and some people simply can’t or don’t believe they could sleep well with their babies. And c.) Sleeping with your baby can intrude on your sex life and private time with your partner, and for some, it is essential to keep the bed to them and their partner alone, or else they need some breathing space away from their baby at the end of the day.

I admit, there are times when having Cedar in the middle of the bed interferes with my ability to be intimate with my husband, although we can play footsie and maybe cuddle in the morning if I’ve moved Cedar in the middle of the night to the side (I usually move him a few times so as to rotate which side I feed from). And, yes, this arrangement could get old. I’m not sure when exactly we will transfer him to his own bed, and when the time comes, I don’t expect it to be easy. I’m also a bit concerned that Matthew will be ready to move him before I am, especially since he is not the one benefiting from the convenience of easy night feedings, and also since, in some ways, he misses the access to my body more than I miss his. At the end of a long day carrying, nursing and being attached to Cedar, my body is often spent when it comes to being touched and able to give. It needs time to itself. I hear this is common amongst new moms, but often hard for husbands to understand. Plus, as long as we are breastfeeding we’ve got maternal hormones surging through us still, which, frankly speaking, decrease the sex drive. And this is all I will say for now on this topic!

In any case, ask any new parent, and I think it’s safe to say we are a bit obsessed with sleep. There’s a theory going around that our generation of parents are so focused on sleep, in part because babies are sleeping worse these days because they are sleeping on their backs-- research has found this to be safest, though some believe babies actually sleep better and longer on their tummies. Maybe there’s some truth to this, but what about the theory that perhaps we just expect more these days, expect more productivity out of our lives and selves, and thus less interference from our babies? We want life to, as much as possible, go on as usual, after the few months (if that) of maternity leave we are allotted. And because we aren’t given enough paid maternity (in Sweden they get 480 days!), then we have to make certain sacrifices that lead to more distance from our babies, like putting our children in daycare or through, arguably, traumatic sleep training. Again, I am not judging parents who make those decisions, whether they do so happily or because they have no other choice. I’m just saying, sleep is a sensitive and hot topic these days, more loaded then you might imagine.

How many of us parents haven’t felt at some point that if our baby isn’t sleeping well—or as well as the Jones’-- that this is somehow partially “our fault”? And how many of us haven’t secretly swelled with pride at some point when our baby was sleeping well, feeling that she must be so well-adjusted and taken care of that she naturally sleeps well, too?  Of course, we don’t speak these judgments out loud, but we feel them on some level. I know I did when Cedar was a “good” sleeper; I secretly patted myself on the back for choosing to co-sleep, and felt bad for those who were getting in and out of bed to go to the nursery each night to feed. And now, of course, I quietly wonder if I am not at least partially to blame for Cedar’s current poor sleep habits. 

In any case, I remind myself that, as so many have said before me, these days will pass quickly and everything will continue to change. I can put forth my best effort-- going on elimination diets, charting my food intake and his sleep patterns, and reading books on “healthy sleep habits”-- but ultimately, maybe my baby is just gonna do what he’s gonna do. And one of these days, when he’s older—whether “older” means two or twenty-two—I’m going to look back and long for these sweet days when he was still small enough to nestle into the crook of my arm, and when I would slide under the sheets at the end of each long day, stretch out, and just watch for a few moments my son’s sleeping face, breathing quietly and peacefully, ushering in the stillness of the night. 


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