“So, is he sleeping through the night yet?”
Hands down, that is the question I am asked most whenever I go anywhere with my six month old. Everyone from work colleagues to nosy Target cashiers loves to pry open this particular parental wound that has become the go-to topic for baby small talk.
In response, I give a smile that probably looks more like a wince and say, “No, not yet. Not quite.”
In my case, “not quite” involves breastfeeding every two to three hours around the clock. “Not quite” means that, last night, my baby ate at 7:00 PM when I put him to bed, then again at 10:00 PM, 12:00 AM, 2:30 AM, 5:00 AM, followed by a nice little wake-up nurse at 6:30.
Last summer, when I was about six months pregnant with Julian and had finally stopped throwing up thrice daily, I listened to an audio version of a book on French parenting, Bringing Up Bebe. Pamela Druckerman, the author, is an American expat living in Paris who notices that all the French children around her are bizarrely well-behaved with patient temperaments and sophisticated palettes – in contrast to her own untamed American menaces who seem ripe for Supernanny intervention.
The most miraculous feature of these Parisian cherubs is their ability to sleep through the night at only a few weeks old. Druckerman attributes this to an engrained French parenting technique she calls “the pause.”
Whereas the neurotic American mother rushes right over to the crib at the tiniest sound, the French mother – who I imagine reclining on a chaise reading Madame Bovary with a glass of Beaujolais in hand – simply tilts her head at the sound, pausing to assess whether the baby needs to eat or not. If not, he learns to soothe himself back to sleep.
Très simple, non?
That’s “the pause.” That’s the wizardry that French mothers use to get their babies to sleep through the night when they’re just wee little baguettes, fresh out of the womb.
“No problem,” mused my pregnant self. “That’s just common sense.” Armed with this gnosis, I was lulled into a smirking confidence. Surely, I thought, with my maternal intuition, my sensitivity, my cross-cultural parenting savvy, I wouldn’t be one of those harried mothers shambling into the baby’s room multiple times a night, like an extra from The Walking Dead. I would simply pause, my baby would lull himself back into sleep, and then I would go back to my high-brow reading and red wine drinking before getting a good night’s sleep.
HA HAAHA HA HAAAA. Ha. No. That has never happened.
Read the rest of my guest post over at my friend Beth Woolsey’s parenting blog “Five Kids is A Lot of Kids.” While you’re there, be sure to check out some of her hilarious writing.
I have a new goal in life. Someday, I would like to experience a visit to the pediatrician that does not involve me having a complete meltdown. Luckily, so far, I’ve managed to not have said meltdowns actually in the doctor’s office; they come later, like aftershocks, when I’m at home and can fling off bra and dignity and really let loose.
The first, and more epic, meltdown happened two months ago, at Julian’s two-month appointment. I’ve written elsewhere about my somewhat reclusive new-mama behaviors. I wasn’t one of those adventurous new moms who go straight from giving birth in a hospital to shopping for non-maternity jeans in Anthropologie, baby tucked in a perfectly-wrapped Moby.
I was more like a furtive coyote mother whose den is being encroached upon by Evil Humans, and she is forced to dart out into the night, pup dangling precariously from her jaws, in order to survive. At least that’s how it felt, every time I ventured beyond the warm womb of my house with a newborn. As you can imagine, I didn’t get out much.
So this inaugural visit to the doctor’s office, which is about a 35-minute drive away, felt like a BIG DEAL. I prepared a list of questions I wanted to ask the pediatrician, imagining that she would be a warm, uplifting Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman knockoff who would make me feel competent and normal and reassure me that everything’s fine, and I’m doing a great job, and my baby is healthy, and maybe we could come over to her house later for some hearty pioneer cooking and meet her white husband who nonetheless has the Soul of an Indian.
I particularly wanted to ask her about Julian’s breastfeeding habits. He’d just started doing this weird snacking thing, where he’d dive toward my boob like he’s bobbing for apples, eat aggressively for five minutes, and then just pop off, totally done, totally uninterested in my attempts to lure him onto boob number two. (Spoiler: he’s still doing this.) He seemed sated, but I wasn’t sure he was eating enough.
This anxiety was fed by my tendency to play the parenting comparison game – yes, already, just two months in. Some friends of mine have a baby with these amazing fat rolls all over her cuddly body. Even on her forearms. She’s a delicious Stay Puft Marshmellow Baby, and I used to look at her pictures and wonder, where are Julian’s forearm rolls? Is he not eating enough? Do I have wimpy milk? Then I’d go google “failure to thrive.”
I brought all this new mom anxiety to the appointment with me, hoping to have it dispelled. The visit started out well enough, but by the time the doctor came into the soulless exam room, Julian’s pleasantries had disintegrated into hysterics. On top of missing naptime, he had to get undressed and redressed TWICE, because the first medical assistant completely bungled his measurements. (She’d concluded, for example, that his head was 22 inches around, which was only about EIGHT INCHES OFF. Julian comes from large-headed stock, but that there’s mutant territory.)
Our doctor, who more closely resembled a female Woody Allen than the winky-eyed Jane Seymour, seemed totally weirded out that he was fussy. “Is he always like this?” she asked, looking a little alarmed, because apparently she is the ONE pediatrician on the planet who has never had to examine a crying baby.
Finally, after the poking and prodding, Julian fell asleep on Michael and I told her about his eating habits.
“There’s no way he’s getting what he needs in just five minutes.”
That’s what she said.
There’s no way he’s getting what he needs.
I looked over at my baby, who suddenly looked emaciated. He was curled up on Michael’s chest, asleep, no doubt dreaming that he was writhing in the middle of a milkless wilderness, surrounded by shriveled boob cacti. I could almost hear his tiny tummy growling.
There’s no way I’m giving him what he needs.
This, by the way, is THE WORST THING you can say to a new mother. At least to this new mother. For those first two months, breastfeeding was a physical and emotional rollercoaster, and to hear that we were still doing it “wrong,” that my baby was apparently starving, was beyond distressing.
The doctor also seemed particularly bothered that he wasn’t sleeping well at night and that he was only in the 20th percentile for weight (even though he was in the 80th percentile for length and the 98th for head size).
Well, I want to see those the other babies in her practice, the ones who are apparently safely in the 50th percentile in everything, who apparently never scream when being prodded by incompetent medical assistants, and who apparently sleep through the night from birth. SHOW ME THOSE BABIES.
So, after having my fragile new mama soul adeptly crushed, we headed home with our scrawny baby, who now had Band-Aids on his spindly little famine legs from the two-month vaccinations. I spent the next twelve hours cuddling with him in his post-vaccine stupor, feeling like the worst mom on earth.
Throughout the next day, my anxiety held steady, a persistent buzz in the background. I fretfully watched the clock whenever Julian nursed, feeling a twinge of despair when he failed to eat for at least 15 minutes, which was the benchmark the doctor had mentioned.
And then, in the middle of the second night following the doctor’s visit, Julian stopped eating altogether. Cold turkey. Nada. Around 2 AM he stirred as usual, and I rolled over like a sleepy sow to let him eat, like always. But he didn’t eat. In fact, he started screaming bloody murder when I tried to get him to latch on, and it took a warm bath to calm him down. Somehow I managed to get back to sleep, lulling myself into believing that all would be well in the morning.
But it wasn’t. When we woke up, Julian was still refusing to eat.
It may sound ridiculous, but this seemed like an EMERGENCY. I was already obsessing about my baby’s finicky eating habits, worried that he was slowly wasting away, so when he’d refused to eat for about 12 hours, I panicked.
I would have probably gone into full meltdown mode at that point, but my mom managed to calm me down over the phone, assuring me that death was not imminent. I half-believed her, enough to make a successful call to the advice nurse, who suggested we try feeding him breast milk from a cup (we weren’t yet using bottles).
So, armed with this goal, this salvific task, I marched to the bathroom and began to seriously pump for the first time. After about 15 minutes, I had managed to fill two bottles with rich, frothy milk – liquid gold, it’s called, and in that moment I so believed it. Those two bottles were precious boons, brimming with an elixir that would coax my son back into functional babydom.
And then, as I was trying to detach the bottles from the pump apparatus, I spilled that liquid gold, all of it, all over the bathroom floor. Most of it was sucked right up by the bright blue bathmat, forming a large, demoralizing wet spot, and for a mad instant I actually considered wringing the milk from the mat. Then it hit me that there was nothing to salvage, every drop was wasted, my baby was going to starve to death, and I would have to kill myself.
THAT is when I lost it. We’re talking full-scale meltdown here. I collapsed on the bathmat in frenzied sobs, cradling it like a beloved corpse. I went all out. I made Scarlett O’Hara look like Mr. Spock. I pounded my fists against the floor, threw my head back, probably even choked out a few “Why, God? Why????” entreaties.
Even in the midst of my hysterics, it did not escape me that I was literally crying over spilt milk. That just made the whole thing seem even more tragic.
About an hour later, after I’d completely wrung myself out, Julian started eating again. Just like that, the switch flipped back on. Turns out that “loss of appetite” is a side effect of the DTaP vaccine. (THANK YOU, INTERNET.) Which no one thought to mention to us. After a long conversation involving my baby’s eating habits, no one thought to say, “Oh, yeah, and by the way, your baby might randomly STOP EATING FOR AN ENTIRE DAY.”
I came through this whole ordeal with a few nuggets of wisdom.
1) Don’t expect your pediatrician to make you feel normal. S/he is trained to see the abnormal.
2) Your doctor’s tendency to pathologize is like a hungry bear that hangs out at campgrounds and is now accustomed to humans. DO NOT FEED IT.
3) Don’t obsess about the numbers.
4) Don’t look at the clock.
Julian still snacks during the day — if anything, he’s an even more distracted eater now — and then gorges himself on half-hour-long feasts throughout the night. It’s not “normal.” That’s just what he does.
His cheeks have now grown so much that sometimes it looks like his face is melting. But he’ll probably never have forearm rolls. I’ve given up on that dream. Unless his eating habits stay consistent and he goes on serious night binges as an adult, in which case he’ll probably have all kinds of rolls. And I’ll love him anyway.