Babies don’t cut deals, and right now my tapping keyboard sounds like the clicking heels of an efficient secretary leading the negotiators into the boardroom. The last thing I want to do is engage. I’d take my laptop into another room, farther away from the crib, but there are too many risks: the scraping of my chair, that squeaky board at the edge of the dining room, the real possibility that a tangle of cords could crash the mouse to the floor. Better I stay put.
I just spent the first hour of what should have been a two-hour nap for Ella nursing her to sleep. She slept, yes, forehead damp with the pleasure of milk and Mama, both of us smelling of honey and salt, her bare toes leveraging my open palm, flexing and pushing and suckling. I can’t blame her for wanting to stay in my arms, but I’m a teacher with a pile of grading and a roomful of anxious twenty-year-olds waiting for me in the morning. Everybody wants a piece of me. So with my finger at the corner of Ella’s lip, I broke the seal between our bodies. There was a tiny pop as I coaxed my nipple from her mouth. I held a gentle pressure on her chin while her jaw’s pumping wound down. Good.
But when I rose from the chair, walked the three steps to the crib with all the stealth of a cat burglar, and started to tip Ella’s meticulously supported head toward the mattress, her lids popped open like the long-lashed baby dolls of my childhood with their disturbingly glossy marble-blue eyes. Except in reverse. The eye-popping happened when I lay Ella down, not when I tilted her up. Tip. Pop. Hair-curling scream.
I tried to explain to my nearly toddling daughter that she had this all wrong. I tried to make her understand that our arrangement was only fair. After all, I said, wincing and patting her belly in what I intended to be the soothing strokes of all the baby-care books, I already held you for half the nap! Most babies your age don’t have that kind of luck, you know. Some babies go to group care where somebody else takes care of them all day while their mommies work. Can you imagine? But not you. No, sweetie pie. Not you. You get to have half your nap with Mommy, and then you get to have the second half in your crib so Mommy can grade some essays. Mommy needs her hands to grade essays.
My tone was distinctly Faye Dunaway’s in Mommie Dearest, and the patting was provoking—too fast, too desperate, not at all pacifying. In that first run at the crib, I’d succeeded not only in waking Ella, but riling her into an uncommon rage. She thrashed, face twisted in fury like the Heat Miser in the holiday cartoon, sweaty hair poking everywhere, her own personal crown of thorns. Ella didn’t want to reason with me, and she didn’t want to talk compromise.
I scooped her up to begin again. Back to the rocker we went. If suckling at a mother’s breast can be disgruntled, that’s how Ella nursed now, her one exposed eye wide open and glaring. She wanted me to know she had my number. Rock, rock, rock.
I hummed the sleepy song, her so-called “trigger” song. According to the books, this soft melody, sung over and over, with the pleasure and consistency of repetition (oh, the repetition of new motherhood!), would let our baby know that the time had come to sleep. I went down in the river to pray … Our song comes from the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack. Remember that hypnotic scene with all the slow-moving, white-clad church members walking into the muddy river to be washed free of sin and transgression? Delmar splashes through the water and up to the preacher for his dunking. What better soundtrack for naptime? Baptism and sleep aren’t so different. Each provides a fresh beginning.
Ella and I were stuck in a movie of our own making, and of course, because I had to sing without pausing or ceasing, eventually I departed from the words I learned from Alison Krauss and made up my own: Oh, Eeeeelllla, let’s go down, let’s go down, come on down … Then the daddies went down, and the mommies. Eventually, the grandmas and the uncles and the puppies made their way down to that baptismal river. Everybody except Ella, it seems, went on down.
Instead of signaling sleep, all my singing and rocking had marked my agenda, my trickery. I will not sleep, Ella’s one eye said. I will not, I will not, I will not. Rock and sing. Oh, brother, let’s go down, let’s go down, come on down, Oh, brother … Oh brother, indeed. Fifteen minutes later, she seemed out once again. I untangled her fingers from the fabric of my T-shirt, lifted her arm a few inches, and dropped her hand. The arm dropped like a soggy teething toy into a basket. Thunk. Sleeping.
I considered my options. I could stay in the chair with Ella on my lap. I had the stack of essays within reach. If I could prop up her head with rolled blankets (also within reach) and extract my right arm from under her head, I could stabilize an essay on a hardcover copy of Horton Hears a Who! and get some grading done. I did this for twenty minutes, making it through an essay and a half. Then I had to pee. Besides, I thought, this is absurd. Who does this? I am a mockery to working mothers everywhere. I am a slave to my baby.
Again, I stood over the crib with a slumbering Ella.
I had a different strategy in mind: this time, I would leave my nipple in her mouth as we descended together into the crib. Apparently, her mattress had been rigged with a touch-activated shocking device, because as soon as her back touched the sheet: bam. Thrash. Scream. I chased her shrieking face with my breast, pointing my nipple at her vibrating uvula, like a target shooting game at the state fair. But I didn’t have a chance to aim. Ella thrashed from side to side. She was a crazy person on a cop show being subdued, an alligator and I was the wrestler, an epileptic and I had the wooden spoon.
Then, finally, in a moment that was lucky or inevitable, I caught her lower lip with the nipple in just the right way and instinct kicked in. She latched on and her cries muffled. She sucked. The sobs became hiccups. Her eyes closed, but her jaw kept working. Insofar as such a thing is possible when you are a woman bent at the waist, forehead resting on a pee pad, both breasts dangling, I relaxed. I might as well, I thought. I knew I would have to stay like that for at least ten more minutes, or until I could again lift her hand, release, and watch it fall back to the sheet. That gave me ten good minutes to evaluate my situation.
Am I a good mother or a bad mother? I wondered. Certainly, I am wrapped around my baby’s Napoleonic finger. But am I not loving and attentive when I’m unwilling to abandon a baby, an innocent baby, who obviously feels insecure without me? Then again, is it my fault that she feels insecure without me?
Torn between Dr. Bill Sears’s affirmations of attachment parenting and the guilt I felt for not even really trying the popular sleep-training methods espoused by Dr. Richard Ferber, I realized, with a start, that the advising voices in my head both belonged to dudes, neither of whom was in this room with his head smashed against a pee pad.
Soundlessly muttering curses at both Sears and Ferber, I lifted Ella’s curled fingers a couple inches off the mattress and let go. The hand dropped. This time, the small, falling fist looked to me like the Times Square ball, super slow-mo, easing down the wire with seconds ticking down. Clunk. Party time.
I slipped my nipple out and held it there on her lower lip for another count of ten. Then, I stood, mother erectus. Yet a final trial stood between me and freedom—or, at least, me and the rest of those essays. I needed to fold the top bar up on the crib and lock it into position. Again, the sadistic elves in the crib-making factory had played me for a sucker. Do you know the sound the door of a haunted mansion makes in a horror movie when the stupid kids push on it to make their way into the dark hall hanging with cobwebs? Then you also know the moaning screech of this bar rising up into position. Are you familiar with the sound a pogo stick makes when an exuberant child slams the pavement, jamming the spring into a tight coil and then boinging upward with a great, metallic release? Yes. This is the sound the hinges on either side of the crib bar made when I pulled them with my sweating fingers and gently eased them into a locked position. There was a one-in-three chance Ella would sleep through this noise. But this was turning into my lucky day. Ella kept sleeping.
And do you know what I did? I did not grade the essays. In an act of restless, artistic selfishness, I wrote the above. I wrote about loud cribs and soft nipples and the places I am willing to rest my head. Just as I am about to further indulge in a moment of existential angst about the fragmented, interrupted writing that is born of motherhood, even before the good feminist in me kicks in to defend the domestic and all that it contains, I hear a wavering cry.
Ella is awake. I see her from my chair and she does not look rested. Oh, brother. She has slept eleven whole minutes.
Start Sunday morning with a flash essay in your inbox. Enjoy short works hand-selected from the Creative Nonfiction, Brevity, Diagram, River Teeth, and Sweet Literary archives, as well as the occasional original work.
Join the Mailing List