I’m writing this in bed, next to my sleeping daughter. I knew I wanted to write about this, and I started out thinking, this doesn’t have very much to do with self awareness but of course the second you say that, it isn’t true anymore, is it?
I want to write about what I do at night. Before I go to sleep.
My daughter is nine and a half months old. She is two feet tall. She has tiny wisps of hair, the longest eyelashes you’ve ever seen, and an as-yet-unrequited love affair with the cat’s food dish and stairs.
She sleeps in the big bed with us at night. Ever since she’s been born I’ve been the one to stay in bed with her when she goes to sleep. This started out because I had horrible back pain (still do, occasionally) and had to rest. But now, it seems to be because I’ve become her official sleep-tender.
She’ll stir, or fuss, or turn over, or fling an arm across the bedclothes, and it’s my job to put my arm around her, or over her back, and that settles her back down into a calm sleep. When she’s woken more convincingly, making noise or tiny cries or trying to sit up, my husband often hears over the monitor and appears at the doorway, worried. But I always know what to do — and I let her curl into me in just the right way to help her fall back asleep.
It’s awfully nice, this night-parenting. It’s sweet and gentle and quiet and snuggly in a way that my little one doesn’t always tolerate during the busy day, when there are far more interesting things to explore and crawl to and tip over. It’s nice to have this thing that I know how to do, when other things about parenting seem big and scary and unknowable.
I sometimes over-analyze who my daughter can be in the daytime: rarely cuddly, needs constant stimulation, wants to be near her people all the time.
But isn’t that just like me? I don’t tolerate the bored-parent syndrome very well, so why should she?
The bored parent shows up when I’m feeling lazy at work: here, I don’t feel like finding something to do, why don’t we just surf the web for eight hours (eight. hours.)…hey, why am I getting so upset and anxious? Or in the case of my daughter: here, I need to do this thing for a while, why don’t you sit here and play with this boring toy…hey, why are you whining for attention and bothering me?
It doesn’t take a genius to see that the mind (and my very intelligent daughter) are longing to get some attention, some mindful engagement. Okay, okay, I’m coming. Here I am. Let’s play.
Thinking about how to parent myself is something I first learned from Thich Nhat Hahn’s Anger: Wisdom for cooling the flames. The Buddhist approach to the angry self is to cradle it in your arms, cooing to it like a crying baby. Anger is your self crying out for love, compassion, tenderness, and you must tend to it.
So if one lesson from my daughter is to be mindful because no one enjoys boredom, I wonder what the lesson about sleep-tending means. Or about learning to be a sleep-tender. I’m helping to create a safe space for her, a place in which sleep can blink open and just as easily slide back closed again, because safety is all around. I don’t know what part of me is in need of this right now, but the idea of the cocoon of sleep is very powerful (and not just because it’s time to go to sleep!). This: someone who will watch and carefully help you tumble back into sleep and safety, if you need it. Someone who knows it’s okay, that you’re sleepy, even when you get confused and think it’s time to wake up.
Here’s to safety, knowing when to stay there; little cocoons in the day as well as the night.