Having a child isn’t like what they say. Most of the time as parents, we navigate a private, intimate, singular relationship, one that happens while lying together on a hammock and staring up at the clouds, or holding hands and watching two linked arms cast long shadows across the hot asphalt, or sitting together in the darkened room with only a tiny nightlight to see each other by. These moments have nothing to do with Supernanny’s naughty seat, Ferber’s sleep technique, the Magic 1-2-3 method of controlling tantrums, or Jessica Seinfeld’s recipe for sneaking pureed spinach into brownies. Most of the time, we’re parenting off the grid, and no manual or methodology can help us.
Take my almost-5-year-old daughter’s bad dreams, for example. She has been waking up many nights, moaning and/or crying, and either my husband or I will drag into the room, perch on the edge of her bed, and hope that it subsides quickly without too much bargaining over how many more minutes she needs us to stay and stroke her tiny legs. Neither one of us is a particularly gracious night waker. Dave turns into Sherlock Holmes, quizzing her on who, what, where, when, and why, hoping to solve the problem right then and there. Then he stumbles back into the room saying, “I don’t know what’s going on. But she fell back asleep.” I, on the other hand, become Marcel Marceau. I grope my way through the dark, my eyes barely open. I lie down beside her on the bed, rub her back, then creep back into my room and hope that she doesn’t wake up when I step on that creaky spot at the top of the stairs.
Because our 3:00 a.m. tactics manage but do not in any way prevent these episodes, my husband devised a new strategy. He told Sofia that she should draw a picture of the very scene she wanted to dream about each night and put the drawing near her bed, so it could guide her dreams all night long. She got very excited, and announced: “I’m going to dream about riding on a horse!” So we set her up with some paper and pens and retreated downstairs for dinner, wine, and quiet conversation.
At bedtime, I walked upstairs to my bedroom and found a lovely drawing sitting on the floor, at the entrance to my bedroom. It pictured two horses, one with a girl on its back. Everyone in the picture looked very happy, peaceful even. She does this often. She leaves her drawings under our bedroom door, like a little love note we get to see before bed. But this one was an obvious depiction of the horses she so badly wanted to dream about.
Dave had tears in his eyes. He was so happy she took to heart his ‘visualize your dreams’ project. I was overcome with a bittersweet feeling, acutely aware of the ways that we’re trying to protect her from the pain our own minds will inflict, both in sleep and while awake. How much longer would a “magic wand” beside the bed, or a drawing of her ideal dream, or any other technique we devise, work? And who am I to be dispensing sleep wisdom anyway?
Before bed, every night, I read a book, listen to a meditation podcast (not that I actually meditate, but the guy’s voice is like Ambien), or ask my husband to tell me a story. Sometimes I do all three. Judd Apatow spoke about this on Fresh Air not long ago. He said he needs to hear other people’s voices in his head at bedtime to avoid listening to his own thoughts. That’s probably a very good description of what I’m doing. At the end of the day, I don’t want to be with my own thoughts anymore; so I substitute someone else’s. It works like a dream.
Sometimes I feel that we’ve given our daughter this flimsy tool, a creaky mechanism to deal with her nighttime fears. An artistic dream journal. But then I have to ask myself: isn’t that what art is for? It’s a place to express your dreams, to visualize the world and your place in it; to see what is, and to imagine what could be.
Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “In landscapes, the painter should give the suggestion of a fairer creation than we know. The details, the prose of nature, he should omit, and give us only the spirit and splendor.” Children seem to know this instinctively. My daughter’s drawing are filled with smiling suns, gorgeous butterflies, rainbows.
I guess what I’m saying is, we don’t have any overarching strategy, or explicit guiding principles, or road map for this. The best we can hope for is to teach our kids a few coping skills, so they can navigate their way through those long, dark nights, years and years hence, when nobody will come in to stroke their back and say, “It’s ok. Everything’s ok.”
Oh, hey, how about those chockablock cookies? They’re a tour-de-force of oatmeal, molasses, chocolate chips, coconut, raisins, and almonds. At the same time, they’re a touch out of control, hectic, unbalanced. I had these for two nights in a row, then went back to my favorite NY Times chocolate chip cookies, and it was a relief. My dad likes to quote Thoreau, so I will, too: “Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity. I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumb nail.”
What he said. And that goes for cookies, too.