Welcome to our Monday guest post series on Parenting and Imperfection.
Today, I’m excited to introduce you to Abigail Rine, new mom, writer behind Mama Unabridged, and a woman I’m proud to call friend.
J’aime (I love) Abigail for her honesty, her authenticity, and her intellect, and j’aime her writing because it’s consistently excellent and engaging… qualities to which I aspire.
I hope you enjoy Abigail as much as I do, and I’d love to hear your responses to this! Is there a parenting method you failed? (Me = all of them.) Do tell!
I FAILED FRENCH PARENTING 101
by Abigail Rine
“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.
First of all, Julian never slept in the crib. Despite my best intentions, post-birth I magically transformed into one of those attachment parenting weirdos who sleeps with her baby. During those first few weeks, I wasn’t in the next room, having urbane alone time; I was in the bed, too, eating cookies and watching 30 Rock on the iPad with headphones.
I tried “the pause.” At least, I sort of did. I waited, when Julian would stir, to see if he was hungry or if he was just rolling over into the next sleep cycle.
As far as I can tell, he was always hungry.
Those first few weeks, I made the mistake of looking at the clock each time he woke up half-crying, rooting around in the air for a breast to magically appear, his eyes still closed. I would feel a surge of anger and despair – the kind you only feel after being wrenched from deep sleep – when I saw that it had only been two hours since his last feeding. Sometimes I felt frustrated at him, at his apparent inability to comply with my half-hearted attempt at continental parenting.
To make things worse, I downloaded an app called BabySense that generated sleep routines based on a baby’s age. “Put Julian to bed at 6:30,” it prophesied, “and he should stretch seven hours until his first night feeding.”
SEVEN HOURS. Do you have any idea what I could do with seven hours? How many loads of laundry I could wash? How many papers I could grade? How many episodes of 30 Rock I could cycle through on Netflix? Forget that – with seven hours free in the evening, I could actually socialize with people who used to be my friends, but now exist only as shades in the underworld of Facebook, because we all have needy, spoiled American babies who do not go seven hours between feedings.
Why wasn’t French parenting working for me, I wondered? What wasn’t I doing right?
Well, everything. And nothing. Because that’s the infuriating reality of being a new mother. At any given moment, I am doing something that violates one parenting dogma while simultaneously fulfilling the tenets of another.
My biggest sin was following my attachment instincts. The mythical, sophisticated mamons of Druckerman’s book don’t breastfeed for very long, and they certainly don’t share a bed with their babies. Quelle horreur! They spend their nights – so I imagine – doing interesting, cultured things with other adults, while I’m laid out in bed like a sow, letting my baby pull an all-night milk binge.
By now, six months in, I have faced reality: I’m not a French mother. Pas du tout. I’ve become one of those silly Americans Druckerman writes about, a new mom plagued by wakeful nights.
But the strange thing is – and I never imagined I’d say this – I’m starting to treasure them. I’ve given up “pausing” and waiting eagerly for his night feeds to stop. We’ve fallen into a smooth rhythm, the two of us, our bodies eerily synced. At certain points in the night we both wake up just enough to snuggle in close together and nurse; I rise to the surface of sleep, but never fully out of it, and most of the time I wake feeling rested. Okay, just kidding. Let’s say functional.
At some point, my baby will actually sleep through the night. And when that happens, I’ll miss the baby who didn’t, the baby who needed me at all hours, my closeness, my milk. I know I’ll feel an ache when our bodies fall out of sync and fully separate, when I’m replaced by Cheerios and applesauce.
It’s already beginning. He’s already shedding his babyhood. His first tooth is crowning, and I feel that sense of anticipation for him to crawl, to speak, to walk. It’s exciting to witness, the constant metamorphosis. But there’s an underside to that joy, a quiet grief. I’m losing the baby who is disappearing into the child – and, one day, I’ll lose the child who disappears into the man.
This, perhaps, is the hardest lesson of parenting so far, to learn that love and loss are always already intertwined.
I wish there was a magic pause. Not a pause that would let me sleep, but a pause that would let me slow this whole thing down. I want to linger in babyland for just a little longer, even if it means keeping the all-night snack bar open.
So where’s the parenting book that will help me do that?
Abigail Rine teaches English at George Fox University. She is a first-time mama to Julian and wife to her domestic god of a husband, Michael. Abigail is a regular contributor to The Atlantic – Sexes and writes about whatever she wants at Mama Unabridged.
So, parents! Sound off. Which parenting methods have you failed?
My answer: Love and Logic.
I do fine with the love part; still working on finding some logic.
I suppose you can share your successes, as well.
You can see all of the Parenting and Imperfection posts here.