It seemed as if things were looking up. I often told myself that, and repeated it to others.
Soon after my weekend away, Jack and I decided we needed to get Simon to sleep through the night. A friend told me about a book describing the “cry it out” method of “sleep training.” She called the method “Ferberizing.” You could start at four months, Simon’s exact age. Desperate for sleep, we decided to try it.
The first night, I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to go through with it. Jack reassured me that if Simon was having a really time we’d never try it again. Still, I didn’t want to hear him cry. I walked down the street to a friend’s house and let Jack put him to bed. I knocked on the door and when my friend, who also had a baby, opened it, all I had to say was, “We’re sleep training.” She said, “Come on in, when he stops crying you can go home.” I should have felt comforted, part of a community. Instead, I wondered if she was thinking I was a bad mother. That I should have stayed at home, no matter how painful. But I managed to act friendly and accept her offer of dinner.
Meanwhile, Jack fed Simon a bottle and put him in his crib awake. He gave Simon his pacifier and told him he would be back to check on him soon. Immediately, Simon started crying. Jack went back to check on him in gradually increasing amounts of time. First, he waited five minutes, then ten, and so on.
By the time I came home, it had been over an hour and Simon was still crying. I was furious at Jack and myself for letting it go that long. Jack said, “Maybe if we wait just a couple more minutes, he has periods where he seems to be winding down . . .” Simon’s cries were at a fever pitch. I said, “No way. I can’t believe we thought this would work!”
My milk let down as I ran to his room. Suddenly, as I made my way to him, there was this enormous silence. Was he dead? Choking on something? Caught in his blanket? I burst in the room. He was asleep! His breathing was even, regular. He looked totally at peace. What a shock. I tiptoed out and told Jack. Embracing, we reassured each other that we had done our best. We knew we could never let him cry that long again. We promptly went to bed.
After what seemed like minutes, I awakened to his cries. But something was different. Birds were singing. The room wasn’t completely dark. I looked at my watch and it was SIX A.M.! He had slept through the night! I poked Jack, showed him my watch. We cheered “YES!” and groped to give each other a sleepy high-five.
After that, on the outside, it seemed like a miracle. Most of the time, Simon went to sleep with little or no crying. Jack and I got more sleep.
I should have been happy. He was “sleep trained”! It should have been my first badge of motherhood. I had changed his behavior for the better, helped him to learn to soothe himself to sleep. So what was wrong with me? Why wasn’t I better?
It was his cries. I felt I had tortured my child. All the rationalizing in the world couldn’t make that feeling go away. That I had taught him a skill, that he was happier and so were we, that we researched our plan and it was backed up by authors, other moms, and my psychologist friend — none of this mattered.
All I saw was that his wakefulness had been making me angry and frustrated, and that I fixed it by abandoning him. Though I wouldn’t let myself think it, and used all my psychic energy to push it away, I knew. Letting him cry was so utterly painful because it had been . . . satisfying. All that crying had made me angry at him. It wasn’t my worry about him being abandoned that was painful, it was my guilt at meting out a satisfying punishment. My secret. I was a sadist. A monster. A horrible parent. I should have been happy. I should have been feeling better, out expanding my life, enjoying my beautiful son. But I just couldn’t.
Soon, I became sensitized to even the slightest resistance from Simon. If he was was crying a bit after I put him down for a nap or if he was waking up at an inappropriate time (not on my “schedule”), I would feel the anger hissing. By the time he was six months old, a small crying spell at naptime, five minutes or so, would bring me right back to those moments before sleep training. I’d think “here we go again.” It felt like thick heat rising from the soles of my feet, my body slowly turning red, melting from the bottom up, ascending to a searing pain in my head. I needed a release. Sometimes, if I did something as insignificant as spill something, I would throw things. At first, it was just a pillow, but that wasn’t enough. I couldn’t punish Simon; he was just doing his job, letting me in on what his needs were, sweet boy. I was the sick one, angry for no reason.
So, I punished myself.
One afternoon, after a long walk with Simon in the stroller so I could have some thinking time — some non-interacting time — I trudged home, exhausted, time for both our naps. The fresh air always tired him out. I nursed him and put him in his crib. He was a silent, curled-up ball of sweetness. For ten minutes. I had just sunk into bed when I heard a piercing wale. Would he nap if I left him to cry for a few minutes? I got up and hovered outside his door, in tears. AAAARRGH!! WHY WASN’T HE SLEEPING? Little fucker. I banged my hand on the door molding. It felt good. Concrete. Definable. I did it again, harder. Maybe there would be a bruise. I thought: definitely deserve it. Sick bitch for being mad at my son’s cries.
I knew from experience that if I let him cry for five or ten minutes, he’d probably fall asleep. He did most days. He’d end up well-rested and happy when he woke up, smiling and burbling. I went in the bedroom and watched the clock. He cried for 20 minutes. That was too long. Goddam ten-minute nap. How could that be all he needed? No time to clear my head. No time to think. Probably my fault, should have known he wasn’t tired. I picked him up, and we went out on another walk.
Jack arrived home just as I had put Simon down for the night. I was reading a magazine. Fifteen quiet minutes had gone by and Simon began to whimper. Probably nothing more than just a few quiet sleepy babbles he’d make to bring himself to dreamland, but I had no faith in that. “Godammit! Why won’t he sleep!” I slammed my hand down on the table. Jack looked at me, dumbfounded and annoyed. “What the hell is your problem? He’s just talking his way to sleep!” he said. “Nothing. Nothing at all!” I replied and stalked into the bedroom. As I was walking, I heard him mutter “What’s wrong with you?”
What was my problem? What was wrong with me? Fuck him for asking. But a part of me knew he was right. Something was very wrong with me. I was bad. Awful. I bit down on the fleshy part of my hand, hard. I looked at the bite marks. And went to bed.
The darkness went on for months, and I couldn’t bring myself to confide in Jack again, like I did before my weekend away. That was supposed to make me better. Why wasn’t I better?
Something in me had changed. The emotional center and confidence that I had before Simon was born had just vanished. I stopped watching the news and reading the paper. I never had the urge to write. Where was the shit-kicking young woman — the college student who had lead a guerilla feminist performance group? I went from a cape-wearing spandex-clad avenger (alias “Superbitch”) to a sobby, pathetic woman who was unsure of herself and her ability to mother.
Jack took over for me before work, at night and on the weekends. He worked 12-hour days and managed the household in between. He never had a chance to deal with his feelings about the accident. Our only conversations seemed to be arguments. I had to stop waiting for miracles. It was time for me to start working, too.