One Saturday I wake inexplicably early, just as dawn’s tendrils begin to crawl through our bedroom windows. The baby’s intermittent cries waft in from the other room. Come get me; I’m bored, she calls to us, followed by silence as she plays with her stuffed animals. Come get me; I’m bored. It’s nearly six o’clock, 45 minutes before we usually lift her out of bed, so I curl up next to the husband and wait. He wraps his hand around mine, then continues snoring. The husband is an enviously deep sleeper who can fall asleep anywhere, a trick he picked up as a child to ward off motion sickness. I lay my other hand on his chest, letting the slow rhythmic rise and fall, rise and fall, lull me back into, if not sleep exactly, then the dreamy trance between wake and slumber.
By the time I shut off the husband’s alarm, boil water, mix up the baby’s bottle, and empty my bladder, the baby’s room is suspiciously quiet. I ease open the door. The baby is a small heap in one shadowy corner of her playpen. She lies like a tiny L, legs perpendicular to her torso, one shoulder pressed against her stuffed bear, her nose barely grazing the mattress. Her other shoulder, the one jutting into the air, lifts and sinks in big even breaths that match the husband’s in the other room.
I could have tiptoed out. Ignored my guilt over letting her call out so long she fell back asleep, slid the door shut, returned to the kitchen, stowed her bottle in the refrigerator. Could have plopped onto the couch, or crawled back into bed, or tended to the houseplants, or cooked a leisurely breakfast for one. Could have relished the gift of a half hour of silence, solitude a rarity in new parenthood and doubly so for me in this pandemic. Could have accepted this unexpected invitation for my pre-parent self to take center stage. But something about that shoulder, the slow, steady way it rose and dipped, arrested me.
Rarely have I seen the baby sleep. She was not a newborn who napped anywhere, anytime, for long stretches of time. I was not a parent who liked to hold a sleeping baby. Then she learned to fall asleep unassisted, and for a year now, we have put her to bed awake and let her drift off by herself. At this point, she likely wouldn’t fall asleep in my arms if I offered. Thus the peacefulness I find in watching her repose, the ferocity with which I drink it in, catches me off guard. The baby has an exuberant personality. She flings toys across the room, shrieks at the slightest frustration, babbles nonstop, clambers in and out of my lap five times in the space of two minutes. But in slumber I can take her in on my terms.
I squat at her playpen for a few seconds before settling into the pillow mountain on the floor next to her. She must have drifted off just as I mixed up her bottle. Perhaps her eyes fluttered downward as she sat there, calling out and waiting, calling out and waiting. Perhaps her body performed a slow tumble, still in the perpendicular, as she drop-crashed onto her side. From her breathing—deep, but rhythmic, like the husband’s when he’s descending through the lighter stages of sleep—I surmise this could be an hour-long wait as she moves through a full sleep cycle.
The baby’s fingers clutch fabric. Release fabric, skitter from chest to knees, clutch fabric. Release fabric, sashay down to toes, clutch fabric. Release, flutter back up to chest, clutch. Up and down her hands roam, as fidgety in slumber as she is awake, fingers restless the way mine are, and the husband’s too. My fidgetiness can take the form of prodding houseplants or sewing garments, including this cerulean sleep sack she runs through her fingers. The husband builds IKEA furniture to relax, like the bookshelf we repurposed into her changing table.
When we first taught her to fall asleep independently, she would turn her head back and forth, settling herself but also using the repetitive motion to drop into slumber, the way the mind counts sheep. Through the months, she’s mouthed her sleep sack, stroked her playpen walls, sucked her thumb, petted her stuffed animal’s ears. I’d assumed those actions stopped once she drifted off, but perhaps she is more active than I realize, just one of many ways I have gotten her wrong—and will likely continue to. Even in sleep, the baby surprises me.
The baby’s hands dance for a full twenty minutes before slowly coming to rest near her belly. Her total being is cocooned in the deepest of sleeps. Her rib cage expands and contracts, expands and contracts, to the rhythm of the husband’s in the other room. I lay my head back against the pillow mountain, pull my knees toward my chest, and wait. In the rise and fall of her chest, the limp stillness of her fingers and palms, I try to find the rejuvenation I once sought in busy hands. I do my best to relish this particular flavor of solitude, all the sweeter for how quickly I know it will end.