Anything For a Year

My dad used to say, “You can survive anything for a year.” While there are obviously some exceptions to this observation, it’s a useful point to keep in mind. If you know a difficult circumstance will have an end point, the hope of a better time can keep you going. It’s especially helpful if you know the time frame; it’s not so easy when you have no way to gauge how long your circumstance will last, or how to move out of it.

I’ve been thinking about milestones, years, enduring, and survival lately. Today, after I loaded photos from Sofia’s second birthday, I began going through our photos, deleting duplicates, unfocused shots, and other unwanted photos. As I was deleting literally hundreds upon hundreds of photos (about 1600 today), I came across two photo shoots I’d forgotten about — in fact, I believed they hadn’t taken place, and for nearly two years I have been regretting their absence. When our daughter Sofia was born, we planned to take photos each month of her first year, posing with a blue-striped lamb. I was so exhausted those first few months, I promptly forgot about these photos after I took them at her one- and two-month birthdays. I was delighted today to discover they existed, but at the same time, I was unprepared for the rush of emotion they brought.

Looking at these photos brings back some fairly traumatic memories. I’m not exaggerating: those first five months were horrific, and in fact Sofia’s whole first year was difficult. She had both colic and a dairy sensitivity, and while eliminating dairy from my diet helped a little, the colic symptoms remained. Those first few months, I averaged two hours of sleep a night. And those hours often consisted of bits and pieces of time: half an hour here, forty-five minutes there. By the time she was a year old, I generally got five hours of sleep at night and considered myself lucky.

It wasn’t just the nights that were difficult. It was nearly impossible to put Sofia down for more than a few minutes at a time. Those photos above were the result of holding Sofia in the Ergo baby carrier for hours until she dropped off to sleep, then gingerly lowering her onto the bed to snatch a few photos, until she awoke once again with screams. Then another quarter hour or so of comforting, then more photos, and so on until the light changed too much for photography. There were far more photos of blurred fists pumping in rage, mouth open in anguished wails, than there are of these peaceful moments. In fact, as I looked at the sweetly resting little girl in the photos, I could hardly believe these pictures were real. My memories of that time consist mainly of tears, rocking, walking, bouncing, and nursing.

As I mentioned, Sofia just celebrated her second birthday. She is now a cheerful little girl, all smiles and giggles. She rarely fusses, and quickly returns to sunshine after a little grouchiness. She runs around after her big brother, who just turned five, doing her best to imitate his every move and word. Her birthday was a simple affair, with just the four of us celebrating at home.  She listened with a big grin while we sang “Happy Birthday,” and then blew out her candles just as if she’d been practicing for the occasion. Later, she proved herself to be a good sport by posing for me with the lamb we got when she was born. Her birthday was as lighthearted, simple, and fun as she herself is.

The juxtaposition of these second-birthday photos with those first- and second-month photos is jarring with the contrast in memories. Those first two months, I knew theoretically that things would get better. Had to get better. No child can scream and demand to be held for eighteen years, right? Surely it would end. But I couldn’t see it, couldn’t even visualize a better time. I occasionally remembered my father’s words — “You can survive anything for a year” — and shuddered. A year of this? I was pretty sure I couldn’t, in fact, survive it.

But around five or six months, things took a turn for the better. Sofia learned to crawl, and began to enjoy real food. She smiled frequently. She was able to lie on the floor or in a playpen for fifteen minutes, half an hour, finally forty-five minutes at a time. She began to nap in a swing instead of only in my arms. I was able to sleep for a solid hour or more at night between waking, then for two hours, and then for an occasional three-hour stretch. Five-hour nights became the norm, then six-hour and even sometimes seven-hour nights, snatching sleep in two- or three-hour increments.

By one year old, she was walking, running, climbing. Trying new words. Smiling more than crying. She rarely needed to be held except to nurse. She mastered a bottle, then a sippy cup, filled with almond milk, as she still couldn’t handle cow’s milk or even gentle formula. Finally, the time came to wean her, and it was like a miracle: she began to fall asleep on her own, without nursing or being held. 

Now, at two years old, she falls asleep readily at nap time and sleeps for two or three hours, twice a day. She goes to sleep at bedtime as soon as I put her to bed, and rests all night long. She rarely cries, and then only for a short time. Smiles are the norm. Words increase daily, as do her adventurous attempts to mimic her brother.

What I’m saying is, This too shall pass. Or, in the words of my father, “You can survive anything for a year.” You really can survive a lot, if you know it will end. I survived five months of constantly holding a distressed baby with next to no sleep nightly. I didn’t think I could do it, but here we are.

I’m thinking of the new parents out there who are enduring the same sleepless nights, the screams that can’t be comforted, the hours of walking the floor. It feels endless. It feels hopeless. But I promise: It will end, and you will survive. One day, you’ll look into your sweet child’s laughing face and shake your head as you remember the distant past, when you believed you couldn’t do it, when you wanted to give up. You’ll wrap your arms around your toddler, whom you love with your whole heart, and you’ll smile as you realized: You did it. It’s over. You made it.

You can survive anything for a year.

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Eating Humble Pie Gratefully

I know kids pretty well, I think. I’ve been babysitting other people’s kids since I was old enough to be left on my own — age eleven or twelve. During my senior year in high school, I used our tiny church school’s senior Independent Study program to teach a combined first-and-second grade class three subjects (two of them were split over half the year, so it was an hour a day of teaching). I spent two years as a preschool teacher in a daycare. In my favorite pre-teaching job ever, I spent five years working mostly in the children’s department at Anchorage’s Barnes & Noble. I have a bachelor’s degree in elementary education, and I have five years of teaching under my belt.  I’m the parent of an active four-year-old and a firecracker 18-month-old.  So, really, I’m not new to the whole dealing-with-kids thing.

The problem is, there’s knowing kids as a general category, and then there’s knowing how to deal with one particular child. My one particular child, Sofia, is a darling, bright, engaging little girl who, at 15 months, appeared to simply never want to ever sleep. She fought it like no one I’ve ever known.

As a tiny baby, Sofie had colic. She showed every sign of being in pain nearly all the time. She cried most of every day; she screamed most of every night. Around 1 or 2 in the morning, she would calm down enough to fall asleep, only to wake after 45 minutes needing to nurse. For the first four months of her life, I was lucky to get three or four hours of disconnected sleep nightly… and that nifty idea of napping when baby naps? She never napped. She would sleep in our Ergo carrier, strapped to my chest, and that was it.

We found that part of her colic-like symptoms were the result of a milk protein sensitivity, which meant that she was calmer and in less pain if I stayed away from dairy. It also meant she couldn’t handle formula, even the “gentle protein” kind; and for some reason the milk I pumped was souring immediately, so bottles were no go. I simply resigned myself — more or less — to having her attached to me constantly. I carried her in the Ergo while I cooked, cleaned, weeded, and did everything else that needed to be done. Until she was about six months old, she would panic if I set her down for more than five minutes; around that time, I could set her down for about half an hour at a time before I had to pick her back up. I rocked her to sleep each night before gingerly laying her down each night; she took most of her daytime naps, or started them, in her Ergo carrier on my back or chest. I believe the term “high-needs baby” could correctly be applied here.

Sofia napping in her Ergo during a Fourth of July walk.
Seven-month-old Sofia napping in her Ergo during a Fourth of July walk.

At fifteen months old, she was almost a year past her colicky stage (though too much dairy in her diet would still keep her awake at night). We were weaning, but I would still nurse and rock her to sleep each night, spending 45 minutes or so putting her to bed. She would wake anywhere from two to five times at night; most nights, she’d sleep in about two-hour increments before waking, and I’d nurse her back to sleep each time. It was exhausting, but was — I thought — what she needed.

I knew I couldn’t do this forever, and with a 2-day trip coming up during which Aaron’s mom would stay with the kids, I was on a deadline to figure out a better way to put Sofia to sleep at night and nap during the day.  I was determined not to use the Cry it Out method — despite my exhaustion, I just couldn’t face the idea of ignoring my baby’s cries. But I needed a solution.

I asked my mom how she night-weaned my brother and me. She told me that once we were eating solid food, she reasoned that waking up during the night was just habit, and she simply let us cry for a little bit till we learned that we wouldn’t be fed. At that point, we stopped crying at night. “How long did we cry for?” I asked. “How long is too long? Twenty minutes?”

“I’d say twenty minutes is too long,” she agreed. “You didn’t cry that long. Maybe ten minutes, and then you just went back to sleep.”

Well, that settled that. Sofia is more than capable of screaming in rage for two solid hours. She stops, not when she’s exhausted, but when her situation changes. It’s now been months since she’s done this, but the memory is still raw. Her screams are piercing, literally painful to the ear. So letting her cry at night didn’t seem like a workable solution — after all, the rest of us, including her four-year-old brother, needed to sleep too. Back to the drawing board.

Not long after my conversation with my mom, Aaron and I went on a rare evening date. Our babysitter, Alyssa, arrived with her own newborn just as fifteen-month-old Sofia was waking up from a nap. We discussed bedtime routines. “I honestly don’t know how well she’ll sleep for you,” I confessed. “I nurse her to sleep, and it takes forever. If it doesn’t work for you, don’t worry — I’ll put her to bed when we get home.”

Around 9:00, I sent Alyssa a quick text — “How’s it going?”

“Just fine!” she answered. “Everyone’s asleep.”

What? Everyone? “Sofia too?” I asked.

“She’s been asleep for about half an hour. She hardly cried at all. She went down really well.”

Over the next few days, I couldn’t help but wonder what magic Alyssa had worked. How had she gotten Sofia to sleep? Finally I couldn’t stand it any more. I texted Alyssa: “Do you think you could tell me what technique you used to get Sofie to sleep? I could really use some help figuring out how to get her to sleep without being nursed.”

She called me back. “I’m sorry, I wish I could help you, but I really didn’t do anything special. We just did all the bedtime stuff, read a story together, and then I put her into her crib and closed the door. She cried for about a minute, and then she went to sleep.”

Waaiiiiit a minute. She put her into her crib…and then walked away? Just like that? Impossible. She must have worked some wizardly mind magic on her. Still, the thought seemed full of potential. I might not have Alyssa’s touch (she also got Sofie to take a bottle when I couldn’t), but I do know how to use my legs to walk.

That night I braced myself to unleash hell. “I’m going to try it,” I told Aaron. “I’m just going to walk away.” We read a story in Niko’s bed, I tucked Niko in, and then I carried Sofia to her own room. “It’s time for bed,” I told her. “Niko is in his bed. Mama and Daddy are going to go to our bed. And you’re going to sleep in your bed, too.” I kissed her, wrapped her in her favorite soft blanket, and laid her down. To my amazement, she immediately rolled over onto her belly, stuck her little bottom into the air, and cuddled down into the bed without resistance. Her bright eyes watched me calmly, a peaceful smile on her face. I tucked her warm yellow crocheted blanket from Grandma around her, said good night, and walked out of the room. Then I stood outside her door, holding my breath. There was a soft wail. Another. And then…silence. Silence stretching on for minutes. I finally tiptoed away from the door, reeling with the shock. Realization was slowly dawning: for who knows how long now, Sofia hadn’t wanted to be rocked to sleep. She had been wanting to go to sleep on her own. Her resistance to sleeping at bedtime had been resistance to being rocked. And it took an evening with a babysitter for me to discover this.

Sofia rests peacefully at nap time... all by herself!
Sofia rests peacefully at nap time… all by herself!

Yes, I know kids. But what I’m learning is this: no matter how experienced a parent is, how in tune with a child’s needs, at some point, we all need a fresh perspective. The most dedicated parent sometimes misses something essential. This rather humbling experience was one of the best things that’s happened to our family. Sofia, now eighteen months old, has blossomed into a joyful, loving toddler. Putting her to bed without rocking or nursing paved the way for night weaning. I was finally able to take my mom’s advice and let her cry when she woke up at night — and just as my mother predicted, she cried for less than ten minutes before she decided it wasn’t worth the trouble. And weaning turned her into a different child. She now runs to her dad when she sees him, rather than withdrawing. She no longer panics the moment I leave a room. She explores, climbs, experiments with new words, waves to strangers, gives hugs to her dad and big brother. She is…fun. I’m enjoying her like I never truly did before. And it all started with a babysitter who just tried doing something a little differently than I’d been doing it.

I’ve never been so delighted to devour a giant slice of humble pie.  Mmmmmm, delicious.

Happy Sofia smelling the flowers.
Happy Sofia smelling the flowers.

Classroom Nightmare

So unfair. Nearly three-quarters of the way through my second year away from the classroom, what comes knocking in my brain? That’s right. A school nightmare. One of those horrible, chaos-filled, downward-spiral dreams, so hauntingly realistic that you have to test yourself upon waking, searching the dream for clues, to determine whether it may have actually happened. As a teacher, I had these every year, starting a few weeks before the first day of school, and recurring periodically throughout the year before major events. But having one mid-year when I’m not even teaching? The universe has it in for me.

I was writing the morning message on the chalkboard [clue #1: I’ve never taught in a classroom with a chalkboard — my classrooms have always had whiteboards] when a dour-faced woman with faded hair walked in and flicked on my lights — MY lights! — which I keep dimmed in the morning to preserve my serenity. “I’ve come to take over for an hour,” she said. “You’re wanted in a meeting.”

I gawked at her. Meeting? “Where is it?” I asked. She shrugged. “I don’t know. I was just told to come to your classroom so you could go.”

“I see. Well, I’m sorry, I don’t have any notes for you, but of course the first ten minutes will just be –”

She interrupted with an impatient wave of her hand. “I know, I know, you start with the Dawnzer song.” She flipped the math workbook open to the last lesson on fractions. “Page 234? Is it on the smartboard?”

I was getting annoyed. “No,” I said. “We don’t sing the Dawnzer song. [That’s clue #2. I’ve been reading Ramona the Pest to Niko, and the Dawnzer song turns out to be “The Star-Spangled Banner.”] We just say the pledge. Then announcements. Then they can do this page independently. It’s review. And no, I don’t use that awful board.” [Clue #3: I LOVED having a smartboard. Loved it.] I flipped backward to the first lesson on fractions.

She lifted an incredulous eyebrow. “Are you sure? Shouldn’t you be doing Lesson 12?”

“I’m sure. Now, when they’re finished –”

The woman lifted her left wrist and looked pointedly at her watch.

I swallowed. “All right, I’d better go. Thanks for coming in.” As I turned to go, I realized that my students had all arrived without my seeing them. They all sat motionless, gazing solemnly at me. I hadn’t even had a chance to high-five or fist-bump each one at the door or tell them each good morning, yet there they were, waiting for me to leave. And instead of the cozy groups of five desks that they were supposed to have, all the desks were arranged in a grid, perfectly spaced. As I surveyed them, their faces all morphed into the sweet, round face of the Kid President. [Clue 4. I love Kid President, but 25 of him? A trifle creepy.] In unison, each one raised a hand and waggled his fingers. Buh-bye, now. As I turned away, I heard the substitute say, “Take out your math books and turn to page 274, lesson 12,” as she stood smugly in front of the lesson displayed on the smartboard. MY smartboard.

It occurs to me some sadly deprived people might not know who Kid President is. Below is a picture of him looking inspirational, along with an inspirational quote. He’s on Facebook. And YouTube. He’s really pretty amazing.

Anyway, to continue: I hurried down the hallway, clutching a pen and cradling a hungrily nursing Sofia in my arms. Wait — how did she get there? She hadn’t been there a minute ago. Bad enough that I hadn’t checked my emails one single time this year, now I arrive at a meeting, probably late (no one had bothered to say when it was supposed to start), with a nursing baby? Worse and worse. This was probably a meeting to fire me.

I turned a corner, descended the steep stairs, and beheld an alcove where the utility closet had been. [I’m sure you can guess that that is yet another clue. I’m going to stop counting now.] At a table sat a man that my dream self recognized as our special ed teacher, someone I’d never seen before in real life, but I knew immediately that I disliked him. Next to him was a couple that I recognized as the parents of the only fifth-grader in my second-grade class [huh???], and next to them was my principal, Heidi. They surveyed me coolly as I settled into an uncomfortably large chair, still nursing Sofia. I slid backward, my feet leaving the ground, feeling like I was disappearing into the chair.

The special ed teacher passed around a heavy stack of the IEP (individualized education plan) drafts. “Here we go,” he said. “It’s all digital, so I was going to make a slideshow of crucial changes, but then I realized that would make the meeting go too fast, so instead I printed it out so we can read the entire thing word for word.” And so the meeting began, with Sofia weighing me down so that I slid further and further into the chair until I couldn’t stretch forward enough to reach the paperwork being handed to me. No one seemed to notice or care that I was becoming invisible, and they didn’t hear my objections to the terms the special ed teacher used to describe the child: “weird,” “stupid,” “retarded,” “dumb,” “problem kid.” No one seemed fazed by his words, not even the parents. I felt rage bubbling up at the way this student — MY student — was being discussed, but the chair had nearly swallowed me, and I couldn’t even reach the edge to pull myself out.

Suddenly, there was a minor commotion at a nearby conference table surrounded by sleek black leather chairs. The table was in a separate room with tall windows looking out onto a city view. The meeting there was breaking up, and chatter and laughter poured out of the room as everyone left. “Quick!” our principal said. “The good table is free! Let’s move!” The members of our team scuttled across the hall and claimed office chairs, and I was left to wallow in the giant chair. With an enormous final effort involving a lot of leg-waving and flopping around, I levered myself up and set Sofia on the ground, where she morphed unexpectedly into a curly-pigtailed kindergartener. She stared at me for a long moment before turning and going down the hallway to her classroom. “Oh,” I said. “That was easy.”

I seated myself in a comfortable chair, flipped open the IEP packet, and opened my mouth to dazzle everyone with my insights about my student. And then the bell rang for the end of the day, and everyone jumped up and deserted the meeting. And then Sofia — the real Sofia — elbowed me in the throat, and it was time to get up.

I guess a teacher is a teacher is a teacher. You can spend two years at home with your own children, and you still care about your students from however many years ago. Still worry that somewhere, some student, maybe one of your own, is being treated unfairly. Still sometimes feel that the education process has more to do with being told what to do by invisible commanders than with what your students themselves need. And then there’s always the worry that your personal life is destroying your career, or vice versa.

Or, you, know, maybe I just had a miserable cold and was sleeping on too many pillows, with an equally miserable Sofia lying on my chest nursing at will all night, after spending far too long scanning Kid President’s Facebook page. Who knows?