Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Lullaby: The Art and Zen of a Sleeping Baby

“Cute little bundle of joy” is a common description of a baby, one we most associate with a baby anyway. I wouldn’t look into the oven and describe the Thanksgiving Day turkey as a cute bundle of joy as much as I wouldn’t refer to a nest of baby rattlesnakes in the same way. Of course, some people like “a little package sent from Heaven,” which is part of the song the stork sings to Dumbo’s mother upon delivery. I’m okay with that one too, because they are, from their tiny wrinkled feet all the way up to their swimming pool eyes and pug nose. I call our five-month old a little poop machine on most days, as he always seems to have one ready for me during my shift, night or day, it doesn’t matter. “Here’s one for ya’ pop,” I imagine him saying as he looks at me through a toothless grin and squinty eyes. “Plenty more where that came from, you know.” As the only men in the house, we came to an agreement early on: I won’t pee on him and he won’t pee on me. It’s a nice accord. He’s doused everybody that changed him so far, but he’s holding up his end of the bargain with me. That’s my boy.

Once a baby has discovered his voice, like I heard Matthew do a few days ago (and he hasn’t stopped), a quiet time is enjoyed by all when he finally falls asleep; since I am a part-time stay-at-home dad—and admitted elsewhere on this site that I’ve considered my practical approach to fathering inept by modern standards, who am I kidding, inept by Neanderthal standards—I am the hapless primary care giver of my precocious two-year-old Natalie and the coy, sly, if-I-could-only-move-around-I’d-be-mischievous Matthew for three sometimes very long days a week. I don’t mean hapless in the sense that I don’t want to do it or I’m a complete bumbling idiot (though the jury’s still out), I feel that my wife is a much better parent at this stage than I could ever hope to be; I mean hapless in the same urgency experienced when one is about to jump out of an airplane: On most days, everything will work fine, the ‘shute will open and it will be a nice ride on gravity’s shoulders to the ground. Although the odds are slim that you could plummet to your death when you look up and see a knapsack full of picnic flotsam sailing above you instead of a ‘shute, anxiety teaches you that probability has two sides of the coin. Today might be your day.

So, the start of every day is filled with solemn determination to enjoy the scraps that are thrown me by the kids, all the while anxious about what could go horribly wrong. Will it be a day of sunshine and roses, happiness, cooing and the pitter-patter of little feet as they dance and play about the house, or will it be a dark, stormy nine-hour nightmare punctuated by screaming fits, throwing toys, tantrums and long periods of forced isolation? If we’re talking about scraps, it usually coincides with nap time, with a big huzzah in the afternoon when both of them are asleep at the same time (Natalie only takes one nap, at least she supposed to, for a couple of hours usually between two and four) and I can have some “me time” if I can get Matthew to do the same. That means, TV, couch, perhaps a cheap lunch of ham sandwiches or a third-dozen hotdogs and complete silence. Even the dog’ll sleep, as she usually does all day anyway, especially when no one’s trying to ride her or poke her in the eyes and tug on her ears.

Getting to this Daddy Nirvana of my day is the difficult part, but it all comes down to timing and training. Right now, three days a week, I’ve been conditioning Matty to take his longer nap (he usually does at least one two-hour nap a day) in the afternoon at the same time as Natalie’s. If I get her down, which is indeed a triumph against the stubbornly strong willed (even if I didn’t see her birth with my own eyes, there would still be no question she is her mother’s daughter), it is clear sailing to sofa town for me. If I time it wrong, I lose all of my downtime and I have to spend the afternoon “on.” That means, another tea party, another period of take-every-toy-you-own-out-at-the-same-time and another worn out evening. For me, being “on” is like opening night on vaudeville; some days you kill and other days you fall flat on your face. Therein lies the fear I have every waking moment of the day, that joy could turn to sadness and happiness to rage. But when they’re asleep… when they’re asleep, that’s when I enjoy the sense of accomplishment because I did something right enough to make them comfortable to fall sleep.

Here’s how it usually goes, as there are five steps on the road to Slumberville:

1. Time: Since I have the memory of a goldfish, I write down Matthew’s activities every day, all day: what he ate, when he ate it, when he napped and for how long. I do this for two reasons. I know that he’ll be up for a two hours and down for one, so if we’re nearing the two hour mark, he’s nearing the end of his rope. But also by the end of those two hours, I won’t remember when he woke up last or how much milk he recently drank. Alas the list. Also, Kara will ask me about it and she’s sick of me saying, “I don’t remember.”

2. Crying and eye rubbing: The secret to a sleepy baby is crying when there’s no other possible reason to cry. He just ate, he’s changed, no stomach ailments, his big sister isn’t threatening to kick him like she likes to do and the dog is snacking on his toes…like she likes to do. At this point, I’ll mix together a little milk martini “chaser” for him, about two ounces of warm milk in one bottle and a couple of ounces of water in another. And we head upstairs. If he’s still more up than down but you know he’s really tired, I usually put him in his crib, wide awake. It’s like an interrogator slugging the stoolie a couple of times, as an attention getter. “Okay, we’re going to get some answers from you now” means “we’re going to take a nap now and this is what it’ll look like.” When he starts to cry a little, I know he’s ready.

3. Rock to sleep: The milk is the trick. It’s relaxing, delicious and more importantly, intoxicating to babies. In the beginning, I’ll rock him in the chair near the window. His blue saucer eyes will dart around at the wall, ceiling and me while he drinks, and I know I’ve got him when his eyes stop moving around and start to stare at something, usually a logo on my t-shirt or the top of the bottle. All the while, I’m patting his bum about 70 times a minute; no, I’m not counting, but it is always a little faster than one a second, supposedly mimicking the mother’s heartbeat.

4. Dance, dance, dance: If he isn’t going as fast as he usually does or should do, I’ll stand up and sway him back and forth in small and gentle figure-eight circles. I read somewhere that g-forces causes sleepiness, and don’t translate this to mean that I put him in a pillowcase and swing him around like a tilt-a-whirl; I said gentle, small circles.

5. Bottle, burp, bed: This is the fragile step and the final one. At this point, he’ll drink in his sleep and if the bottle’s done with, he might wake up completely and then all is lost, which is why I always bring some water as well to give him a couple of extra swigs. As you learned a couple of posts ago, a good burping is a must if you want to keep him down for any length of time (and keep the wallpaper intact). It’ll wake him up, sure, but if he was really sleeping, he only considers it to an inconvenience, as if the burp is the snooze button. As soon as he “hits” it, he knows that I’ll leave him alone. Out comes the burp and quietly I slowly back out of the room.

Ah, peace.

Just about now, a variety of things usually happen. Natalie will decide that playing upstairs is a whole lot more fun than taking a nap herself, and she’ll set up Little People Village outside his bedroom door and then feint an attempt to be remotely quiet. I’ll usher her back downstairs with promises of apple juice and ample bags of sugar but then trick her into a good old fashioned tiring game of “chase me” (the rules are simple: if someone’s behind you, run, and if someone’s in front of you, run).

With all the noise, I pray that I don’t see the little red bars on the baby monitor jump. I know it is inevitable, but it shouldn’t be premature.

The UPS guy, with some sort of super-sensitive sensing equipment can actually detect when a baby reaches REM sleep on any given street, is sitting at the end of the block, eyes glued to his BSD (Baby Sleep Disrupter) device, waiting for a package’s address to match the BSD. When it does, he roars up to the driveway in that hulking cruiser that I can hear the arrival of three ZIP codes away and delivers the package…with the gusto only reserved for tax collectors and Mormon missionaries.

The dog, completely familiar with the sound of his truck (and can distinguish between the vehicles of UPS, FedEx and the P.O.; it seems to be one of her highlights, I guess you’ve got to have something), is now standing dutifully at the door waiting for the least provocation to bark, the slightest noise that will give her any indication that some stranger is attempting to circumvent her potent web of security she has established around her home. It comes as bluntly as a stick of dynamite in the form of a doorbell ring. Why must he ring the bell…and then leave? I heard him drive up, stomp up the driveway in his lead boots and drop kick my package on the porch, but that’s not enough. He has to ring the bell, alerting all inside that he has arrived, done his job and is leaving. “Get up, come to the door and find a package there, like on an orphanage doorstep.”

What am I left with, after calming down the dog, assuring her that I am still the primary gatekeeper of the front door and fending off Natalie who is only concerned that the person at the door is Mommy and why aren’t I letting her in? What am I left with for the remainder of the afternoon? Red bars on the monitor and a baby singing his favorite song, which goes a little something like this (to the tune of Braham’s “Lullabye”):

I’m awake, I’m awake
Why am I here alone, Dad?
I’m awake, I’m awake.
Come and get me right now.
Or I’ll cry and I’ll cry
Until someone comes in here.
I’m awake, I’m awake
And I think my diaper is full.

Just another day in suburban paradise. But no matter how I stack it, sure beats the hell out of working in an office all day. You want to see cry babies that need a nap!?!

You’re right, I should be working. Off to the salt mines.

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