Letter From Oakland: Black Motherhood in Sleepless Times

Idrissa Simmonds-Nastili: "Being a black mother is its own form of activism."

Sleep Goals: “For baby to learn to self soothe, and fall asleep at night in the bassinet (or pack and play) without nursing until asleep or rocking over a long time. For baby to have a consistent nap time.”

On the evening of the day a video is released of a police officer kneeling on the neck of George Floyd—friend, father, homie, human—until George cannot breathe, until George calls for his dead mother, until George himself slumps and dies, I stay up late tending to my hair. I do this in preparation for sleep-training my son. The practice of combing out the knots in my head feels like both armor and surrender at a time when I cannot bear another thing weighing my body down.

It makes sense, in a time of racial trauma, to crawl back into the lap of my black girlhood and find the ritual that made me feel most seen, loved, and beautiful: sitting at my mother’s feet while she sectioned and braided my hair. This walk through my personal history is a portal for my rage. I drench my hair in water, then detangle and comb it out with painstaking slowness. I have not properly combed out my hair since taking out braids following my son’s birth. I shed and shed and shed. I think of my own departed father named George. It is a good, solid name, one of my son’s three middle names. Wherever you are from across the black diaspora, I appreciate the way George drawls from the mouth.

As I comb and pull and twist I think of my father, my brother, my husband, my son, my cousins, my found family, my neighbors. I think of every black man I love and know. I think of all the black mothers I know and the tsunami of our collective grief. I wonder what these mothers are doing with their own hands right now. Some of us are writing, some of us are planting greens in the earth, some of us are essential workers bearing the brunt of both Covid-19 and the grief, rage, and fear that come with racism. Some of us are praying. All the hair that had nowhere to go when braided, all the growth now breaking free four months postpartum, lies in the sink like a soft, small animal. I don’t know what to do with so much shedding. Should I burn it? Leave it in the backyard for the birds to find? Bury it? How do I care for the parts of my body that are no longer attached to me?

“The goal of the bedtime routine is not to put him to sleep but to prepare him for sleep. Milk and sleep need to become separate functions. The last milk should end at least 20 minutes before he is put into his bed.”

For the last four months I have slept most nights with my son’s warm body pressed to mine, his steady infant breath a hush landing on my breast. We have established a sort of choreography—both of us awakening throughout the night to find the perfect position for him to latch. As he sleeps his mouth moves as if he is still nursing, still tethered to me. I look at his perfect face, watch his mouth dance, and try not to think this is the safest he will ever be. Someday, my son may inhabit an America where he will no longer be the sweet baby strangers love to coo over, but the black man they fear. I must use the word may: I reject a bleak future as absolute truth.

Just because you choose to not hear the cries does not mean they cease to exist.

We had to hire someone to help us help our son sleep. I have paid someone to buffer me from my own tendencies of protection in pursuit of a higher good. I am a black mother living in America. You cannot blame me for wanting to watch my child breathe all night. I am told all the ways that learning to sleep independently helps babies’ brain development and leads to happier waking hours. I get it: good sleep hygiene for everybody. But there is only one truth my mind clamps to: My body can keep my child alive. My body tells the story of his life. He slipped from me easily, and I hope this means the world is ready for him.

But in sleeping next to me, my child is only getting light sleep. Light sleep, I have learnt, is where newborns spend 75 to 90 percent of their time. This is the sleep that comes in sips. Twenty minutes here, thirty minutes there. “You want him to experience deep sleep,” the consultant tells us. My son wakes up every hour or so, eyes still shut, rooting blindly for my breast before latching and relaxing again. He needs to learn how to self-soothe, I am told. He needs to fall back asleep without the aid of my body. At his age, he has everything he needs to do so.

I marvel at this.

I am a grown woman.

I don’t have the tools to self-soothe my way to sleep.

Or—black people have learned to self-soothe in other ways.

During nursing, the pituitary gland opens like a valve and releases oxytocin. This love chemical flows into my milk and makes both me and my child want to fall into deep sleep. What does it mean for my body to relax and fall into a deep sleep in this era of wokeness, of hypervigilance? To let my guard slip completely away and sleep well is a dangerous thing. If I stay ready, I don’t have to get ready.

“He is going to cry. He has the right to be angry. His world has changed. Give him space to express himself.”

On the first night of sleep training, protests erupt across the country. My son cries and cries for almost 45 minutes. On a night where my city breaks and burns, his frantic shrieks seem to join the weeping of the world. I have been instructed to sit in a chair beside him, positioned so he can sense my presence and hear me but cannot see my face. I expected this to be stressful and for it to be impossible to fight the urge to scoop him into my arms. But I find myself nodding alongside his tears, shushing him, saying his name and reminding him: “I’m here. You can do this. You are okay.” The way church mothers might surround the heaving body of a wayward sinner locked in grief or shame. I can handle his rage and frustration as long as I am alongside him, in the thick of it too. I channel all the confidence and peace I can muster from my body to his. “You can put in headphones and listen to music if you want,” the sleep consultant says. I don’t. I will not buffer myself from his cries in order to make myself more comfortable. Just because you choose to not hear the cries does not mean they cease to exist.

I want this for him for one reason: I want him to know what it is like to get lost in his dreams.

All night I listen with one ear for my children sleeping, and with the other for helicopters and police sirens circling my neighborhood. Where I live, black folks are ever ready. Activism is stamped in the bones and blood of native Black Oaklanders. I know I am not going to sleep tonight. Being a black mother is its own form of activism. I hear phantom cries throughout the night. I creep up the steps to lay a hand across my son’s chest. He is sleeping sweetly, deep in the cocoon of sleep while the world around him seethes.

On the second night, sirens and helicopters circle again. This time, my son falls asleep after only 30 minutes. There is both magic and a touch of grief for me in this: Where previously he needed me to fall asleep, he is discovering his own ability to access rest. And while the city around us and the country we are nestled within breaks itself open and screams enough, my black child is learning a new superpower. Yes, I will finally have my bed back. Yes, my children sleeping through the night will open up delicious hours in the evening for me to do with what I will. But I want this for him for one reason: I want him to know what it is like to get lost in his dreams. For both of my children, I want them to access the full breadth of the power of their visionary minds. May they imagine the futures we have been too dumb and afraid to actualize. And then, may we walk alongside them with enough courage to help them make it so.

I did not birth children to be afraid. I believe their lives are meant to be songs of jubilation, not laments. Most days I can lean into this belief and hold onto it like a mantra. Other days, I need them to believe it when I don’t have the strength to.

*Language in the last two quotations credited to Arlene Fryling at GentleTouchSleepTime.

Idrissa Simmonds-Nastili
Idrissa Simmonds-Nastili
Idrissa Simmonds-Nastili is a poet, essayist, fiction writer, coach and facilitator. Her work has appeared in Black Renaissance Noire, James Franco Review, Fourteen Hills Press, Room Magazine, Adirondack Review and elsewhere. She has been the recipient of fellowships and residencies from Hedgebrook, Bread Loaf Writers Conference, Poets House, and VONA/Voices. She is co-editor of BreakBeat Poets Vol. 2: Black Girl Magic (Haymarket Books). She curates Brunch & Word, a bi-coastal literary salon.





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