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- The Best Reviewed Books of the WeekMay 25, 2018
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I spent the first two weeks of my son’s life half-naked and dripping milk in front of friends and family. My nipples were hoovered multiple times a day by either an aggressive pump that seemed to be chanting giddily, “Nipple! Nipple! Nipple!” as it revealed just how measly an amount of milk I was producing, or by a skinny baby, too sleepy to get a proper letdown going, waking only long enough to reject my breast and guzzle down a bottle of supplementation formula, fed to him by my mother, who had an unmistakably victorious smile on her face.
It was hard to imagine a reality in which nursing would ever become second nature. One of the many things my husband did to help me put together my new image as a human dairy farm with the old, vaguely human me, was give me a little postpartum gift: Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist—essays short enough to read as I breastfed, and a theme to remind me that a woman is defined by a myriad different things. I promptly set the book in my little nursing station, alongside a nipple shield, a nursing pillow, and a bottle of water. I did manage to read an essay here and there in the small hours of the night, but when you have a baby who isn’t a natural at feeding, you really have to watch them quite closely to make sure they aren’t just dozing off with a boob in their mouth. Still, having the voice of a strong woman in my head, raising questions and concerns about our world, helped delay the onset of destructive thoughts along the lines of “A real woman would have no issues breastfeeding.” Don’t worry, those came later anyway.
I harbored little “having it all” fantasies. I had read about a woman who spent the long hours of breastfeeding during her first week of motherhood finishing Anna Karenina, and I have a friend who’s been reading all the classics on her phone during middle-of-the-night soothing sessions. But the truth was, with my energy so low and my mood shifting up and down, when I had a moment to myself the beautiful outfits on Gossip Girl often won over the dirty men in a Cormac McCarthy novel.
I still read when I could, but between our many visitors, attempting to get some work done (“I work from home, I can do that with a baby!”), and having to be up every two to three hours at night, it was a rare occasion. At some point the visitors left, my husband went back to work, and I was alone with this unfathomable creature. With him suffering from gas and constipation, me suffering from not always recognizing his basic needs for what they were—often confusing tiredness with hunger—I mostly got to read only a few pages while I rocked him to sleep (or, at the very least, rocked him to a satisfying fart). It took at least a month to finish an average-length novel, all the while that little voice in my mind saying, “You should read! Who are you if you don’t read?”
When my baby was about four months old and had figured out how digestion works, there came a period of delicious grace. He began sleeping through the night—or the parenthood definition of sleeping through the night, which means he only woke up to nurse once, around dawn, and sometimes for just a minute here and there before that. Which means I slept. Suddenly, I had time and space for a life. There was a beautiful, fascinating world out there, and I got to be a part of it again. That, in combination with a lucky streak of terrific books, some older and some brand new—Victor Lavalle’s The Ecstatic, Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, and Marc Maron’s Attempting Normal, to name a few—delivered me back to the reading habits of my childhood: as much as possible, whenever possible. Victor was one of my workshop instructors at Columbia—the one who had gently pushed me toward a breakthrough moment in writing my novel. Wild both excited and frustrated me, reminding me of my pre-motherhood adventures and inspiring fantasies of what could still be lying ahead. Marc Maron offered a great example of fast, fun, deep non-fiction, and what it sounds like when your laughter echoes through an empty room, pushing away fruitless worries about lengths of naps and vasospasms. I couldn’t wait for my child to get hungry, so that I could drop everything I was doing and curl up on the sofa with a good book (the baby attached to my breast seemed incidental at the time—he knew how to nurse by that point and required very little attention from me).
But things are always in flux in motherhood, and recalibrating becomes both a gift and a curse. One is constantly adapting and adjusting like some kind of evolutionary marvel, but also chasing after that one elusive moment when things made sense: “I could swear that a month ago he was on a regular schedule,” or “He was napping so well just yesterday! Or was it last week?” And so it was with reading. Before I knew it, my child was so alert and involved in the world that a book propped up on my lap was way too engaging for him to ignore, even when food was on the table, as it were. His nursing sessions also became so efficient that they normally took only 10 to 15 minutes—not really enough time to get into a book. Searching my day for another opening, my fuzzy but incredibly powerful mom-brain identified an ideal stretch of time: each day around 5 pm my child was ready for a catnap. It was usually 40 minutes to an hour long, and because by that point in the day we were both tired of working—me on my translations and writing, he on his crawling and pulling up—and in need of some comfort and closeness, strapping him into a carrier and heading out to a community garden or a cozy café felt ideal. He would nap, I would catch up on some reading, and we would both come out restored.
* * * *
When my son was seven months old, however, sleeping through the night became a thing of the past. After two weeks of frequent night waking pushed us to our breaking point, my husband and I decided to start sleep training. I had gone through my usual meticulous round of online research, joined a support group on Facebook, and one night simply decided to let go of my anxieties and begin. That night, I put him to bed, left the room, and waited three minutes before going back. Then I went in, returned his pacifier to his mouth, gave him a little comfort, and left again. Standing in the kitchen with my husband and listening to our baby cry over the monitor, I felt confident behind my shield of written knowledge. I had looked at the relevant studies, and I knew my stuff.
From the moment your child is born there are countless people chomping at the bit to offer their counsel. Unlike the relevant and compassionate advice of other parents faced with similar scenarios, many people are eager to provide arbitrary ideas on childrearing that are neither pertinent nor founded in any kind of medical or developmental fact. In the face of these, I used my critical reading skills to get a well-rounded notion of what parenting techniques are good, safe, helpful, and healthy. I like knowledge and I love to read. I don’t buy into the idea that studies about babies can’t teach me anything, that my instincts are smarter than science. I try to trust my instincts when it comes to small decisions—should I try to put him down for a nap now or in another fifteen minutes? Should I dress him in short or long sleeves?—but when bigger questions are on the line, I don’t think my instincts are good enough. I’ve seen them be wrong before. I would listen to the experts.
And it worked. The next night I waited four minutes before going in. The night after that—five. I had to go in there fewer times. He was falling asleep faster, the crying gradually turned into a disgruntled fussing, then self-soothing. Even more incredible: he took daytime naps in his crib for the first time in his life. After months of tiptoeing while he napped strapped to me in his carrier, chewing my lunch silently, avoiding phone calls, aluminum foil, or clicking too hard on the keyboard, I was set free. I had taught him how to sleep! I hadn’t felt this powerful since four months earlier, when I had finally taught him how to nurse.
But like I said, parenting never allows you to become too attached to a permanent reality, and backtracking is the name of the game. After a week of bliss, something went wrong. One day I put him down for a nap and he screamed bloody murder for ten minutes. I went back into his room, did my regular comforting routine, left again, and he screamed for another ten minutes. Finally, my husband rocked him to sleep in his arms.
The next morning, at dawn, tempted by the glow of my phone’s screen while I nursed, I came across an article discrediting much of the online literature about sleep training. It didn’t exactly say what was right and what was wrong, and might have made me feel good for doing lots of reading and not giving into provocative headlines, but instead it led me to doubt the entire endeavor altogether. There was no definitive answer in this article or elsewhere as to whether those 20 minutes of lonely screaming had irrevocably traumatized my son, and I was consumed with self-doubt. And here’s the rub: as long as my baby wasn’t over the hump, I would continue to be tired, oversensitive, and in frantic search of new solutions. I wouldn’t be able to just write this regression off as a normal part of babyhood; I would absolutely need a clear arc to my story.
It was in this state of mind that I read The No-Cry Sleep Solution by Elizabeth Pantley. I would not have thought that a book focused on gentle ways of teaching babies to sleep on their own could hurt me so badly. I read it half-heartedly and found within lots of the tricks I’d already attempted, comforted at least to find my instincts fortified by literature. But then I reached the book’s conclusion. It began with an acknowledgement that anyone who had made it this far in the book must share the author’s feeling, that hearing one’s baby cry, if only for a few moments, is unbearable. It continued with an anecdote about a mother the author had met who had used extinction methods—known more generally and erroneously as “cry it out”—on her baby. Stop reading, I told myself. No good can come of this.
But of course I didn’t stop. Who quits on a book with only three pages to go? I read on about how this mother’s child would probably grow up feeling isolated and separate from the world, taught at a young age that he had to fend for himself, without a sense of community or support. It was a subtle thing Pantley seemed to be suggesting: outwardly this child will appear to be just fine, but the trauma runs deep.
Those five minutes of reading sent me into an emotional upset that no comfort—emotional or carb-loaded—could cure. It wasn’t science. It was completely anecdotal. But I couldn’t get that story out of my head. Babies are so unknowable, and early childhood experiences could deliver them down different adult trajectories. What kind of child was I raising? I wanted him to develop an independent spirit, but I also wanted him to be nurtured and enjoy lots of attention. I wanted to give him everything, but I also wanted to keep certain things to myself. I wanted to live by my own standards, but I also wanted my family and friends and all the other mothers at the playground to approve.
* * * *
After my bout of crying over the no-cry solution, I decided to give parenting books—and myself—a little break. I went back to focusing on “regular people” books and took it one day at a time. My experience had taught me that the wrong story at the wrong time could lead me down a path of shame, fear, and stress that made being a mother that much more difficult to accomplish.
Thankfully, the reading sessions with my son in the carrier brought on an even more wonderful development: I was writing again. I have Anne Lamott to thank for that. I read her book Operating Instructions: a Journal of My Son’s First Year, and it touched me so much that I decided to finally read her famous writing guide, Bird By Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. Her attitude about both parenting and writing was so compassionate and empathetic, so thoughtful and self-deprecating, that I couldn’t resist picking up a pen—something I hadn’t done since my child was born, and—if I’m honest—something I hadn’t been doing enough of even before that.
To a writer, there is no shortage of excuses for not writing. A baby is very high on the list of valid excuses, and you’d better believe I pounced on it when it came my way. Suddenly I had this other person who truly was to blame for my shortage of creative time and energy. It’s very easy, when a child is involved, to shut out that voice that nudges, “You should be writing.” Often, that voice is simply drowned within a persistent, overtired wail—yours or the baby’s, who can even tell?
But what reading wonderful books can do to a person, no matter their state, is remind them that writing is its own reward, not a means to an end. If I manage to get a little writing done most days, I’m able to find myself within this jumble of sleep deprivation, scheduling confusion, and milestone obsession. When I remember who I am, it is that much easier to tackle figuring out who this little person might be, running a finger down my nose and up my nostril as he looks up wistfully from my breast. It is also more possible to stay strong in the face of criticism about my choices as a mother.
Lamott also reminded me of the one place where nobody was looking and judging. When I write, it is only me and my baby in the room, and with all due respect to him, his main interest in my art seems to focus on trying to chew on my laptop cord. Unlike every other part of motherhood, when I sit in my little home office and write, there’s no one watching and offering random remarks. For once it becomes truly possible to shut out other voices, and just trust my instincts.