My mistake

Nights are long and strange when you have a new baby. It’s such a gigantic adjustment, bringing this little person home and figuring out how to take care of her while still getting enough rest to do your job as a parent. We tried to set up a schedule in the beginning, in which Jason would do the late night feeding, so that I could go to bed early and be ready to feed Grace again when she woke in the early hours of morning. But it was hard for me to put myself to bed at eight. To be honest, it depressed me, going to bed early like that, trying to shut my ears to the sound of The Simpsons on the TV downstairs. I felt like a little kid sent to bed before the good stuff happened. We had always watched The Simpsons together.

Regardless of whether I went to bed before it got dark outside, like I was supposed to, or stayed up and suffered the consequences, it felt like half my life was spent trying to get Grace to fall asleep in those first months. I remember pacing the halls with Grace in my arms, gazing into her round little face as I walked up and down the narrow second floor hallway, singing. It is, perhaps, the clearest mental picture I have of her early infancy. I sang Can’t Find My Way Home, and He’s My Guy, and Happier Than The Morning Sun. We spent many hundreds of minutes this way – the sound of my voice, the knots tightening to a deep ache in my shoulders and back, as I rocked Grace back and forth, back and forth, until she finally fell asleep.

One of my first thoughts, when I learned that she was deaf, was that she hadn’t heard me. All those nights, when I thought the songs I sang to her had helped, she’d heard nothing. And yet, although I sang to her less, after that ABR at Georgetown, I didn’t stop completely. I don’t know if it was because I didn’t want to believe she couldn’t hear me, or if I liked hearing the sound of my own voice, or if I thought the vibrations in my chest might soothe her anyway. But I sang more quietly now, because I was embarrassed to be doing it.

Putting Grace to bed asleep seemed like the way it was supposed to be done. It didn’t really occur to me that I could put her down in her crib awake, and walk away. I wish I’d known then the repercussions of this misunderstanding, because I think it would have saved us a lot of frustration, and gifted us with a great deal more rest.

I have heard other parents of deaf children wonder if deaf kids have a harder time falling asleep and staying asleep than other children. Some speculate that they are especially afraid of the dark, since they rely more on their sight than hearing children. Maybe the fact that they cannot hear us walking away, or doing laundry down the hall, or watching television, plays into their not-yet-developed sense of tangible permanence, and they think we’re actually just gone once they cannot see us anymore. I don’t know if Grace had such difficulty going to sleep because she is deaf, or because I did a rotten job teaching her to fall asleep on her own, or if that’s just part of who she is. But I do know that the fact that she couldn’t hear at all, and then, once she got her CI, couldn’t hear at night and in the morning, complicated our efforts immensely at bedtime, and in the morning when it was time to wake up.

We had a lovely little hiatus, once the newborn nighttime feedings stopped, and most people would say we were lucky. Although putting Grace to bed felt like a very long process, she began sleeping through the night early – she was regularly sleeping through the night by the time she was six or seven weeks old, and I know other parents looked at us with envy. But the older Grace got, the harder it became to put her to bed. By the time she was two, the routine had gotten so long it almost always lasted for well over an hour. Brush teeth. Read books. Tell a story. She would sit in my lap in the chair in her room, and I’d try to help her settle. When I got pregnant again, we didn’t want to buy a second crib, and we didn’t want Grace to feel ousted by her baby sister when she arrived, so instead we decided to move her into a bed in her “new room” down the hallway a few months before the baby was due. Her baby room had been right next to ours, with only one window, so we could darken it easily. Her new room was all the way at the end of the hall. We’d been using it as a playroom and study up until then. The walls were sage green, and in addition to two large windows (one of them south facing), there was a door with glass panes that led out to a little balcony overlooking the alley at the back of the house. It was bigger than the baby room, and brighter, and was my favorite one in the house.

Once we moved Grace to the bed, an already difficult bedtime process became torturous. In addition to the regular routine, there were the rubs. This was the one part of her bedtime routine that was “sound off”, the hope being that she’d drift off and be able to go to sleep for the night, her CI batteries charging on the dresser, her processor in the dri-bag for the night. She would relax under my hands, her body pressing restful into the sheets, as I rubbed her. But as soon as I stopped rubbing, she’d jolt upright and seem completely awake. So I would just keep rubbing her until she fell asleep. It was a full-body massage, head to foot. I remember sitting on her bed, thinking “Dear god, fall asleep already!” Wanting desperately to have some time when I could stop being a parent and revert, at least superficially, to being just me. If people were visiting – my parents, inlaws, friends – I would usually say goodnight to them when it was time to put Grace to bed, knowing that there was a good chance they’d be gone by the time I made it back downstairs.

But the worst of it started when we began trying to leave before she was asleep. I knew it needed to happen, but the damage had been done, and now she didn’t even have the bars of the crib to contain her. We worked out a deal – she could choose two body parts to be rubbed (though she’d give me a cynical look if I rushed through those too quickly. “That’s it?!” she’d sometimes say when she felt the pressure of my hands lift off of her body). Finally, after back and feet, or hands and back, or head and feet, I would try to go. Sometimes she’d let me, smiling as we signed I Love You to each other, and I left through the door. But it was almost never, ever, the end of it. Within ten minutes, we’d hear her tiny feet crashing on the floorboards down the hallway and toward the stairs. She’d pop her head down, looking at us through the stair railings. Sometimes she wanted water. Sometimes she was scared. Sometimes she just couldn’t sleep. Always, she needed to be put back to bed.

With the arrival of her sister, things got even worse. In addition to trying to keep Grace in bed, we were now contending with a newborn. Kali was easy as far as newborn babies go, but she still needed to be fed, burped, changed, fed some more, changed again, burped again, and put down. (Note, though, that with this girl, I laid her down in her crib sleepy but awake – like all the books tell you to do – and left her room. The first time I tried it, I remember thinking, “Well, here goes…” I was dubious. And elated, when she looked up at me for a quick second, and then rolled over onto her side, content). Meanwhile, Jason and I would take turns intercepting Grace. We called it playing goalie. One night, when Grace was two and a half, we counted twenty-nine saves at her door. Twenty Nine.

We were completely exhausted. Usually, she would finally pass out around 11. But for at least a year, between the ages of two and three, there were also night wakings nearly every night. I’d be asleep, and would open my eyes, usually around two in the morning, and Grace would be standing there, next to the bed, staring at me, her face just inches from mine. I’d try to be “firm but gentle” (also like all the books say), and walk her back to bed. Usually, she’d fall back to sleep pretty quickly. But by then, my own sleep had been shaken out of me, and when Kali woke ready for breakfast, around six, I’d be weighed down by not feeling at all rested.

One night, we put Grace to bed, and we didn’t see her again. We looked at each other and bit our lips, not wanting to jinx anything. We went upstairs to watch a movie. A few minutes in, I got the feeling that things were just too quiet. I went down the stairs, and noticed that Grace’s light was on at the end of the hall. Walking into her doorway, I saw her. She was wearing a pull-up and an awesome pair of orange and pink cowboy boots that Jason had bought her on a trip to Baby Gap, and nothing else. She was smearing Desitin all over her body. There was Desitin in her light brown curly hair, on her arms, her legs, the boots, her belly, her face. She saw me, and her face lit up into a gigantic smile. “Look mama!” she said, “I have sun lotion.” She tilted her head to the side and gave me a serious look. “You need sun lotion, too!” she said, holding the tube out to me. I got her into the tub, and tried to wash off all the thick gooey white diaper cream, but it was weeks before we got the smell of cod liver oil out of her hair.

A new development in Grace’s problematic sleep habits started once she was old enough to know how to write. Jason and I would be on the third floor watching television, or downstairs in the living room, and we’d hear mouselike sounds outside the door or on the stairs. Then they would stop. We would go look, and find a note from Grace. Sometimes in the third person, sometimes in the first. “I can’t sleep. Can you come see me?” they would say, or “Grace wants you to come to her room.” I think she thought if we just happened upon a note, instead of seeing her in person in the wrong place [out of bed], we wouldn’t be angry with her for leaving her room.

 

 The Sadness At Night

When Grace was three and four, going to bed often sparked a certain reflective sadness in her that could be heartbreaking. Much of what her mind fixated on was death. Just before I would slip out of her room, she would begin to talk to me, and I could see that she needed to talk, and so I’d take a deep breath and turn on the signing part of my brain. Because, with her processors off, and only a nightlight to see by, speech, and even lip-reading, were not options for communicating with her now.

Grace would ask why people had to die. She would cry inconsolably because she’d reasoned that in all likelihood, I would die before her, and leave her. “Why can’t we all die at the same time?” she once asked, choking on her sobs, while I hugged her small body. “Then none of us would have to miss each other.” I remember one conversation when she asked, “Who is going to die first, grammy or babcie? Who is going to die first, me or Pilot? Who is going to die first, you or daddy?” It was gut-wrenching, yet somehow, my fumbling signed speculations about each of these questions, and even my signed, “I don’t know, Grace,” made her calm down a little.

I cannot emphasize enough the profound challenge these nighttime conversations about deeply painful, often philosophical things were for me. I had to formulate an answer that was sophisticated enough for her strangely advanced ability to explore abstract concepts, and then figure out a way to use my rudimentary sign language capabilities to express those responses to her in a meaningful way that she could understand. I had to instantaneously think of what I wanted to say, then figure out how to sign it, all the while, trying to find a balance between reassuring her and being honest, keeping my own emotions in check and supporting her as she explored things I was certain were a little too advanced for her small spirit to handle. She was intellectual, even then, and her capacity to reflect on death and loss, to explore the abstract and esoteric, seemed mature beyond her years. But I was so afraid her ability to handle the emotional consequences of these musings would be too heavy for her.

Sleep Training

So, after years of long difficult nights, in which, as the hour of bed time approached the dread in me would build and build, I finally decided that Something Had To Be Done. Grace was six years old when I implemented the Ferber technique of sleep training, a strategy normally applied with toddlers. I began a series of early evening conversations with her, in which we went over Our Jobs. Grace’s job was to stay in bed. My job was to come and check on her at increasingly long intervals. I would ask her to repeat the jobs aloud, to be sure they stuck in her head. Bedtime would arrive, and after our routine, I would say, “Okay. What’s your job?”

“Stay in bed,” she’d say.

“Right,” I’d say. “And my job is to come and check on you. I’ll be back in five minutes.” And I would stick to it – in five minutes I’d come back into her room, kiss her cheek, and repeat the process.

“Keep doing your job,” I’d sign to her. “I’ll be back in ten minutes.”

Then again, this time twenty minutes later. And on and on, until she’d finally fall asleep.

It was tedious. It was time-consuming. After a couple of weeks, I started to extend the intervals. Until finally, I was able to just say, “You do your job and stay in bed. I’ll be back in a half hour to check on you.” And, oh Joy! Oh Bliss! She would be asleep when I got there.

Dear readers, learn from our mistakes. Do yourself a favor, and, more importantly, do your kids a favor. Teach them the important skill of learning to fall asleep on their own. It makes for a much happier home. It enables your kids to go to sleepovers (something Grace would not do until she learned she didn’t need me to rub her for nine million hours in order for her to fall asleep). It restores a sense of Rightness in the World, when you find you can kiss her goodnight, tell her you love her, turn out the light, and go watch The Simpsons like a proper grown-up.