A few weeks ago, Andrew and I were having dinner with some friends who recently had a baby. Along the way, we got to discussing different parenting styles. Our friends mentioned some other friends who have a very spontaneous approach to parenting and have already taken their months-old baby on several camping trips and vacations.
"I just can't imagine doing that," my friend said, "Don't they ever worry about nap times? I know they'd go crazy if they had to be tied down to a schedule, but I'd go crazy if I didn't have one!"
I know both moms. They're both wonderful women, and my friends. They both have beautiful, healthy, happy children. But they're different people, with different personalities, and they have different limits.
I think sometimes we'd like to believe that we base all our parenting decisions on philosophical or moral grounds, on what we believe is best for our children. And really, for the most part, this is probably true. But when it comes down to it, we're human. And part of being human means we have unique personalities, and that means quirks, pet peeves, inabilities, intolerances, and physical limitations. A lot of our parenting, for better or worse, is a result of those things.
Selflessness is glorified in motherhood. As well it should be, because it's necessary. I know of few other roles that require such constant setting-aside of ourselves and our desires, except, perhaps, marriage. But sometimes I think mother-sacrifice is put on such a very high pedestal that we feel incredibly guilty at the thought of making any parenting decision based on ourselves or our personalities or preferences. It's much easier to defend our decisions philosophically. It's a lot healthier though, I think, to cultivate a knowledge of our own limits and to be okay with letting them dictate some of our parenting choices. There's a lot of difference between selfishness and simply counting oneself as a valid element of the equation.
So let's talk co-sleeping. I could tell you any number of reasons why I don't usually co-sleep. I could tell you it contributes to unnecessary night-waking, that it is unsafe, that it makes transition to a child's own bed difficult, that it interrupts and complicates a couples' sex life. And I could find any number of testimonials and expert opinions and probably even valid research to prove these things. But those aren't the reasons I don't co-sleep (And I don't actually believe them anyway-- I know co-sleeping can be done (very) safely; I know plenty of families sleep better because they co-sleep; I know that many children make the bed transition easily; I know people have sex in places other than bed.)
I don't co-sleep because I can't co-sleep.
As a rule, I sleep extremely well, and I always have. Typically, I put in about nine hours a night, and before I had Peregrine, I slept, dead out, all night long. I've learned to sleep through all my roommates' various late-night or early-morning habits (including alarms), and it took me only a few weeks of being married to Andrew before I could sleep through his multiple middle-of-the-night bathroom trips.
But if I have any reason to worry about my sleeping so deeply, I won't sleep at all. I have a hard time sharing a bed with people I don't know extremely well, for fear that I'll kick them or steal their covers or pillow in my sleep. If I have an alarm set for a different time than normal, I'll wake up hours before I'm supposed to, in case I don't hear it. And if there's a baby in my bed, I'm terrified I'll forget he's there, and either roll over on top of him, or push him out in my sleep. (And trust me, I've done both to cats. Sorry, cats. But did I ever indicate you were welcome in my bed? No, no I didn't.)
I've read a lot about co-sleeping, and I know these are fears a lot of women have when considering it as an option. And I've read plenty of reassurances explaining that mamas have sixth senses when it comes to their babies, that babies are very different from cats, and that most mothers who decide to co-sleep don't ever worry about rolling over on the baby because they just know they wouldn't. I'm sure this is true for most women who co-sleep. But for me, I'm either sleeping or I'm not.
Once, back when Peregrine was a newborn, I had nursed him in the middle of the night and dozed off while doing it. I woke up, dazed and confused, wondering why I was lying in bed with a baby asleep on my stomach. I checked the clock and two hours had passed. Two hours, and I had no memory of stopping nursing, unlatching Peregrine, or lying down (on the edge of the bed no less). Another time, I started going to sleep as I was putting Peregrine back in his bassinet. I lost my hold on him and he fell. All of six inches, and into his soft little bed, but still, it terrified me. Both incidents terrified me. Mostly because I realized I didn't have the sixth sense. I had no sense when it came to that strange world between sleeping and awake. And so I resolved that, when Peregrine was in my arms, I would always be fully awake, and I would keep myself that way, no matter what it took.
Running up against our limits is hard. Especially when other people don't seem to have them. If it's just basic mother instinct that causes mothers to just feel the presence of their babies in their sleep, what kind of mother am I that I don't have it? And it gets muddier, messier, when the idea of sacrifice comes into the picture. Shouldn't I always put my baby's needs above my own? If I choose not to do something because I have a really hard time with it, isn't that just being selfish? Couldn't I just set my own interests aside, sleep with my baby, and deal with the sleep deprivation like the grownup I am?
But what babies (and older children!) need most are present, engaged, loving parents. Which means that sometimes, parents have to take their own needs, and even preferences, into consideration. Sacrifice that makes us less functional as people isn't meeting our children's needs. It's burning out. Burning out, in the long run, benefits no one. We have to know our own limits and be truthful about them. And we have to be okay with factoring them into our parenting decisions.
Every one of us, without exception, has limits. But we also have strengths. I may not be able to co-sleep with an infant. But I'm a pretty patient person. I'm perfectly willing to let a job take five times as long as it should so that Peregrine can "help" me with it. I don't mind narrating each and every article of clothing I put onto Peregrine or take off of him. I can answer the same question many, many times in a row. I don't get easily touched out. And I compose pretty awesome songs about various aspects of hygiene and safety. Not all mothers can do these things, even the ones that can co-sleep just fine and then be fully awake and functional the next day.
And you know why? Because we're human. None of us is perfect. None of us can give absolutely everything to our children. And that's okay. I think the most important is giving what we can, even when it comes with imperfection. And knowing when we can't give something, and being okay admitting it.