Parenting as a Privilege: The Challenge of SleepBy Sheryl Paul, M.A.
September 15, 2008
The challenges of parenting, and especially the challenges of sleep, can be embraces as an incredible privilege rather than as a burden or prison - and that makes all the difference!
I can only imagine how different parenting would feel if I viewed it as a prison instead of a privilege. Parenting is the toughest job on earth, and can push our buttons beyond anything we’ve known. It’s also the greatest privilege, for where else do we have daily access to a living, breathing angel? Where else are we so close to representatives of God, to these beings who’s hearts shine with unadulterated purity and grace? And where else do we have daily opportunities to see our growing edges so we can work to expand them?
One of the greatest challenges with our son has been around sleep. From day one, our little guy didn’t like the concept of sleep and resisted it with all his might. Most times he would fall asleep fairly easily only to awaken thirty minutes later crying. This pattern continued all night long, six to ten times a night, for our first two years. There were days when I thought I was going to have a nervous breakdown from sleep deprivation.
The irony is that my biggest fear prior to becoming a mother was sleep deprivation. I was always someone who loved sleep and thought I needed eight solid hours a night to function properly. As is often the case, what we fear most about parenting turns out to be the area where we most need to grow. The mainstream advice in the area of sleep told me that I needed to teach my son the essential life skill of self-soothing and that the only way to do that was to let him cry himself to sleep. While on some level I agreed that my son needed to learn how to self-soothe eventually, for the life of me I couldn’t figure out how that was going to happen healthfully, without great trauma, by allowing him to cry, scream, and dry heave until he fell asleep. That sounded more like torture to me and my husband and we refused to buy in. Which left us with no other option than to figure out how to surrender to our son’s sleep patterns and needs and ask ourselves to grow to accommodate them.
So we learned to surrender. We learned to find the humor in our situation. We learned that we had immense reservoirs of patience and we saw our capacity for endurance surpassed what we ever thought conceivable. None of this would have been possible had we not loved our son beyond measure and viewed our parenting job as a privilege. This isn’t to say that over the years I haven’t been challenged repeatedly. As he started to sleep through the night more consistently, falling asleep became harder and harder, and there were nights when, after an hour or two of him squirming and flopping, I had to leave the room for a few minutes to calm my frustration. But those moments are drops in the bucket compared to the overarching sense of privilege I have when I’m helping him fall asleep. Because always, every night, there’s something he says or does that shows me God.
Sometimes it’s the smallest gestures that break my heart open. Like tonight, when I was helping him fall asleep, he casually laid his little hand across my forearm. It was so subtle, but something in his vulnerable touch brought tears to my eyes. He’s so small, I thought, and immediately flashed on a grown-up version of my son, one whom I will hug at hellos and goodbyes but will no longer have the privilege of being so close to physically. I marveled at his tiny fingers, as I have done since he was a baby. I cherished the scent of his sweet breath sending warm drifts of air down my cheek. I whispered in his ear, “You are my angel. I’m so lucky to be your mommy. Thank you for being my son.” I have whispered these words to him nearly every night for four years, words that would have gone unsaid had I “taught” him early on to cry himself to sleep so that he would supposedly learn the skill of falling asleep alone.
I fully trust that, when it’s important enough to either me or him, he will learn to fall asleep without me lying next to him. In the meantime, I’ve chosen to view that precious hour as a privilege instead of a prison. Sure, there are times when I wish I could say, “Goodnight. I love you,” and walk out the door so I could write, spend much-needed time with my husband, talk to a friend, or curl up with a good book. But whereas all of those people and activities will be around for a long time, this phase of my son’s life is fleeting. He will never be this exact age again. He will only be this small and dependent and needing me to be so close for a finite period of time. I already grieve the day when he will push me away, yet I know it will inevitably and necessarily happen. So for now, I revel in our nighttime closeness.
Tonight, after he laid his hand on my arm, he reached for my hand, then snuggled his whole body into me and pressed his warm forehead into the space above my ear. He fit into me like a puzzle piece, rightfully assuming his place next to his mommy, safe as can be. And then he took a deep, endearing sigh and took that great and trusting leap into sleep. One of my favorite moments of the day is watching his face after he’s fallen asleep. The pleasure and challenges, the joys and frustrations of the day are erased and he’s a vision of serenity. It’s in that moment, as I gaze at the face of my angel, that the same prayer spontaneously emerges from lips: “Dear God, thank you. Thank you for bringing me this child. Please keep him healthy and safe. Please help me be the best mother I can be. Thank you.”
Sheryl Paul, M.A., pioneered the field of bridal counseling in1998. She has since counseled thousands of people worldwide through her private practice, her best-selling books, "The Conscious Bride" and "The Conscious Bride's Wedding Planner," and her website, www.consciousweddings.com. She's regarded as the international expert on the wedding transition and has appeared several times on "The Oprah Winfrey Show", as well as on "Good Morning America" and other top television, radio, and newspapers around the globe. Phone sessions available worldwide. 310 382-0048
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Today, ask yourself throughout the day, "What does my inner child need from me as a loving Adult to feel safe in interactions with people? Does my child need me to not take rejection personally? Does my child need me to stay strong in my truth and not give myself up to anyone?" Focus today on creating a safe inner space for your inner child to feel connected with others.
By Dr. Margaret Paul