Thursday, January 12, 2012

Why Silence Isn't All That Golden

          Every new parent eventually has to grapple with the fact that "It's not all about me anymore." Although the first year of a child's life is filled with many memorable milestones, most of us spend the first few months of parenthood wondering if we're ever going to enjoy a night of uninterrupted sleep again. We quickly learn that those early days of being someone's mom or dad can be translated into one singularly elusive and frustrating question: "Why is this baby crying?" The algorithm goes something like this. First, you run through the standard checklist of baby's hungry, wet, or dirty. If feeding him or changing her diaper doesn't stop the crying, you move into more exotic diagnoses: does she have a piece of hair wound tightly around her big toe, or does he have a tummy ache? It is colic? If so, should I plop her in her car seat on top of the running dryer or circle around the block with him in the backseat of the car? My twins didn't sleep through the night until they were six months old. It was Christmastime. I woke up after a full night's sleep, and realized I hadn't gotten up once to feed or comfort them. Of course, this caused an immediate state of panic. I rushed into their room, certain they'd stopped breathing, only to find them sleeping peacefully, side by side in their crib. It was monumental. I proudly strode into the kitchen to brew some coffee after witnessing this wondrous vision, and when I turned on the TV, Handel's Hallelujah chorus was being performed on one of the morning shows. Their father and I later determined that the reason they'd finally slept through the night was because we'd switched from cloth diapers to Huggies that same day. In our eyes, those nonrecyclable plastic diapers weren't just receptacles for baby poop; they were miracle workers.
     During my years as a single parent of young twins, I existed in a constant state of sleep deprivation. Although the boys slept very well at night, I was working the 7pm-7 am shift in the neonatal ICU after which I'd return home and try to get some sleep the next morning. If my live-in babysitter, Ferishteh,  had to work that day, my only option was to catch a little shut-eye while listening out for the boys. I'd semi-sleep on the living room couch after they'd eaten breakfast. They loved watching Barney and Free Willy, and were generally content to watch  those videos while playing with their toys. I was easily within reach. They would let me know when they got hungry for lunch. I'd get them fed and then, we'd lie down together in my bed for an afternoon nap. A few pages of Winnie the Pooh was all it took for us to drift off into precious, sweet sleep. Overall, the boys were pretty good about staying quiet and letting me rest. Little did I know that those few hours of quiescence were lulling me into a false sense of security, based on the erroneous assumption that Nick and Rory's remarkable self-restraint meant they were also behaving like little angels.
     All my life, I've heard horror stories from my mom and my aunt Lynda about the trouble my little sister, Emi and I would get into, back in the 60s when we were small. For instance, my father, who was a psychiatrist, regularly received all sorts of psychoactive drug samples in the mail, including amphetamines and barbiturates, and these were kept in a drawer in my parents' bathroom. There were no child-proof bottles back then. When I was two years old, I slipped unnoticed into their bathroom one evening, and took some pills. Within a couple of hours, I was screaming and crying inconsolably and wouldn't stay in bed. My parents had no idea what was wrong with me. I was so out of control that they ended up taking me to the hospital, where I was diagnosed with acute amphetamine intoxication. My aunt Lynda was a teenager when she lived with us in Cincinnati, and she would get up early to catch a ride to work with my dad every morning. Being a night owl, my mom liked to sleep in. Poor Lynda had the unfortunate task of dealing with Emi and me as she was getting herself ready for work. According to her, I once finger-painted my crib with my own poop. Another time, she awoke to find our living room carpet, furniture, and one of Dad's sculptures, stylishly decorated with cereal. Emi and I had snuck into the pantry while everyone was asleep, and systematically dumped every box of cereal all over the place; Lynda's only consolation was that we weren't tall enough yet to reach the milk.
     My own rude awakening to the fact that silence isn't so golden occurred in 1994. The boys had just turned four. They were going to pre-K in the mornings until about noon, and this gave me a chance to sleep for a few hours before they came home for lunch. As per our usual routine, I'd feed them lunch, and then, we'd all lie down for a nap. On this particular afternoon, we all fell asleep in the living room. I awoke with a start around four o'clock to find Nick and Rory nowhere in sight. The house was eerily quiet. They weren't supposed to go outside alone, and a quick glance outside in the front and back yards yielded no signs of either of them. "This is really weird!" I thought out loud. I could feel my parental concern kicking into high gear. At that moment, I became aware of giggling, a crescendo of laughter which was emanating from the back hallway. I noticed that the door to the guest bedroom was closed, and was startled to see feathers coming out from beneath it. What on earth was going on in there? I opened the door, and there I found Nick and Rory, completely naked, dancing around like two blonde cherubs amidst a huge pile of feathers. Without using scissors, they'd somehow managed to rip open all of our pillows. It was an absolute mess, with feathers and down floating everywhere. Feeling myself on the verge of a catastrophic mommy meltdown, I called my father, and he came over to provide moral support. He helped the boys get dressed, and together, they vacuumed up all the feathers. The hose kept getting clogged and we had to change the vacuum bag several times, but we got it all up. Nick and Rory seem to remember getting a spanking from Grandpa, and although I don't recall this, it's highly possible that they did.
     I often think back to those crazy days and wonder how I pulled it off. Like any other parent, I did what I had to do. Taking care of our children is a daunting task, especially once they become mobile. We grow eyes in the backs of our heads, and we become vigilant. They demand our full attention. Perhaps our toughest job as parents is figuring out how to nurture them without losing ourselves in the process. This is what keeps us human. By continuing to acknowledge our own unique needs, dreams, and desires, we become enlightened. Sooner or later, we realize that the noise of childhood isn't just a tracking device; it's the beautiful commotion of life unfolding, a window into our children's souls, stirring us into action. It is only through hearing them that we really learn to listen.

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