Self-Soothing at Christmas

My daughter struggles to nap in her crib. She’s been lucky to be held while sleeping and contact naps have been her norm. As I read parenting books and blogs about sleep training, the multitude of advice, best practices, and shoulds are overwhelming. General practitioners tell me to put her down, walk out of the room, and wait for her to cry herself to sleep. We’re behind, according to the internet, in that she ought to be sleeping better on her own by now.

In this advice, my heart breaks a bit. For how many times, as an adult, have I, too, cried myself to sleep? The cause of suffering, of course, is different. The magnitude of pain seems more allowable as adults. Yet, why are we teaching our babies to self-soothe, when quite often the opposite, a compassionate touch, a hand on a shoulder, a warm embrace is what we long for most?

Recent weeks have been filled with attempts at the holiday bustle. We’ve got a tree up, yet I haven’t done any shopping. We baked cookies and forgot to decorate them. I’m allowing traditions to be replaced with other things; mostly contact naps.

Grief seeps into this season in now expected places. I know I’ll want to send texts to Dad, want his perspective on our decorations, and long for his spot at the table to be filled. I’ll get a bottle of scotch to sip on and leave a plate of cookies on the shelf for him during Christmas week. While friends donated in his honor this month, I longed for his advice in negotiating dynamics at work and a shoulder to lean on as my grandmother’s house was sold.

This year’s grief expands as we have another empty seat at the table. I wish Grandma could stand at my stove top, and teach me how to make our German cookies that she taught my mother to make. The weight and opportunity of carrying on tradition is ladened with loss. In our mixing of sugar, flour and dough, we have sprinkles of old memories. With each turn of cookie press, I remember laughter at smoke-filled kitchens and crinkles of crumbs falling to the counter. To carry on what she started is both a beautiful mix of opportunity and responsibility. There is space for the missing to take different shape.

When illness hit our house last week, with changing child care plans and overwhelming amounts of snot, I was hit with an incredible ache. If Dad was still here, we’d have one more person in our back up child care arsenal. Instead, I took a sick day, and allowed myself to rest, with baby on my chest. As baby cried from exhaustion, I, too, wept and rocked myself saying “It’s ok. It’s ok. It’s ok.”

Sure, I’ve learned to self-soothe. Yet, I still longed for a warm hand on my shoulder, for someone else to get me a tissue, for the cause of the pain to dissipate.

I’m not soliciting parenting advice, nor am I sharing another “should” for those who are trying to get their little ones to sleep. Instead, I’m wondering why our culture starts us off, at such a young age, by encouraging us to cry ourselves to sleep in the dark, when perhaps instead we need comfort and connection. The world is overwhelming for all of us at times.

The holidays come with a jumble of joy, aches, wishes, and wonder. We’re all familiar with the ways in which our stories fall short of the Hallmark versions of reality depicted on television. Whether you’re sitting in feelings of joy and connection, or weeping in the dark, I hope you’ve found people to lay a warm hand on your shoulder. I hope you remember to whisper “It’s ok. It’s ok. It’s ok” Self-soothe if you must, and I hope instead you can ask for comfort.

Experiencing the gift a snuggle, the glow of Christmas lights, and the choice to nurture and be nurtured are beautiful things.

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