"Just close your eyes. It's as good as sleep."
She had written this in blue pen on a little yellow card with pretty font at the top reading "Advice for the Mom." Or at least I think this is what it looked like. I don’t have the card anymore. Maybe I was supposed to save all of those little notes of advice from the people who showered me with love weeks before my first baby came into this world. Before I was a mom. This is probably one of those things you put into a baby book, flip through with your child, glean wise words in moments of confusion. I’ve never been good at those kinds of things. This is why I write; it’s my memory keeper.
I didn’t need to keep this one though. This note would not be forgotten.
It’s a simple suggestion. "Just close your eyes." Nothing noteworthy or shocking in the prophesy. But the message caught my attention. It wasn’t like the other sleep advice that came my way.
"Sleep when the baby sleeps." Clean when the baby cleans, I always wanted to say back.
"You MUST read this book/buy this swaddle/use this sound machine. It saved our lives." I wouldn’t. Not until the 3 AM shopping frenzy of week three.
"Better sleep now while you still can." This one was the worst. Has anyone ever tried to fall asleep with a hippopotamus snout for a nasal cavity and a whale belly for an abdomen? Just me?
"Just close your eyes" she told me. I could do that. I could close my eyes. "It’s as good as sleep."
Sleep. I knew this was a big one in the parenting category. See reminders above. But I had the books, I had the paraphernalia, and I had a history in coaching parents of young children on this very topic. Obviously I was ready. Besides, as my friend reminded me, when I was tired, all I needed to do was close my eyes.
"Just be sure to wait. Rest just a minute after you say something. Give them a chance to respond."
Before I received advice, I gave it. It was my job, after all. As a therapist, remarkably parents trusted me to guide them in helping their child grow. I say remarkably because now I see how very little I knew. I knew much about children. But very little about parenting. You don’t get to study this part in a book. You have to live it. And I hadn’t lived it yet then.
But what I did know was that to get children from one point in their development to the next, you had to give them a chance. Our highly developed brains move so much quicker than a baby still working on building brain connections. They need us to pause so they can catch up. So they can show us what they are capable of doing. You have to wait, sometimes a painfully long amount of time, to let them respond. If you want them to repeat a word, to copy a gesture, to take a step, you have to wait. You have to be still. You must rest.
This is so hard to do. It is so hard to be patient. To trust that incredible changes are happening inside the sweet but glossy eyed little face. Because for so long you wait and wait and wait, and nothing happens. You wait for words, you wait for movement, you wait for sleep, and nothing.
Except there is always something happening, even if it is not yet visible. And just when the time is right, maybe the 11th time you rest and wait, that’s when the magic happens.
I’ll bet you've experienced this magic before too.
"Say please." Rest. Rest. Rest. "Peeease!" She squeals with a big grin on her face and a wiggly hand reaching out for the cracker.
"Can you clap?" Rest. Rest. Rest. He puts his hands together, a bit uncoordinated, but a clap none the less.
"Walk to me!" Rest. Rest. Rest. With wobbly feet, arms hunched high, and a determined expression, she lets go of the ledge and moves towards your out stretched arms.
With just a bit of trust and patience to wait, that beat of rest got your child from where they were to where they are going.
It’s so beautiful to experience, this incredible power of the rest for our children’s development. Like a rest in a song, this interval of silence, this moment of stillness, it has an important place in the piece of music. There is a purpose. The rest is necessary.
"Just be sure to wait."
"Just close your eyes."
"I’m so tired of being tired." A phrase that has become as familiar to me over the last seven years of my parenting as “Put on your shoes.”
I know, now, why everyone talks so much about sleep. I know this because I am no longer just a therapist giving advice to clients, or a women anxiously awaiting the birth of her first child, or even the first time mom bringing her "I’m new here" baby home from the hospital expecting the sleep tricks she prepared so well for to kick in at any point. I know sleep is important because I’m now a mom of three. A mom of three babies who all had the same chubby cheeks and the same stubborn desire to spend a lot of time with their mother under the light of the moon. That is a very poetic way of saying my babies never slept, so I never slept. I became a cliche, a tired "but first coffee" kind of mom. And I hated being a cliche. I hated talking about sleep. I hated that sleep was all I knew to talk about with anyone who would listen (or at least pretend to.) I hated trying things and having them not work, or think about trying things and not feeling ready for it, or not trying anything at all and then just being tired. I’m tired just writing this.
"It’s as good as sleep," she told me. I know how good sleep is. Sleep is currency for me. And more often than not I am bankrupt, and greedy.
I tried this with my first baby from time to time, just closing my eyes. As I said, this advice stuck with me. And when you are confused and desperate in those early days of a being a brand new person, a mom, you’ll latch on to anything (there is a whole industry ready and waiting for you at 3 AM for just this need. Again, currency.)
It sounded so simple when she told me. That’s probably why it attracted me in the first place. An easy fix. A simple equation. Close your eyes, get sleep. The equation never adds up that way. I had great expectations for this rest I was promised by just closing my eyes. But when you are so tired and you are promised something as deliciously unobtainable as sleep, your expectations can be a little off. I followed her advice. I just closed my eyes. It felt nothing like sleep.
I would continue to try over the years, when sleep was a desperate thought and I began the scramble for more ideas. But every time, results were about the same. I was seeking sleep, and that’s not what the rest gave me. Patience wasn’t my strength in those moments.
“Just be sure to wait.” I forgot that part.
It would take me a few babies to find the magic.
I’m sitting in my bedroom with a four week old in my arms, my third baby, the air conditioner running strong, and the door tightly shut. In a few weeks, I won’t have the luxury of spending the afternoon "nap" time completely shut away without at least one ear on the three year old not sleeping during nap time. But for now, I take comfort in my co-parent home for another two weeks of his family leave, managing whatever is happening, or not happening, downstairs.
I should be sleeping.
Instead, I'm distracted. The monitor to the big kids' room is on and I can hear the sounds of giggling and squealing and "scare us again, Daddy." I should be annoyed that he takes his cues for settling them down for nap time from a hype man. But there is comfort in knowing he is in charge. He is doing it his way. And I trust him.
Shortly after the laughter dies down a bit I hear a different sound. It’s my oldest, reading to the middle. She is just gaining her confidence in reading so this is big. I swoon. To witness your two children blossoming a relationship is akin to seeing your two best friends you set up on a date hit it off. It’s enough to almost make me forget how many "respect her body" and "in this family we are kind" and "you are not the mother" messages that crossed our lips earlier in the day.
Later we’ll go for a walk, to bide the merciless hours between 4 and bed when no one likes anyone. I always feel better outside. More room to breath makes the long hours, and the approaching long night, feel less oppressive. There is coolness to the breeze, comforting after a humid summer. It’s a reminder that fall is coming. I love fall. But it also means he is going away from me soon. It’s weird to be comforted and torn apart at the same time. As if he knew my confusion he takes my hand. He smiles, the way someone who knows your inner heart smiles at you when they aren’t quite sure what they are supposed to say but they have learned after 16 years that a smile and a hand cover many needs.
I didn’t get a nap today. But in this moment, I feel rested. And I realize, I’ve felt this before. This feeling of rest. It’s not new to me.
When he stood strong at my side and counted with me during every contraction, I found rest. When she smiled at me for the very first time on that early morning hour, all of us in bed still drowsy from a long night, I found rest. When his little body finally relaxed, collapsing into me after fighting a dramatic tantrum of which neither of us remember the origin, I found rest. When they laughed and read and filled my heart with delight just that very afternoon, I found rest. I realize there are countless other times I have experienced this state of rest, without ever giving it the proper name. In the moments of reflection that bring clarity, in the ones where my heart feels light and full all at the same time, in the moments where I sense trust that I am cared for and so are my children. This is rest.
Notice I never mentioned sleep (what a change!) But sometimes a rest can be as good as sleep. Rest is a break, a pause, a stillness. It is a sense of trust in the space we are now as well as patience for what is ahead. And this rest, in whatever way it comes, is valuable to my wellbeing. It’s magic, but only if I see it as such.
I told you I didn’t get a nap that afternoon. But that wasn’t the full truth.
After the distractions of my children and my husband, the little baby in my arms let out a big and tiny little sigh. He was settling into sleep, in the comfort of my arms.
"Just close your eyes. It’s as good as sleep."
Her words came back to me in that moment. They settled there alongside all the other little moments of rest lingering with me from that afternoon, slowly pushing away the doubts and the depression and the pain that tend to linger during postpartum days. I didn’t sleep. But I take a moment to rest. I just close my eyes.
And this is as good as sleep.