Monday, April 26, 2010

Memory Monday: The Missing Mermaid and the Children Who Would Not Sleep

There was one inescapable fact about my daughters as babies:






The colicky crying started some time in the first 24 hours after each was born. The day Daughter #1 turned 12 weeks old, the colic and frequent crying stopped on schedule. She became a sweet, cheerful baby. But still she didn’t sleep.

Colic lasted a couple of months longer for Daughter #2. Then she became Miss Curious and Alert – around the clock.

There is a picture of Daughter #1 and me, exhausted and (temporarily) asleep on the sofa, when she was about two months old. We have matching bags under our eyes.

I remember taking her for a walk in her stroller once in the brisk March air. She was crying. We encountered a neighbor who was out for a constitutional in his wheelchair. He remarked that he had never known babies could cry so loudly. I suppressed the urge to reply: “Oh, I got a bad one at the hospital, but don’t worry: I’m going to take her in and exchange her for a good one.”

On another occasion, we were in a restaurant and a chirpy mother was sitting with her toddlers at the next table over. We got to talking. She spoke of how both of her children had started sleeping through the night when they were six or seven weeks old. I tried to squelch thoughts of homicide.

The nights when our babies were in a good mood but were simply wide-awake Chatty Cathys were the worst. It is easier to let a baby cry it out than it is to abandon a wide-eyed cherub who just wants to show Mom and Dad how adorable she can be.

The first time daughter #1 slept through the night (actually, it was 13 straight hours – in other words, heaven) was when we had a David Attenborough nature special on TV. Back in our pre-children days, his soporific voice used to lull me to sleep as I lay stretched out in front of the TV, and he worked his magic once again. #1 was in her highchair. I turned the show on. Next thing we knew, her humongous pumpkin-head was in her oatmeal bowl and she was snoring.

Both girls eventually learned that nighttime was less entertaining than daytime and would occasionally fall asleep on their own. To encourage this, we gradually transitioned them to a sleep-conducive bedtime ritual. By sleep-conducive, I mean it made Dad and me really want to sleep. But it also seemed to put the little ones in the mood. And it only took a few hours.

First step was a looooong warm bath. When they were toddlers, this meant playtime. There were so many toys in the family bathroom that it looked like a water theme park.

Next came reading time. Mom said, “Only two books.” “Just one last book, one very, very, very last book,” they would say after two books, and then after three. Mom could see that the problem was that they were still sitting up and the light was still on.

“How about I tell you a story?” They loved the idea. I laid down the terms: “You only get stories when you are in bed and the lights are out.”

Thus began my career as Scheherazade.

How to get their interest and keep it? Make the stories about them (or at least two characters who could be their alter egos).

Finally I settled on a story about two little girls who went to visit their grandparents on an island one summer. Hmmm, what kind of adventures could they have? My own favorite stories when I was little had been those in which children had their own “secret world.” And on an island that would be … mermaids. Mermaids that no one else knew about.

At first the girls eagerly followed the story of how the little girls in the story discovered the mermaids and kept their secret. But where could we go from there? The ingredient that seemed to be absent was adventure.

So one day I started the story: “One day the girls went to visit the mermaids, only something terrible had happened: A mermaid was missing!”

This proved to be the formula that the girls just couldn’t get enough of. We got those mermaids into and out of all sorts of scrapes, just like the Perils of Pauline. Of course, the girls wanted me to keep telling stories (I told you it was like Scheherazade), but I had learned a parent's greatest tool – blackmail.

“I’ll tell you the rest tomorrow night if you go to sleep and stay asleep.”

And it worked. The days of Torture by Sleep Deprivation were over. Those stories were spun out over the course of two or three years. Occasionally we varied the plot, but when asked what kind of story they wanted to hear, the girls always gave the same answer: “A mermaid is missing!”

In more recent days I have tried to recreate some of those old plots, but I cannot summon up the same creative juices. It seems there was a magic element in exhaustion that cannot be duplicated.

It’s amazing how much of an inspiration desperation can be.


  1. Greta, Loved the blog! What great "color" for your girls & their file in your genealogy. I can only imagine the memories you've made. Lucky girls to have you for a mom!

  2. Love this memory Greta. It brings back memories of my own children who hated to sleep. Especially my daughter, she hated to sleep when she was 3. My son would cry for hours but then would sleep through the night, until the time he discovered sister was up getting attention. That ended his going to sleep on his own, then we had to put both kids to bed with us until they were asleep. We carried them to their own beds and they would sleep through the night. You think you will not make it through these year but you do and they are happy memories of time with your children.

  3. Really enjoyed this post. Gotta say, as much as I enjoyed reading of your sleeping trails, I am so glad that is one of the thrills of raising kids that I pretty much missed. whew! I take it (she says with tongue in cheek) that you are not willing to go to the state of constant exhaustion to try to recoop the stories! LOL

  4. Fantastic post!! I wish I had thought of that when we were going through the "bedtime rituals." That is one part of parenthood that is not not missed - we like my sleep. Although we did love reading to this kids-up to a point.

  5. I feel your pain, Greta! My oldest, my daughter, did not sleep through the night until she was about 2 1/2...when I was pregnant with my son and having to get up to use the bathroom several nights a week. (sigh).

    She had colic, she teethed early but didn't pop the teeth in until late, and it was just one thing after another.

    I had a doctor (not my regular one) tell me when my daughter was 8 months old and I was being seen for the second bout of painful mastitis within so many months that her daughter started sleeping through the night at 6 weeks, also. Like you, I had to suppress the urge to wring her neck. Didn't she realize that torturers use sleep deprivation very effectively? :-)

  6. I'm lucky. My kids are normally very good sleepers. Normally... I'm writing this at 1:45am my time. Guess why?!?

    Your post reminds me that my grandfather used to make up stories for my mother. He told us a few. They were about an outragously naughty little girl who used to play tricks on him, or on anyone else. I must try to remember what her name was...

  7. Oh, Greta, what a story teller you are! I laughed my way through your post, even as I remembered those awful nights of trying to get my daughters to bed and asleep. Oldest was maybe about 5 or 6 (years, not months!) before she really slept through the night! Not funny then, but I can laugh now. Thanks for the memories.

  8. I can totally relate!! My 2nd didn't sleep through the night til he was about 6 or 7 YEARS old. Toddler-hood was the worst with a lot of crying but over the years it evolved into the "Mom/Dad" call for one of us to come in his room for a bit. Now that he is 20, I can only wish for some of that snuggle time back. Ah well.
    Thanks for the memories.

  9. I thought I was the only one who had a child that didn't sleep through the night until she was about 7! Years old that is! The doctor told me during her first year that he could hospitalize me for a couple weeks to get the sleep I needed. Can you imagine? Now a days they would never offer a hospital bed! I told them no thank you, my mother would take my daughter if need be. She never did. ONE night my daughter did sleep through the night and I freaked, running to her room to make sure she was still breathing. Of course she was. She was never diagnosed with colic. I was told "she just didn't require the sleep." Still find that hard to believe, myself. I definitely feel for parents whose children don't sleep! Just know, it does get better! Enjoy your post.

  10. Greta,

    What a fantastic experience to share with us, and to preserve for your children!!I think sometimes we forget about the current ancestors and decendants in our processes, but you brought back a special time for me and my daughter. Thank you


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  12. Wow! Karen, Harriet, Carol, Michelle, Miriam, Shelley, Nancy, Kathy, Cheryl, and Kim - Thank you for your comments! I truly appreciate the sympathy and especially the commiseration from those who went through similar ordeals. Shelly, I think someone somewhere ought to put together a collection of "desperate parents' bedtime stories." Cheryl, I did that same "freaking out" think when my daughters on rare occasions did seem to be sleeping soundly. I would sneak up and put a mirror near their mouths. Probably the only reason my daughters didn't stay up through the night any longer was that my older daughter got smart and figured out that if she and her sister were sleeping in the same bedroom, they would both sleep better.