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.