A year or so into parenthood, exhaustion blurred my vision, erased proper nouns from my memory and ruined my perception of the width of doorways. I was desperate for sleep. I’d be lecturing on character development or listening to a student’s heartfelt struggles with book structure and thoughts of sinking my head into a pillow would render me dumb. When nighttime arrived, I lay down gratefully but full of dread—how often would Gwyn wake tonight? I read the library’s complete collection on sleep theory, with questionable retention. My partner and I debated our night-time policies using incoherent, circular arguments.
We loved Gwyn, our gregarious girl with ginger curls; we wanted to be for her the embodiment of love. But the challenge of parenthood is converting feelings into right actions, and at three a.m., after a year of not sleeping more than two consecutive hours, love alone wasn’t serving me well. I wanted to shake her. Emily and I lay in bed listening to her cries, each wishing the other would get up. Interrupted sleep is a time-tested form of torture; a solid year of it broke our ideals. With more passion than I’ve ever longed for anything, even for God, I longed to surrender to sleep.
Before Gwyn was born, I dismissed the popular parenting books out of hand and instead read anthropological studies comparing Korean childrearing with the Zulus with middle class Americans. Nursing mothers in the Paraguay forest sleep sitting up, holding their infants. !Kung San babies feed continuously and are always in skin contact. A culture’s values profoundly affect its parenting techniques, and I wanted to side-step most of ours—uncompromising independence, fierce competitiveness, the relentless drive for economic success—to center our family instead in radical love. Isn’t this what it means to be Christian? Living faithfully, I’ve found, usually entails bucking the trend. Unfortunately Jesus forgot to offer specific parenting advice. As well-meaning followers, Emily and I were left to patch together our own practices.
We speculated about sleep: What would be best for the baby? Only in modern industrial societies do parents not sleep with their children—for the sake of independence, for the sake of privacy, because of a primitive and entirely unsubstantiated fear of smothering a child at night. Infants have neurologically unfinished brains; they can’t yet transition between the controlled neocortical-driven breaths and automatic brain-stem-initiated breaths that cycle during sleep. The rise and fall of adult lungs steady an infant’s erratic gasps. Skin touches skin. During the night, when all humans submit themselves to the great cradle of unconsciousness, our child, we determined, would know a trustworthy presence. Emily and I imagined her swaddled, snug between us, absorbing along with our body heat our radiant love.
This vision was encouraged by my sister, single mom extraordinaire with two boys adopted from Guatemala. I admired Marcy’s parenting above all others. Influenced by the Lakotan tradition she practiced and by Waldorf philosophy, Marcy slept with her babies, carried them everywhere, used the pentatonic scale to request that they wash their hands, and always, always responded to their cries. Marcy was also influenced by her Mayan friend Marta, who believes mothers should hold their napping babies. I have a photograph of Marta wearing the traditional cloth of her village, a long, thick braid of hair over her shoulder and my nephew zonked in her lap. Even today I stare at that photo, trying to inhabit a world where I might offer my body in service to a child’s sleep. It’s almost unimaginable. Rafa’s limbs are floppy, his head thrown back against embroidered roses, his face blissfully slack. Marta looks like she’s praying.
Emily’s and my care for our child, we knew, would be more than a personal expression of love; it would be her first experience of God. From us she would learn how love functions. Just watch a newborn gaze into its mother’s eyes—absorbed, adoring, profoundly dependent. The parent is alpha and omega; an abstract deity means nothing. Our foundational knowledge of love (and abandonment, and trust, and wrong-doing) comes long before conscious thought. The world parents create becomes, for a brief but formative time, the baby’s cosmology.
An hour after Gwyn was born she latched onto my breast and, despite emerging from the womb of a distressed and big-hearted teenager, she nonetheless found sustenance there. My body became hers—her source of comfort and nourishment, her center of gravity. In the night she cried out; I lifted her to my chest and whether from weariness or affection we dissolved into one another, drinking from that pool of unity I suspect is the essence of divinity. Often I wonder whether the basic human longing is to be reunited with our origins, to belong and be held as we were in the womb. Certainly I seek that dissolution. Those midnight moments when Gwyn and I sank into each other took me by surprise. I’d always sought God’s comfort. I never expected that being the comforter could satisfy so completely.
“Cry It Out”: In cafés and on the playground, this is how American parents describe their method of teaching children to sleep independently. The turn-of-the-century trend of simply abandoning the baby at night was improved upon a hundred years later by Dr. Richard Ferber, who gave the baby three minutes, then five, then ten between moments of reassurance. By six months and with a bit of training, babies are developmentally capable of sleeping through the night. Apparently Americans must learn to “self-soothe.”
Emily and I had witnessed friends Ferberize their son a few years earlier. Jenny fed and rocked Isaiah, placed him in the crib and then drove around the neighborhood in an attempt to escape Isaiah’s screams. Meanwhile, Michael entered the room at increasingly lengthy intervals, trying to reassure Isaiah while in fact pissing him off. Some nights, both Jenny and Isaiah cried for over an hour. “Cry It Out” indeed. Another friend successfully Ferberized her baby only to have him suffer night terrors through adolescence. The method, I was convinced, was cruel.
And unnecessary. American babies cry two or three times as much as non-western babies. Anthropologists have rarely witnessed Balinese babies cry, they do it so little. Colic doesn’t exist in Korea. If other humans have figured out a more responsive, caring manner for raising children, surely it was possible for us.
But Emily’s and my vision of shared-bed bliss lasted five days.
Yes, Gwyn was sweet tucked between our shoulders, her mouth open, her body swaddled and snug. But her newborn gasps, followed by prolonged silences, kept Emily and me alert, panicky even, through those first nights. Once we grew too tired to sustain our vigilance, Gwyn’s sloppy nursing sounds woke us, or her dreamy mews. Because at least one adult should get some sleep, we shoved Gwyn to one side and then, once she learned to roll over and insisted on practicing in the wee hours, evicted her to a crib at the foot of the bed. I decided that my sister was not generous and loving; she was a deep sleeper. Gradually Gwyn’s raging extroverted personality emerged along with her red curls, and we realized that sharing a room was an invitation for her to party. At one year we booted her out. Never mind, she seemed to say. I’ll party with my stuffed animals instead.
Bedtime was the easy part. Gwyn would bleat a pathetic protest, roll to her tummy, and rock herself to sleep. Then she’d wake at nine, at eleven, and at one. We’d offer the bottle, our arms, the sway of the rocker, and she’d ease back to sleep until the dreaded “transfer.” Getting her from our warm embrace down to the unforgiving mattress would inevitably wake her, infuriate her, and add another half-hour to our exhausted ordeal. When we doubted ourselves and carried her back into the family bed, Gwyn would pry our eyelids open. She’d make spitty raspberries and sing “Twinkle, Twinkle.” At her two-thirty waking, nothing worked. I rocked her ceaselessly. Emily turned on Balkan Roma music and danced vigorous traditional women’s dances with Gwyn sagging in her arms. >We discovered that playing Chopin’s preludes on the piano downstairs worked wonders, but who wants to perform in the middle of the night? At her four-thirty waking, we left her a bottle to suck on in bed. At five-thirty, she was up-and-at-’em.
Emily and I staggered through our days. Was this normal? Sure; friends rolled their eyes in commiseration and told horror stories about four-year-olds not sleeping through the night. Some parents confessed that, actually, their babies had slept eight hours in a row starting at six weeks, and they instantly lost their parenting credibility. Then some shrugged and said, simply, “Cry it out. It works.”
More than one experienced parent looked at me with compassion and said, “Enjoy it while you can. Waking up at night when they’re teenagers is far worse.” And I envisioned tunneling through years of mothering, humbled again and again by the fierce, emergent will of my daughter, the tantrums she would throw in grocery lines and how she’d refuse to go to church on Sunday mornings and take risky late-night drives with obstreperous teenage friends, and I knew any attempt to stand in for God in Gwyn’s life was foolhardy—the idea had been grandiose from the start. I would fail as a parent. Most parents do. My inability to be present to Gwyn in her sleep was just the beginning.
But—I shook my head, trying to clear the background buzz of sustained weariness—even if I couldn’t possibly be God for Gwyn, she would learn from me her first lessons about love nonetheless. Theresa of Avila reminded me of the inevitable: “Christ has no body now on earth but yours, no hands but yours, no feet but yours.” At first our breasts and hands, our heartbeats and the bellows of our lungs form the infant’s universe. Only gradually does it expand to include prickly grass, the taste of sweet potato, and lace curtains billowing at a bedroom window. Only gradually does a child’s awareness open beyond the small family sphere to the myriad manifestations of love—and its lack—scattered across creation. Gwyn will learn more about God from how I respond to her habit of dumping her cup of water on the floor at mealtimes than she ever will in Sunday School. Researchers have known for forty-some years that traditional religious education is ineffective at deepening children’s faith lives. The faith we profess always pales in comparison with the faith we live. Regardless of our success or failure as parents, Gwyn will extract from Emily and me the ground of her being. Eventually she’ll find her own God elsewhere, but her very search will be predicated upon the beginning we create.
And so, in my fumbling and well-intentioned way, I tried to embody the radical, loving presence I believe lurks in and through creation. I stumbled into Gwyn’s room at night; I offered her comfort. Every two hours.
I first took Gwyn to church when she was eleven days old and after that weekly, and over the hour-long service would watch her get bounced from knee to knee, down the pew, across the aisle until I lost sight of her. I would frantically scan the congregation because even here, perhaps especially here, horrible things happen. What kind of parent loses her baby in a crowd? I also knew the average American baby gets held by two people a day, compared with, say, babies in Zaire who are cared for daily by up to twenty-four people. I’ve always believed the church is yet another body God inhabits. I had tossed my daughter into a wider net of care where the risks were greater, as was the potential for more manifestations of love. During the offertory Gwyn reappeared snoring on the usher’s shoulder. My daughter inhabited my belief system. The consequences felt enormous.
I longed to dream. I longed to remember my dreams. I could barely recall the sensation of a full bladder waking me, much less that soft, sleepy emergence into dawn or the silky pulsing of early morning sex. I longed to form complete thoughts, to teach without my mind stalling mid-sentence, to listen attentively to a friend. I wanted my sense of self restored. So what if Mayans consider sleep a social activity? Who cares if Ache mothers nurse all night long? I was American, damn it, and I needed rest.
So we began. At nine p.m., the first of many thin moments in Gwyn’s sleep cycle, she began to cry. Whereas before we’d pick her up, now we did the unconscionable: We told her we loved her, and left. The screaming commenced.
I sat on the bottom step watching the second hand plod the circumference of my watch. Gwyn’s cries ripped my gut. Principles, creeds, ideals, parenting theory all crumbled before the full-bodied ache of denying my daughter comfort. She gasped; she sobbed; she thrashed in her crib. I leaned my head against the wall. I bent over as though with cramps.
Five minutes. I ascended the stairs, opened her door, and placed a palm on her tiny, heaving back.
Eventually I waited out the increasing length between reassurances in the basement, where Gwyn’s cries were muted by two stories but nonetheless slunk through furnace ducts. Ten minutes. Fifteen. We were betraying Gwyn; we had deceived her into thinking we were loving parents when in fact we were selfish and uncompromising.
Whether because of personality differences or because she hadn’t been the one to nurse, Emily was not dismantled by Gwyn’s cries. At the eleven p.m. waking or at one a.m., Emily would offer the initial pat and then fall soundly back to sleep while I stared at the red digits on our clock radio, forcing myself to wait before my next chance to be kind.
About this time, my sister met a wonderful man who fell in love with both her and her boys. Scott moved in. Marcy exited the family bed; she suddenly preferred a quiet evening with Scott over the hour or two she usually spent snuggling the boys to sleep. They reacted much like Gwyn only with the augmented, rebellious resources of five- and six-year-olds. They asked for glasses of milk. They had to pee. They fought. They whined. Eventually, they, too, wailed into the darkness, loud, hollow cries I could hear over the phone when she called to commiserate.
“I should have done this years ago,” she said. I might have gloated had we both not been so miserable. Beyond sleep independence, our children were learning that their parents have limitations and lives outside the service of their needs. My choice had never been whether or not to desert Gwyn, only when. During the 2:00 a.m. witching hour, with Gwyn howling across the hall, I tossed in bed and relived a moment from my past, one of those rare mystical experiences that hammer a soul into an ineradicable shape. I knew what Gwyn was feeling. I knew not from my own toddlerhood but from my adult experiences of God.
One unremarkable afternoon a decade earlier, I took a walk through Loring Park in downtown Minneapolis. The sky was spring blue. The air was warm. Freeway traffic was white noise behind robin song. God’s presence seeped through everything alive and sunny and I felt it, I knew it. Because this had always been the case, the day was like any other.
From my earliest memories God was both in the world and beyond it. God was Mommy sitting on my bed, her thigh warm against mine singing “In the Bleak Midwinter” until I slept. God was Teddy, good to hug and the perfect recipient of my secrets. At age seven I dreamt that I wore a crown of candles like Santa Lucia (goodness knows where in my bland, liberal United Methodist upbringing I’d learned of her); I processed from searing sunlight into a dark cathedral, aching to make an offering—a glass of lemonade—to God. I mounted the dais. The altar seemed to ignite me from within. I lifted my gift. Then I died, absorbed back into the wondrous fabric of light, dark, and meaning.
God was vibrant, a felt presence, and this remained true well into adulthood: the creative force pressing me to write, the will directing words from beyond the page. When I considered leaving my position teaching seventh grade to work in retreat ministry, God whispered, “Why not?”—a palpable door swinging wide. When on my first day in that community a barn fire destroyed a lifetime of belongings, sap seeped from burns in the towering Norwegian pines and I knew God wept alongside me. God emerged with the truth of my bisexuality, ripping apart the falsehoods I’d told myself and exposing the injustices of my church and culture. Some days when I drove the ninety miles between the retreat center and the Twin Cities, God felt so near I stretched my arm out the open window as though I could break through the dark glass of creation and not just see more clearly but physically touch.
For my first thirty years, creation pulsed with love. Then in Loring Park that day I passed the shuffleboard court, edged with daffodils, and a vacuum sucked divinity from creation. God left. The daffodils were the same, only now they meant nothing. The loving presence I’d related to all those years was gone. I stumbled on the sidewalk.
Years of grief followed. Without the dynamic, interior give-and-take I’d assumed was normal, life seemed pointless. Prayer grew unbearable. My inner life was hollow. Had I done something wrong? More likely I’d been delusional until now. God had never existed. The force throbbing through the universe was not loving but indifferent, a fluke of evolution.
I had entered terrain where most twenty-first century people, even most Christians, spend their lives. Ours is a world with no evidence of divine intervention. Science serves as our linchpin; hard facts orient us. Nietzscheism and postmodern sensibilities have driven a wedge between experience and meaning, and now I knew this bitter, bleak reality. My despair was monumental.
But then, somehow, a small book by St. John of the Cross fell into my hands. God “denudes the faculties, the affections, and the senses,” I read. “He leaves the understanding dark, the will dried up, the memory vacuous, and the affections tormented.” An awful God, not one I’d willingly embrace. This misery was inflicted?
And yet, inexplicably, the thought filled me with hope. Perhaps God was paradoxical, beyond comprehension. Perhaps I knew nothing of love. The dark night, John of the Cross said, is a subtraction rather than addition, an isolation rather than union. It is denuded even of mysticism’s glamour. The God of my upbringing, of the Protestant church, of popular American culture, even the God atheists reject, is a God of presence. Because I had no concept of a God of absence, I had assumed my experience meant there was no God. But perhaps this wasn’t so.
My first thirty years had been rife with consolations, those blessed felt experiences of divinity, but now I understood the withdrawal of consolations to be the spiritual equivalent of weaning. God had removed her benevolent breast. I’d been Ferberized.
Gwyn screamed for three nights. On the fourth night, she slept an uninterrupted five hours; on the fifth, seven. We put her to bed at 7:15 p.m., gave her a bottle when she cried out at 5:30 a.m., and, God be praised, she didn’t wake until 7:30 a.m., when she began a warbling conversation with stuffed friends or a happy rendition of “Twinkle, Twinkle.” Within a week, sanity had been restored to our household. Within a month we’d occasionally hear Gwyn wake up and dreamily sing herself back to sleep: “Lu-la-lee, lu-la-lee, lu-la-lee.”
I suppose this is a lesson more experienced parents will find obvious—grief is essential to growth. Familiar ways of being in the world, even when we’ve outgrown them, are painful to release. We can love our children abundantly; we can be responsive to their developmental needs and be intentional in our parenting decisions, but we cannot protect them from banging their heads against the boundaries of their humanity. Or ours.
What strikes me most about this transition today is the link between my limitations and Gwyn’s emergence. When Emily and I reached the outer edge of what we could bear; when we were forced by weariness to attend to our own needs and withdraw ourselves from Gwyn, she fought, she flailed, and then she oriented herself away from us toward deep and restorative sleep—a more intimate relationship with holiness than we could ever provide. She was ready. Perhaps other parents can bear more because of lifestyle or culture or constitution; perhaps other children are ready sooner or much later. The attendant care I assumed was most loving and generous at some point compromised too much of myself, and I had to find a love broader than the obvious. The plane was losing altitude, the oxygen bags flopped down from the ceiling, my daughter gasped for breath and I had to make the counterintuitive decision to strap the mask around my own face first. This love aches; it foists us both into and beyond ourselves. By succumbing to my limitations, I created conditions within which Gwyn expanded her own.
And while I now keep quiet on the playground when talk turns to sleep deprivation—too much of parenting is conditional—I know something about God’s nature that I never would have otherwise. God has limits, too, not in the sense Christianity tries to deny with its theology of omniscience and omnipotence, but in a self-respecting way, one that withdraws into Godself as a manner of inviting the full potential of creation forward. The best evidence of how God works in the world is how love works, and at times the most loving action is withdrawal. In some inexplicable way, God’s seeming absence is a profound act of love.
Recently a friend asked, “If you could go back to that dynamic, felt relationship with God, would you?”
“In a flash,” I answered. I still long for union.
Kate raised her eyebrows.
I thought of Gwyn, who even today, when grandparents visit or she’s sick or simply growing too fast, still reverts to her wake-up cycle and cries inconsolably. She wants a mother’s arms, but even these don’t sooth her. Who knows a two-year-old’s suffering? She lost her birth parents, she almost lost one of her mothers to cancer, she lost the womb, the light of day, her right sock. She longs for something I can no longer give. I rock her through the night; I stroke her fine hair and rail against our mutual inability to find comfort.
Only with some consideration will I admit, reluctantly, that this emptiness asks of me a presence I’d never muster otherwise, and yes, I would choose it.
“I lost myself,” St. John of the Cross wrote, “Forgot myself. I lay my face against the Beloved’s face.” The union I long for isn’t ecstasy; it is erasure, and convergence.I know it best from sleep, where the depths love us in their heaving and fathomless way. But I also know it, rarely, in my conscious life, like when Gwyn stirs from her nap and needs help transitioning from the fluid world of sleep into this solid, waking one. She cinches her legs around my waist, slips her hands under my armpits, rests her head against my chest, and we sway to Turkish dance music. At first the seven-eight rhythm is steady but then comes a taxim, one those wildly spiraling interludes that forsakes melodic expectations; my heart traces the ney flute’s path upward, outward, to a place that defies culture and construct. Gwyn raises her flushed face. Her smile is half here, half-otherworldly. She presses her cheek to mine and I slip into that realm, a place I know only because God calls upon me to be God.
This essay won the 2016 Orison Anthology Award in Non-fiction for a previously unpublished work of non-fiction. It first appeared in The Orison Anthology (Vol. 1, 2016). You may purchase the anthology here.