Animals Sleep Together

When our first born came (adopted at 3 days old), my wife happily snuggled him down between us, and my life changed forever. That first night I didn’t get any sleep. I woke up every 30 seconds or so just to make sure he was breathing. That was the new-Dad-syndrome, it passed after a few days. In hindsight I figure it actually saved me some sleep to have him right there because I didn’t have to get up every 30 seconds and walk over to a crib to make sure he was breathing, I just had to roll over.

After sharing our co-sleeping choice with my parents I endured a barrage of articles about how co-sleeping was killing children and the AMA did NOT SUPPORT IT! Apparently going primitive here is DEADLY!!! We were about to murder our son in our sleep. They pointed out a recent, well publicized case in Utah of a child suffocated while sleeping with its Mother. We ignored their advice. Actually my wife ignored their advice and I didn’t bother trying to fight it because she was the Momma. A year later the same Utah woman was arrested for killing her second child. Turns our her husband had been hiding her secret, she was seriously mentally ill and intentionally smothering her children. So maybe being a serial killer was worse than co-sleeping.

Having our kids in our bed has fed me and opened me a lot over the years. I never knew a man could fall asleep holding hands with his baby son. Isn’t that sad? I learned some babies are in fact walking toasters, great for keeping you warm in the winter! I learned that feeding a newborn in the middle of the night can wipe away just about any bad day, month or year. He’s 11 now, I still love watching him breath when he sleeps. It means I’m doing my job. It means Heaven is still dancing around on Earth.

Our second born was different. Though she came to us at only a few days old she was still a foster child living with us for the first 18 months of her life. We were required to provide her with a separate sleeping space. It was technically OK for her to join us in bed, but she must have a crib and at least bed down in her own bed. Fortunately they make baby beds that hook onto the side of your bed with a bar that drops. This turned out to be especially lucky because part of the trauma she brought with her included screams-of-bloody-murder erupting out of her 2-3 times a night for the first year and half. Seriously – like bad-horror-movie-grown-woman-screams shaking the windows. Her birth Mother’s trauma had written itself onto her nervous system. After the first few nights of that I slept next to the attached bassinet and she basically slept attached to me (Momma was the day shift of infant massage, angelic love, and endless social worker/court visits.)

Co-sleeping became a way to manage the routine of trauma release. The screams would start rolling out of her open mouth as she slept. I would check to see if she was going to wake up this time. At first she did not always awaken to the sound of those screams. If she did begin to rouse I would pull her on top of me, pat her and sing to her. Often that was not enough, the screams would shift into hysterical tears. Time to pace and sing until the tears stopped. Back to bed. Tuck in. Repeat.

Every night she spent with us was a night horrors were banished, Voldemort and the Dementors could not get to her. Eventually the love of that place inoculated her against the darkness that had impacted the first 9 months of her life. I’m so glad we didn’t exile her to another room, or even a separate crib. The smell of us never left her side. The sound of our breathing was always with hers. She rested her head on our heartbeats that sang, “you are safe, we love you, you are safe, we love you…” over and over again throughout the night.

Thats not to say co-sleeping was always easy, it was especially hard for me at first. I used to pull away when finally falling asleep. Some part of me just didn’t trust that touching someone while I slept would not infect my dreams with theirs. Now there were little ones with feet that swam around like sharks on a night hunt. From an old post – Feet Fish:

“I like to dream apart from others. Its been rare for me to fall asleep cuddled up with someone, even my wife, and awaken entangled. I’ve always felt the secret cave of my psyche would unleash something onto her, or onto me, because some man-cave rule had been breached. Its not that I was shy, I just wasn’t sure it was safe.

Now where there were two there are four. From either side they attack, she going for the head, he for the legs. We sleep on a king sized bed, yet they migrate from opposite ends often simultaneously. They must share some pedi-psychic bond only siblings know.”

I have woken up with a child’s foot stuck in each ear. If its not that they’re slipping their big toes into the waste band of my PJ pants as if they’re going push off and scale me like Everest. The geometry our bodies weave rivals some of the most complex crop circles.

As they got older, co-sleeping came and went for the kids. Our son got his own bed, and then our girl. Sometimes they would sleep with us, sometimes alone, only to call us in during the night. In the summer we would all move up to a cottage with a sleeping loft. Eventually we fit 2 queen sized mattresses up there. Cats, dogs and kids all made a home there. It was all the good stuff you can imagine and more.

Then Momma’s cancer came back.

At first we kept up our co-sleeping, but eventually it became impractical. Her body became fragile, too sensitive to have kids rolling around. She moved to a mattress in the living room and the kids slept in their own beds. I really missed sleeping with the kids, I think Terry did too but it had just become impossible. She also needed me there by her side during the night, I wound up on the couch next to her most nights. She would wake up, disoriented and in a panic from the meds she was on. Later the kids would inevitably tromp in and ask me to crash with them. Sometimes they would sleep with visiting relatives. I struggled to keep everyone happy – shuttling between 3 beds, sleeping a few hours and then moving on. I leaned too hard on beer. The bags under my eyes got luggage of their own.

When Terry eventually passed, 14 months after her diagnosis, co-sleeping became our triage in the face of grief. We all had so many feelings, I was so exhausted. I didn’t work for a while, but boy did I sleep. My grief was not banished, couldn’t be so easily, but having them to hold onto in the middle of the night was impossibly nourishing. When you awaken in the darkness and all you can think about is how the hell am I going to take care of these kids, the best thing is just to pull them closer and look at how wonderful they are. They’ll do OK. They’re amazing. They’re each full of their Mothers love. Just don’t screw it up too badly, and they’ll be OK.

Eventually our cottage got too cold and we moved down to the house. I don’t think I spent a whole night sleeping in my own bed. Most of the time it was them asking me to snuggle them, but there were more than a few nights when I cuddled one of them just to feel better about being alive. I don’t know what state I’d be in now if I didn’t have them to latch onto from time to time.

I have Terry to thank for them, and her wisdom in insisting on bringing our children into our bed.

Its been a little over a year since she died. Summer is upon us so we’re back up in our sleeping loft, the three of us and the cats. My son still likes to be cuddled, he still needs it. Its what Momma would be giving him right now, rivers of love. And of course my little Bear wants to be held, its always such a treat for me. Sleeping together has been such a journey for us. There are times when I come up to wake them for school and they’ve found each other and are so entangled I can’t tell where one ends and the other begins. If I go away for a few days I know so long as they’re sleeping next to each other our littlest one will be fine. They comfort each other in ways a phone call from me can’t.

If I were to name the top three things that have helped us most through the loss of Terry, co-sleeping would always be up there.

After over a decade of (on and off) sleeping with my kids one things for sure, its inseparable from healing – healing from trauma, healing from grief, and even healing from sickness. There was a night my infant sons cold made a turn for the worse. It was easy to tell because we were right there with him, listening to every breath. I got up, stripped off my shirt, pasted him against my chest and wrapped us both in a blanket. I rocked him in a chair all night long. Having been held more upright and heated by another body he could breathe better, sleep better, and was much improved when the sun came up. Had he been in another room, I don’t know if I would have caught the change in his breathing. Co-sleeping is one way nature heals us and makes sure we stay deeply connected to our kids.

It has become for me and the kids the great emotional reset button. They can be fighting, I can be fed up, but by the time I start reading to them all problems are usually solved. If they’re not, we all stay in bed longer in the morning and the stress inevitably disappears. I think if everyone who had lost a spouse, or a Mom or Dad, had someone to cuddle up with for a year afterwards, their grief would not be so debilitating, so disorienting.

We’re all happier because even though we lost her, we live inside of each other. Co-sleeping helps make that happen, makes it a felt reality every night.

I know for many of us sleeping with others, even our partners is impractical. Some of us snore too loudly, have medical contraptions, require a very specific surface. But perhaps if we could all nap just even once a week with another mammal, a beloved, our lives would be a little better.

We were not made to sleep alone, thats not the kind of animals we are.

Blessings to you and yours during this time of great change.