Since I was a teenager, I developed a certain anxiety of falling asleep in the presence of other people. I think it started because I was a thumb sucker way into primary school and didn’t want to be made fun off. Later on, I got a remark on snoring, which is at best funny when you’re a guy, but seems embarrassing by convention when you’re a girl.
At camp, I desperately tried to fall asleep last, each night, each year. The same would apply during sleepovers. It even took me over 2 years to fall asleep next to my husband when he was still awake. Still, I can’t stand it when he is sleeping too close to me. And feeling someone breathe on me in his sleep would horrify me.
All this started to change when I became a mother.
Maybe it was initially caused by the sheer exhaustion of being a young mum, but I was able to cosleep with my son. And it felt amazing! No shivers when he would breathe on me, no worries whatsoever that he would be annoyed by snoring. He was an even worse snorer than I was anyway. After a few days, I couldn’t imagine anything more enjoyable than carrying my sleeping son with me all the time. Even now, six years later, we both cherish the nights he spends in the Big Bed once a week. It’s a kind of bonding time we both seem to crave for.
When we travelled to Ethiopia to pick up our little girl, I had this plan in mind of bonding with her by keeping her close to me. If she would allow it. Of course I would respect her boundaries and take a distance when needed.
If only it would have been that simple. It started in our first guesthouse where we were forced to share beds. Our son didn’t want to share beds with his new sister, so the most logical choice was me. But all through the night, she would wake up and start to scream when she found me lying next to her, meanwhile crawling away from me as far as she could. Fortunately, we quickly moved to a second guesthouse where a little bed was available for her and nights became easier. At least, while we were still in Ethiopia.
Back home, it all worsened. She couldn’t fall asleep when we were present. It felt awkwardly recognizable to me and gave me an insight in her fears and uncertainties, and my own as well. We wanted to respect her, but all the same, she made it very clear she didn’t want to be parted from us, me in particular. She would pull me close to her and push me away the very next minute. During the day, the pull-and-push was difficult enough. Around bedtime and during the night, it was exhausting. She would wake up and cry for me, about every hour. So I would get up and sit next to her every time, while she would hold my hand. Only my right hand, the one with the ring. While fondling the ring, she would calm down. But she would never fall asleep in my presence. Ever.
It took her eight full months to progress from this. We were at the playground and we decided to skip her afternoon nap. When she came to sit on my lap, I was prepared for her usual one minute hug. But she stayed. And stayed. I wrapped my scarf around her and still, she stayed. And a moment later, she dozed off.
I was paralyzed for a moment. Exalted. I wanted to scream it out. Look! Look at her! She is SLEEPING! I wanted someone to take a picture, but I was afraid to wake her up by speaking. So instead, I cherished the moment. The whole fifteen minutes.
From then on, her nights became somewhat better. We could pass her bedroom without waking her up. We joked she had learned to close her eyes while sleeping. She still didn’t easily fall asleep in our presence, the only exception being inside a driving car. Gradually she began to ask for the Big Bed once in a while, like her big brother. It ended up with her dozing off in our bed every night. The first time we marvelled about her staying fast asleep while we transferred her to her own bed. Another land mark. And then, finally, she started to sleep the night through. I know I was relieved when our son started to sleep through the night when he was a baby. But when our daughter did, it felt like a real accomplishment. Something we worked really hard for.
Up till today, I still value every ‘full’ night. Because she still has those nights when she wakes up four, five, six, hundreds of times, especially when she has been stressed, with her number one stressor ‘having been away from mommy’.
But what I value most, without doubt, are the precious few times she sleeps with her arms wrapped around my neck.