When she was almost three, as soon as she graduated from a crib to a bed of her own, our daughter Bella started coming to sleep in our bed every night. She would show up sometime after midnight and, too exhausted to argue or carry her back, I would lift her into the middle where she slept, blissfully spread out between Mama and Papa.
Meanwhile we would toss and turn, unable to get back to sleep. Pushed to the margins, away from each other, covers-deprived and occasionally whacked by a floppy limb, my husband and I suffered way more sleep deprivation that year than we had during the whole first year of Bella’s life. We started calling her the helicopter. We ordered a super king size bed from England. It was the biggest one I could find on the Internet, but it didn’t make any difference. My husband, who was stronger than I was in the face of our blissfully sleeping child, often tried to return her to her own bed. He sang her songs at two-thirty in the morning. But the cat came back. It was torture.
Around that time, friends of ours in New York who were pregnant with their first children announced that they weren’t even going to buy a crib. We were horrified. They weren’t planning to have a pram for her to sleep in, either: The baby would be tied to their bodies at all times, they said, like an African baby. But you’ll never sleep again, we protested. You will never have sex again. The hours between bedtime and the middle of the night are all we have, but at least we have that. They laughed. We’ll be creative. In Africa, people always sleep with their babies. In fact, they sleep in one-room mud huts with all their kids and they still manage to have sex. Otherwise how else do they have so many? This isn’t Africa, we insisted. But our friends just pointed out that their one bedroom apartment, while lovely, wasn’t much bigger than a mud hut in Africa anyway.
Our German midwife told us explicitly to make our baby sleep in her own crib from the get-go. She even gave us charts to fill out. We followed her instructions to the letter and by eight weeks Bella slept through the night. But the conversation with our friends raised many questions. Now I wondered: would it have been better for Bella if we’d let her sleep with us as a baby? Was she coming to us as a three year-old for what she hadn’t gotten earlier on? Was it selfish of me to put my need for sleep above the needs of my child? (And, for that matter, was it lame that I wasn’t so creative about sex while I had a newborn infant?)
Although my parents spent years observing mother-child interaction in Africa prior to becoming parents themselves, I do not recall ever sleeping in their bed and I am certain my mother never strapped me to her body. So I asked her if she had been tempted to adopt the traditional African methods, now in vogue with some of my American friends. She scoffed (she’s English, so she really did scoff). The African women she studied were doing it not because they believe it was better for the babies, she said, but because it was better for the mothers. A nursing woman working in the fields all day has to take her newborn baby with her; what else could she do with it? What pram works on dirt roads and in fields? They didn’t have Bugaboos then. These were practical solutions to everyday problems faced in that context, my mother said. New York City is a very different context.
But each generation of new parents, the world over, aspires to do things “better” for their own kids. Our friends weren’t crazy to try African sleeping arrangements in New York, they were just figuring things out. My mom told me a story about her research assistant, a university-educated woman, with whom she worked in a provincial Mexican town in the 1980s. The assistant and her husband knew that middle class people had separate bedrooms for their children and so when they built their own house they provided a room for each of theirs; but several years after the house had been completed, all three kids were still sleeping in their parents’ room, out of habit. The other bedrooms were being used for storage.
So we’re all still figuring things out. But my dad says that parents worry too much that their relatively minor errors will result in long-term mental health problems. Children are more resilient than you think, German sleep-training notwithstanding. He recalls attending a psychoanalytic conference in Honolulu in the early 1970s where an analyst from Taiwan reported on a case of a man who had slept with his grandmother until the age of twelve. The fact that the man was a general in the Taiwanese army suggested to the Asian analysts that such a sleeping pattern was incidental. The American analysts insisted it was pathological, despite his successful military career.
When our younger daughter, Rosie, was born, we had the same German midwife as we had the first time and again we followed her instructions to a tee. And again they worked very well. But occasionally I took her to bed with me when I was nursing, something I never did with Bella, and fell asleep with the baby by my side. Nine times out of ten my husband returned her gently to her crib, but I enjoyed those cozy moments in the middle of the night. Now that Rosie is getting big enough to climb out of her crib however, we’ve been bracing ourselves for another sleepless year. But it turns out she has no interest in sleeping with us. As soon as she has the chance she makes a beeline into Bella’s room, where she climbs into bed to sleep with her sister, instead, snug as two bugs in a rug.
(Photo above of Rosie sleeping with my mother.)
Anna Winger’s first novel, This Must Be the Place, is published by Riverhead. She is also a photographer and the creator of Berlin Stories for NPR . She was raised by Harvard anthropologists Dr. Robert LeVine and Dr. Sarah LeVine in Kenya, Massachusetts and Mexico, and now lives with her German husband and two daughters in Berlin. The Mother Culture is an ongoing series of reflections on her experiences as an American mother abroad and conversations with her parents about mothering around the world.