Let me wrestle you down to sleep

For the last eighteen months Jay’s nap, which has run reliably from 2-4:30pm, has been an essential part of our day.  Recently, though, it’s become imperiled.  For about a month now I’ve read Jay a story and put him in his crib, same as always, but instead of falling into a restorative sleep he rambles quietly and then sings loudly and then jumps up and down in his crib so hard that I’m pretty sure he’s going to break it.

While Jay may not be taking naps these days, he still certainly needs them (the dinner hour has been even more fraught than usual during these napless days—tonight a strand of fettuccini fell from his fork en route to his mouth, after which he was so distraught it was a full ten minutes before we could get a coherent word out of him).

So in an effort to get naptime back on track I decided to change things up.  Before I laid Jay on his mattress I asked him if he’d like daddy to stay in the room.  He said that he would, and I told him that I’d stay, but only if he promised to lie down and be quiet.  He assented to my conditions before the words were even out of my mouth, which made me question his conviction  Nevertheless, I let the experiment proceed.  He lay down on his mattress while I sat in a chair beside his crib and started to read.*

The book I’d brought with me was a review copy of 1Q84, the mammoth new novel from the Japanese writer Haruki MurakamiOver the last several years I’ve read more books by Murakami than I have by any other author.  Murakami’s novels are distinctive along many dimensions, including his surreal characters and events, and the way he manages to be high-brow and popular at the same time.  But what I like about his fiction most is the way he creates a dense, melancholic mood; reading his novels is like taking a bath and letting your head slide beneath the surface of the water.

As I read the first page I tried to ignore Jay, who was lying on his mattress with his eyes fixed on me.  I got the sense he was sizing me up, so tried to set the expectation early on that we weren’t going to interact.

The first pages of the book involved, coincidentally, a child’s crib.  The protagonist, Tengo, is prone to dizzy spells that are brought on whenever he recalls the first memory of his life:

Tengo’s first memory dated from the time he was one and a half. His mother had taken off her blouse and dropped the shoulder straps of her white slip to let a man who was not his father suck on her breasts. The infant in the crib nearby was probably Tengo himself.  He was observing the scene as a third person.  Or could the infant have been his twin?  No, not likely.  It was one-and-a-half-year-old Tengo.  He knew this intuitively.  The infant was asleep, its eyes closed, its little breaths deep and regular. The vivid ten-second scene was seared into the wall of his consciousness, his earliest memory in life.  Nothing came before or after it.  It stood out, alone, like the steeple of a town visited by a flood, thrusting above the muddy water.

It felt strange to read a scene like that and then to redirect my attention back to the room I was in, where nothing epic or erotic was taking place: the window open, the sound of Wally’s monitor crackling in the other room, Jay belly down on his mattress, still looking right at me.

I managed to read about ten pages before Jay decided to test the waters.  He flipped from his stomach onto his back and began to talk softly to himself.  “No James, that doesn’t go there,” I heard him say with mock sternness in his voice, as he aped a reprimand I’d given him earlier that morning about putting his banana in the dishwasher.

What's missing? Jay's crib, mid-afternoon

I would have preferred Jay stay perfectly quiet, but I thought maybe the talking was a prelude to a nap so I didn’t say anything.  Then he put his feet up in the air and began to run them along the bars of his crib.  I put my book down and told him that if he wanted me to stay in the room he needed to put his legs down and take a nap.  Slowly, he lowered his legs and flipped back onto his stomach, making a very convincing show of settling back into napping position.

But as soon as I picked up my book he began to talk softly again.  He turned onto his side, and then onto his back, and then raised his legs.  I got the very clear feeling that I was being played with, so rather than tell him again to put his feet down, I pretended not to see what was going on.  I hoped that if I didn’t engage him he’d realize there was nothing to be gained by staying awake, and that he’d let his latent fatigue wash over him.

No such luck, though.  The next moment Jay was sitting up, pressing his face through the bars of his crib.  I stood up sharply and my book fell from my lap onto the floor.  “That is not what we do during naptime,” I told Jay in a parody of a frustrated parent’s voice. “Lie back down or else I’m leaving the room.” Jay did lie back down, but more slowly than before, and by the time we’d settled back into our places, me on the chair, him in his crib, it was clear that he was winning.

For the next 30 minutes we played this game of cat and mouse.  I alternated between ignoring Jay and correcting him.  As the time progressed it occurred to me that our naptime interaction embodied most of the major tensions and decisions that accompany raising a child generally.

I had something I wanted Jay to do—take a nap—but it was unclear to me how actively I could intervene to try and bring that about.  On one extreme I could try to physically hold him down on the mattress but that didn’t seem likely to bring about sleep; on the other extreme I could have just closed the door and hoped he found his way to a nap, but I knew from recent experience that wasn’t likely to have the desired result, either.

This, I think is a specific form of the decision-making process that runs through every aspect of parenting: When should I go ahead and do things for Jay? When should I try to teach him? And when should I leave him to figure things out for himself?  The answers vary from one situation, child, and parent to another, but in all cases it’s hard to know exactly what balance to strike.

Twenty minutes into the experiment Jay was lying on his back, kicking his heels into his mattress, trying to determine just how much noise he could make before I’d react.  Somewhat desperately I thought maybe the problem was that I was reading a book rather than taking a nap myself.  I put the book down and made a big show of yawning and leaning back in my chair. Kids want to do what their parents are doing. Yawning is infectious.  These were the thoughts running through my head as I closed my eyes.

But they weren’t the thoughts running through Jay’s.  I opened my eyes just a fraction—there was Jay, standing at the fair end of his crib, reaching up to try and unlock the window.  So much for modeling as a parenting strategy, I thought.  I picked my book back up and managed to restrain the urge to point out to Jay just how far his puny little arms were from reaching the window lock.

There was, of course, no nap this afternoon.  After an hour I released Jay from his crib.  I waited until he happened to be lying down before I took him out so that it would seem like I’d let him out on my terms, not his.

“You did a good job during quiet hour,” I told Jay as I set him down on the floor.  He did something of a double-take, and then broke into a sly smile.  I’m pretty sure he realized that “quiet hour” isn’t what we used to call it.

*Wally was off-screen throughout the experiment, sleeping peacefully on our bed in the other room.  Jay’s crib antics have tended to have the collateral effect of ruining Wally’s naps, too, which makes our house feel like a game of Mouse Trap at times: Jay jumps in his crib which wakes up Wally which makes Dad insane which snaps the plank which hits the pole…

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6 thoughts on “Let me wrestle you down to sleep

  1. Coincidentally, I just read the short story “Town of Cats” (which must have been an excerpt from “1P84”) today while catching up on some of my New Yorker magazines!

    Very amusing description of Jay testing the limits of nap time. Sounds like that afternoon nap is pretty much history.

    • Yes, a lot of the backstory in “Town of Cats” comes out in the first 100 pages of 1Q84. It’s been interesting to compare the book to the short story- “Town of Cats” is more of a recombination of parts of the novel than an excerpt. I’ll let you know in about two months if the 1000 page tome is worth undertaking!

  2. An acquaintance of mine, Phil, was the cleverist parent I have ever met. I was with him on a trip with our three sons (his and my two). They were all het up and not wanting to take a nap. So he said to me, “Let’s see if we can bore them to sleep.” At which he put on some very relaxing “classical music”. I don’t remember which piece. Before the first movement was over they were all three snoozing away. Phil had this uncanny understanding of the human condition and how to deal with it as well as manipulate it. JEC

  3. “So in an effort to get naptime back on track I decided to change things up. Before I laid Jay on his mattress I asked him if he’d like daddy to stay in the room. He said that he would, and I told him that I’d stay, but only if he promised to lie down and be quiet.”

    Dude, I love you, but….

    Jay wasn’t quiet, as per the rules you laid down, and yet you remained for a full hour, getting more and more frustrated. Follow through on your “threats” or you will never have paw.

    This round goes to James.

    • JEC and Sara- I’m not giving up yet, and I’ll give classical music a whirl (that’s what they played at Jay’s old daycare during naptime and it seemed to work miraculously there), but in my heart I think the first commenter in this thread got it right: “afternoon nap is pretty much history.”

  4. Been there, Kev. This round goes to James not because you stayed but because he got you to interact. If he was going to sleep, the leg kicking wouldn’t prevent it. But talking to him about it would. Just say, ‘Shhhh, baby. Time to sleep now’ at every attempt to engage you. Don’t force it, just don’t react with conversation, reprimands or any other actions than sitting quietly. He may still not sleep, but the lesson here is ‘you’re the big person-you set the example’. And try Pachelbel’s Canon. That would put anyone to sleep.

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