“The ache for home lives in all of us, the safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned.”
I rarely find myself cursing out vegetables, but this is what happened to me two nights ago at 2 AM as I paced the halls, furious at Eliana’s near-hourly night waking.
In Husband’s absence, I’m short on a lot of things: friendship, love, company, sympathy, patience, entertainment. I’m also, as it turns out, short on a scapegoat. And at 2 AM, well, the carrots I fed her for the first time that night, they would have to do.
With Husband away on a business trip, the girls and I are “vacationing” at what my siblings/nieces/nephews and I fondly call “CampGram”, my parents’ home about five minutes away from where we live. For the week that Husband’s gone, I’ve decided to take advantage of my parents’ goodwill (it’s a hobby, really) and the fact that a year and a half ago, we moved out of New York City to New Jersey to be closer to my parents, sisters and their families. This week turns out to be just one of those incredible times that I’m grateful to be so close to “home”.
It doesn’t matter that the house no longer looks the way it did when I was a child—the sounds, the smells, the experience of living with my parents is the same, and I admit enthusiastically, I’m loving re-visiting my childhood and adolescence without the drama of puberty. Staying with my parents is like staying at the Ritz Carlton for the mommy-and-kids-set; the food is outstanding, the accommodations top-notch, the toys phenomenal, and the staff is incredibly friendly, warm, and loving. The turn-down service is impeccable; “Pa” puts Lila to bed, with stories, songs, and cuddles included. Oh, and you can’t beat the rate!
There’s something nearly magical about sleeping in my childhood bedroom again while Lila and Eliana sleep across the hall in my sisters’ old rooms. When I close my eyes at night, the covers conjure memories of other nights I’ve spent in this room: nights before sleep-away camp where I was so nervous and excited I could barely sleep, the night before my wedding, when I consciously remembered it would be my “last night in the nursery” like Wendy in Peter Pan, the nights I snuck my phone into bed with me as a teenager, hoping my parents wouldn’t catch me and my muffled conversations. As a child, I can remember tucking myself under covers, hoarding books, toys, and flashlights, the same way Lila does at my parents’ home, where she has recently fallen asleep clenching a plastic Buzz Lightyear, a barrette, and a necklace. I remember many nights when, after my parents thought we were asleep, Sister #2 and I would throw our stuffed animals across the hall, back and forth to one another, tucking secret written messages into their shirts until our parents noticed that we weren’t sleeping and demanded that the game end.
And as I fall asleep at night here in my childhood home, the sensory experience of the house is even the same as it was when I was living alone with my parents after my older siblings all went to college; CNN blares on the TV, my mother snores softly on the couch in the den as my father enjoys a clandestine rendezvous with ice cream. The heat turns on and off throughout the night, and my mother—the night watch—continues to pace the halls at all hours of the night, the mother of four always on the look-out, even as an “empty-nester” (Let’s face it—with eight grandchildren all in spitting distance, their “empty nest” is more full than it was with four children living in it. I mean, you don’t get the moniker “Camp Gram” by playing mah-jong and getting your hair colored purple in your free time.)
While I enjoy time-traveling to the eighties and nineties of my old life, Lila adores being cradled in the warmth of Gram and Pa, who are able to enjoy my two girls without the chaos of all the other grandchildren around, which is how it usually is. My parents get a kick out of Eliana’s constant kicking—the girl is obviously training for The Chorus Line, pounding her legs in delight in her crib with the enthusiasm of a three-hundred-pound tap-dancer, every morning at5:30 AM sharp. My parents get to see what I see: Eliana as a chatty baby who always wants to be involved in the conversation and tries to shriek her way into it, and Lila, a constant negotiator, who can disarm you with charm and people-savvy. Eliana is getting to know my parents, and my heart just about melts when I see either of the girls snuggling enthusiastically in their arms.
There’s a tinge of sadness, too—I see how much Lila loves being with my parents, and I can’t help but think about the grandparent they girls will never meet, my husband’s mother, whom I never met either. Sometimes I’ll see an expression in their faces that I don’t recognize and wonder, do my children act like her? Are their mannerisms the same? Are these personality quirks or facial expressions ghosts that linger in their genetic codes? What would she think of them? Or me, for that matter? As a wife? As a mother?
She is with us, even when she’s not.
Because a mother-child relationship is fraught and complex, no matter the age of the people involved. Even as a thirty-one-year-old woman, in living back at “Camp Gram,” I have slipped back into my childhood roles like they are old coats that already know the shape of my body. As a child, I craved my mother’s attention, sought her advice eagerly, laughed at her inability to operate a VCR, relied on her to fill in the gaps and come up with solutions.
And here we are again. She has made my lunch for school. (Yes. Seriously.) She has set a vitamin out on my plate. She has reminded me to get dinner together for the night that she and Dad are going out. She can’t figure out how to get on Facebook despite at least fifty lessons. Truly, Lila can use the computer with more competence than Gram can. That’s not even a joke. Next year, we might have Lila do Turbo-Tax for us.
Technical difficulties aside, though, Gram is ready to stick her hands into this sleep training business, with sleeves rolled up.
These are the words I mutter as I drag myself down the hall to Eliana’s room to respond to her millionth night waking.
Though the week at Camp Gram had otherwise been an Ellysium of multigenerational love in every other way, Eliana’s sleep was turning out to be a nightmare. Eliana was waking up at night, but instead of ignoring her and shoving earplugs deeper into my ears as I would at my own home (where a good night for her goes from 6:30-4 until she needs to eat again before returning to sleep), I ran to her cry like I was her little bitch so as to avoid waking my parents, who had welcomed us with open arms into their home, but probably not into their REM cycles.
And genius baby that she is, Eliana figured it out.
The night-time wakings began increasing. First every four hours. Then two hours. Was it the fucking carrots that were making her wake up like this?
Suddenly, I’m nursing every two hours or two and a half hours, and it’s like Eliana is six weeks old again.
In the mango glow of the nightlight, here, in my oldest sister’s childhood bedroom, I feel my eyes well up with tears, partly from exhaustion and partly from anger at my own self-sabotage after all Eliana and I have worked through together with sleep training. You can’t please all generations at once, I guess. Out of three generations under one roof, I’m the only one suffering, so I guess I’ll just have to take this one for the team.
Except that all the sleep training I’ve done will be undermined. And then we’ll be back at home, and Husband will be home, and he will go to her because he always goes to her more than I ever did, and we’ll be back at square one, and I’ll have to do it all over again…
I want to cry.
Eliana drifts off into sleep, and as I bring her to the crib, slowly, slowly lowering her body into it, my body aching to go back into bed, her eyes blink wide open, like one of those creepy dolls in a horror movie. Add shrill-like screams.
Nothing, no, nothing could make this worse.
Except, that is, the fact that I’ve woken up Mom.
Here we are: both of us awake at 2:45 AM, Mom still in a nightgown reminiscent of the ones I remember her wearing when I was a child. The house feels the same, but instead of my running into my parents’ room with a nightmare or stomachache, Mom is coming into my daughter’s room in her own house.
Legitimately, this feels like the sort of nonsensical, surrealistic dream I would have if I had the luxury of sleeping right now.
Mom’s forehead creases into a “T” between the eyes. “Ariel, what’s wrong?”
“Mom, please. I can handle this. Please go to sleep.” There is begging in my voice.
“It’s okay. She didn’t even wake me.”
“Then why are you awake?”
“I was already up.”
“I didn’t want to wake you.”
“I’m up already.”
Right, Mom, because people just troll the halls at three in the morning looking for a good time.
“Ariel, what’s wrong with her?”
I sigh and try not to cry, but I know Mom can hear it in my voice. “Being here is totally derailing all my sleep training. She knows I’m coming now—she’s expecting me to come any time she whines. I’ve ruined everything.”
Used to my drama, Mom reassures me, “You haven’t ruined everything. She’s not even bothering us, Ariel.”
“She is, I know she is!”
“Just let her cry, Ariel. Honestly, it won’t bother us.”
“I can’t—that’s not right. We’re going to go back home tomorrow.”
“That’s ridiculous! Just stay and LET. HER. CRY.”
Eliana has been listening intently to all of this. Her eyes jump from mine to my mother’s; she is awaiting the verdict.
“And give her Mylicon, Ariel. Did you give her Mylicon yet?”
“No, Mom, she doesn’t need Mylicon—”
Before I can finish my sentence, Mom has already opened up a bottle of Mylicon that has materialized out of thin air and shoved the dropper in Eliana’s mouth. No measurement necessary, apparently; Mom pretty much just dumped a liter straight into Eliana’s mouth, and she is gobbling up its minty goodness with gusto.
“Now put her in the crib, Ariel.”
“She’s going to cry. You’ll see.”
“Then LET. HER. CRY!”
“Are you sure?”
“YES. And tomorrow, we’re putting the bumpers back in the crib. This no-bumpers thing is bullshit.”
I take Eliana and place her into her crib because only a fool battles with a mother at three in the morning, or, more specifically, only a fool battles with my mother at any time of the day, since she is eternally right no matter what.
As I lower her body into the crib, Eliana gives me a look that probably translates to, “Wait—seriously…you’re LEAVING?”
But this ain’t no joke. As I walk out of Eliana’s room, my mom closes the door behind me and puts her hand on my shoulder.
“Now go to sleep and don’t go back to her. Do what you would do at home.”
“Are you sure?”
And the night passes. Miraculously, Eliana doesn’t wake up again. Was it the Mylicon? The last nursing session?
Or was it simply that Eliana finally understood the tenet that governs much of our family’s life: It may take a village, sweetheart, but at the end of the day? You just don’t fuck with Gram.