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Cry It Out: The Art of War

Eliana has proven to a worthy opponent.

Sleep-training failed the first time around, and I see no shame in admitting this. In retrospect, the mushy-wimp approach I went with, the old “go and in soothe” routine, turned out to train people all right, but it wasn’t Eliana. Over the course of three weeks, Husband and I had been trained like obsequious, fearful slaves to go in and “soothe” Eliana by shoving a pacifier in her mouth approximately every two hours throughout the course of any given night. There was no question that this was way worse than feeding her twice a night.

We are whipped beyond belief.

How victorious Eliana must feel.

I’ve known in my heart for at least two weeks now what really needs to be done here. I’ve resisted it until this point because I’ve anticipated it will be a messy, horrific trainwreck with many psychological casualties.

But one can only hide from the truth for so long.

Only one method is going to make this family sleep through the night again, and it ain’t pretty.

Cry It Out.

As Sun Tzu says in The Art of War, “If fighting is sure to result in victory, then you must fight.”

So now, it is time to fight.

“Crying-it-out” comes in various forms. In its most sensitive form, you can do “gradual extinction,” by which you plan to suck up a week of your life by catering to your wee one’s needs on a timed basis. On the first night, as the baby cries for food or comfort, you only go in every five minutes. On the second night, you go in every ten minutes. On the third night, every twenty minutes. On the fourth night, you and your husband remember what it’s like to actually have a life past seven o’clock at night, and you don’t go in anymore, because your baby is magically “cured.” At this point, once you’ve had, oh, let’s say three consistent nights of uninterrupted sleep, you’ll start liking your husband again for more than fifteen minute increments, and you may even have the dumb idea that hey! Maybe it’s time to have another baby! This happens to be a dangerous side effect of getting your child to sleep through the night.

However, this kind-hearted, sensitive method is for pansies. It’s for first-time parents who don’t want to scar their kiddos. You know who you are.

Those of us with two kids are passed that point. Sentimentality has no place in our homes when it comes to sleeping. I was armed and ready to play a big game in which I had no choice but to win. It was time for Cry It Out. Not gradual extinction. Just extinction, hard core and straight up. As in, “Goodnight, sweetheart. See you at 5 AM. Good luck.” (Door closes; Mommy hopes for the best.) Game on, Eliana. GAME ON.

I had been waiting a week for the right night to start. Now some of you out there may be thinking, “Oh, I’ll be she waited for a weekend.” NO. I wanted to do this quick, dirty, and on my terms. Husband was going on a business trip, which would conveniently take him out of the equation as a potential underminer to my evil plan. My parents generously accepted Lila as their sleepover guest for three nights, so that she would not be woken during the night as Eliana screamed for mercy. With Lila outsourced and Husband conveniently out of the picture, the night was ripe for victory. Poor, poor Eliana. She had no idea what was coming.

Naturally, the best-laid tactical plans are often unraveled, and so too was mine. Having misread the calendar, I learned that Husband’s business trip was Tuesday, not Monday, but with the plan already hatched in my mind, I was completely unwilling to break and change my start date of Monday, the cruelest day of the week, and therefore, the most metaphorically appropriate for sleep training. Multiple times in the early evening, I casually commented to Husband, “So you know the plan, right? I shut the door after feeding her, and then we don’t go in until 5 AM. No matter how much she cries or screams. No binkies, no nothing. Stay out of the room no matter what. Got it?”

“Got it.”

At 9:30, I nursed Eliana. She ate a little, eyes barely open. Quietly, I whispered to her, “It’s going to really suck tonight, but trust me, you’ll thank me later. This is called ‘tough love’. So even though you’re gonna feel like I hate you, I’m doing this because I love you. And because when we’re all well-rested, we’re all actually going to be able to love you even more.” I placed her gingerly in the crib and walked away. So far, so good.

At 10:30, as we watched TV, I reminded Husband casually, “So. No going in tonight, remember. No matter what. Okay?”

“Okay.”

For safety’s sake, I verified once more before I shoved neon orange earplugs into my ears as I pulled the covers up in bed at 11:00, “So you know we’re not going in, right?”

“YES. I get it! I’m not going in!”

Fine, he was annoyed by my patronizing repetition. I admit I was even a little annoyed by myself. But in my fantasy plan, there was no room for mistakes. A sleepy pop-in to Eliana’s room was not an option; it would compromise the entire operation. I admit that a part of me wanted to set up a mini-obstacle course in the hallway with plastic storage bins, stacking blocks, and small Toy Story figurines between our bedroom and Eliana’s room so that on the off chance that Husband decided he would go to her, he would be slightly maimed as he tripped over toys, thus jolting him awake and snapping him back on plan.

Such are the deranged musings of a sleep-deprived mother.

With earplugs in my ears, Lila “on leave,” and Husband already asleep next to me, I closed my eyes and gave myself a little pep talk. Ariel, you can do this. This will be a hard night, but in a week when we’re all sleeping through the night, we will all be grateful, and you shall feted like a general returning from war, if only by yourself for yourself. You can do it. You can do it. You can do this. DO NOT GIVE IN.

Poor Eliana. Poor, poor Eliana. She had no idea what was going to hit her. But this was no time for sympathy. Sun Tzu says in The Art of War, “Take advantage of the enemy’s unpreparedness; travel by unexpected routes and strike him where he has taken no precautions.”

So stealthily, without preparation on Ellie’s part, this game would have to be won.

If I was to come out of this victorious, I had to out-game this baby, crying or not.

I closed my eyes, hoped for the best, and fell asleep quickly.

12:16. Eliana cries. Earplugs or not, I hear her. Husband sits up in bed, already visibly upset by her distress and the fact that if he does anything to help/calm/approach/soothe/look at her, there may be Mommy-led domestic violence in our home. Getting out of bed he says, “Forget it. I’m going downstairs. I can’t take this. I’ll see you in the morning.”

The man wonderful, warm, loving and concerned. He is all heart; he would be totally useless in this war. But Sun Tzu reminds us, “He who knows when he can fight and when he cannot will be victorious.” So Husband’s bowing out was actually an asset to me; victory was on its way, as I was still ready to fight.

With his towel already thrown in, I know I’m going to have to endure this brutal night alone, but I’m ready for it. I stare at the ceiling as Eliana cries. A part of me is sickly curious how long it will last, not because I’m worried about her, but because I want to see what kind of moxie the kid’s got. Girl can’t roll, but how long can she cry for without giving up? At 12:32, the cries die down. She is done.

I let a complacent smile wash across my face. Thinking of Eliana’s sweet resting face, a mean, smarmy thought takes me: Is that the best you can do? Before I can consider what kind of terrible mother I am to think that, I fall back asleep again.

3:09. Husband is nowhere to be seen, and the crying this time is loud. Really fucking loud. Eliana may have been tricked the first time into self-soothing, but this time? Perhaps a mouthful of her own hand just ain’t cuttin’ it. I cringe as I hear her—she sounds so sad! So distressed! So lonely! If only I could…it would be so easy to just peek in and see…STOP. STOP, ARIEL. DO NOT GIVE IN!

Miraculously, the crying stops by 3:18. I can hardly believe my good fortune! Has the game already been called? Is Mommy the victor already? So soon? And to think I was going to go in! That I was going to give her the satisfaction of winning over me!

At 4:23, the game changes entirely. Now, Eliana is wailing like someone is covering her bald head in Bandaids and then just ripping them off as quickly as possible. Husband has come back to the bedroom, but he knows better than to ask me if he should go in. I admit I want him to ask me…I want him to tell me this is ridiculous. That she’s five-months-old. That’s she’s not ready for this. That this isn’t the only way. But he doesn’t. Instead, he angrily takes a pillow off our bed and goes into our walk-in closet, where I hear him lay down on the ground before shutting the door.

The crying gets louder and louder; I try to depersonalize it by saying to myself over and over again that this is what babies sound like when they’re upset, but this isn’t just any baby. It’s MY baby. And she sounds terrible. The worst I’ve ever heard her, literally in her entire life. At 4:34, her wailing becomes unbearable. She’s human. She’s a person. This isn’t a game. I’m probably fucking her up for life. If you can’t count on your own mother, who can you count on in your life? She will never forgive me for this. This is laying the grounds for a life of distrust. She’ll never be able to feel supported again. She’ll question anyone who ever claims to be loyal to her. WHAT AM I DOING?

To distract myself, I get up and open the closet door in our bedroom. I can’t see Husband, who is lying on the ground in the dark, but I hear his voice, “I keep worrying that she’s got her leg caught between the crib slats and that we’re going to go in there and it’s going to be horribly contorted and purple.”

Thanks for that.

The crying continues—loud, endless, painful. I watch the clock as the minutes crawl by. 4:41. 4:43. 4:47. 4:51. 4:53. 4:57.

I feel sick.

At 4:58, I rationalize to myself: the clock in her room says 5:00. I know it does because it is always faster than the clock in our room.

After all: “There is no instance of a nation benefiting from prolonged warfare.”

I steel myself for the worst, and as I walk towards Eliana’s room in the dark quiet of the hallway, past Lila’s creepily empty bedroom, I am deathly afraid that Husband is right: that I will go in there, that there will be something horribly wrong with Eliana that I will never be able to fix, something that I will never be able to forgive myself for.

I get to her room and look into the crib. Eliana looks at me—there are no tears. In fact, she is now smiling, as if my presence is the off-switch to her crying. No hurt feelings; in fact, the only ones who have been psychologically scarred are Husband and me.

Tonight: night #2. This time, I take a page from another great war general, Ulysses S. Grant: “The art of war is simple enough. Find out where your enemy is. Get at him as soon as you can. Strike him as hard as you can, and keep moving on.”

So tonight, we keep moving on.

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