R at the age of nearly three, has learned how to climb out of his cot. Vault would be a better choice of word: it is hard not to admire the elegance, the economy of movement, his physical prowess as he springs up and over and carefully lowers himself to the floor, beaming, still in his sleeping bag. There is no scrambling or heaving or slipping.
My heart sank, watching him. I took- in the realisation that he knows what he is doing, it was no effort for him nor an accident.
Nap time is sacred. It is 90 minutes of me time, it is solitude when I read or write or sleep or daydream or paint my nails or have a friend over or think or occasionally write an email. This new development spelled disaster, the end of life as I know it.
I haven’t experienced this feeling of helplessness since he was a screaming newborn and I didn’t know what to do with his screaming newborn body, how to make it stop. Hold it? Put down? Sing to it? Rock it? Feed it? Change it? My son again, momentarily, became a problematic body to solve, not a relationship I’m in.
It took two hours to put him to bed that night, he kept climbing out. Then he didn’t nap the next day or the next as I kept putting him back over and over again for two more knackering hours. In one of my darker moments I indulged a fantasy of cling filming his whole cot and poking air holes in it like a sort of toddler bio-dome. It had become a battle of wills, a zero sum game, his desires pitted against mine. So ugly, so boring, so unnecessary. But I had momentarily forgotten that truth in my panic, and I slipped into the old relational grammar, my mother tongue of a sadomasochistic** dyad. I tried to coerce him with my mood, showing my displeasure- to be clear I think it’s important for R. to experience me as emotionally congruent and that means expressing my authentic displeasure sometimes, but not as a tool to control him, to get him to do something I want him to. I felt myself wanting to make him comply. I felt so helpless. It is these moments of self-made disempowerment that I am painfully aware of my capacity to enact relational violence: I feel my desperate urge to snuff out his budding agency. It feels like being trapped in a b-grade western: this town ain’t big enough for the both of us, its either you or me kid. Cue a showdown.
One of my most hard -won adult capacities is having a mind of my own. I know how I think and feel most of the time, and I spend allot of time and effort cultivating emotional congruence. I try to be frank, I prize authenticity in myself and my other relationships. And one of the most joyful experiences of motherhood for me has been watching my son’s sense of personal agency emerge. I have delighted in his physical acts of daring, watching him clambering confidently down hills. I have delighted in his finding of no! his asserting of his boundaries. I have loved playing audience to showing off a mind of his own, when he says the surprising thing, the you-couldn’t-make-it-up moments. And I have trusted him to know his own appetite, when he was an infant and he wanted to gorge or fast at the breast, or as a toddler when he wants three spoonfuls of yogurt and a slice of bread for dinner. I more or less trust him and he more or less makes pretty sensible decisions. My trust of his burgeoning independence, my trust of his appetite and validity of his feelings is what makes it possible for me to differentiate what are limits and what are just power struggles waiting to happen. As Janet Lansbury quotes Magda Gerber, sleep is something you can’t make another person do.
On the third day of our sleep stalemate, I bought a Groclock and explained that we were going to have quiet time every afternoon. I had resigned myself to no more blissful, solitary nap times, but I told him I needed to be able to do some reading and writing and nail painting. The essentials. So he could play quietly or read and I was going to do my own thing ‘by myself’ and his new clock would tell us when quiet time was done. After about ten minutes of quiet play R came and put his head on the sofa where I was reading. He told me he was tired and asked if he could go into the cot for a nap. I was stunned. He asked if he could take the clock with him, which I unplugged for him and he fell asleep clutching- he even had his own sense of how he wanted to use the clock, too. I was astonished at the whole sequence of events.
I’d forgotten that I don’t need to force him to do what comes naturally to him. He doesn’t need me to restrain his body, he knows when he is tired and what to do about it. In my panic I had forgotten to trust him, to ‘take my stand in relation to him,’ as Buber would say. What R needed most from me was not a battle of wills but a genuine offer of a choice so he could work out what to do. He needed me to twist the release valve in our deadlocked dyad by opening up a vista of possibilities in response to his shifting appetite for sleep. By climbing out of his cot and not napping he was telling me he is sometimes in the mood to sleep and sometimes he is not and we needed to find a more flexible way of using that time that reflects his developmental age and capacities. I get it now. He was trying to assert himself, trying to show me he is ready to take responsibility for yet another part of his life. I am so grateful to him for reminding me that controlling another human is never the answer. That trust is always the better relational option, even if you don’t quite know what the outcome will be. That opening up the triadic space in between us by offering choices is always the answer to the riddle of dyadic power games.
When I feel the need to grasp and control and force or wield power over someone, it is normally because I have momentarily lost my faith in our mutuality. By mutuality, I think I mean both of our felt experiences being simultaneously valid, even if they are opposed, and perhaps a faith in the ability to communicate and empathise with one another. Although ‘quiet time’ has looked a little different every afternoon since we began doing it a week ago, and he has tested the limits, trying to work out where the edges are, I have regained my faith in us. We will work this out together. That is the difference. Mutuality is a totally different mindset, a completely different way-of-being-with another person. Nobody likes being told what to do, everyone, whether they’re 3 or 35 prefers to make up their own mind, prefers to creatively find their own way. And I’m grateful to my three year old son for having the confidence to grapple this tricky relational dynamic out with me. I’m lucky to have such a strong willed kid.
Copyright 2018 Diana Smith
For a gorgeous philosophical- poetic exploration of mutuality read Buber’s classic, ‘I and thou’
I am indebted to Janet Lansbury’s thinking about sleep issues and respectful parenting. This is one of her great articles on sleep here: http://www.janetlansbury.com/2011/08/how-to-help-your-baby-to-sleep-without-rocking/
**I am also indebted to psychoanalyst Sheldon Bach’s thinking about sadomasochism and triadic space in mother baby dyads which I hope to write about more in depth over the year. His book ‘Getting from here to there: analytic love, analytic process,’ has been so important in forming my understanding of these issues.