[The smile we are sacrificing at night to preserve in the long run]
Last night as I sat rocking my half asleep fifteen month old in the glider at 4am I thought of you. I thought, I'm going to tell them about this as its happening, not 4 months down the line when its all sorted out. Normally I only write about things I have figured out. So here is something I absolutely have not figured out but I'm going to write about it anyway.
Max still nurses at night. A couple days ago, like the discovery of an overdue jury duty notice behind fridge, the issue of toddler tooth decay hit me like a freight car. Three months ago he had six teeth and had whittled his way down to 1 middle of the night nursing. It was then that I read something in New Basics about tooth decay in full term breast fed babies who continue to nurse multiple times in the night beyond one year. I vowed to get right on that. But somehow he is now 15 months, has eight teeth, and is nursing 3 times a night. Darn it.
The night before last as he writhed around at night searching for his warm milk, I stared at him helplessly. Except for those rare inconvenient moments on a subway platform, I'd never done this. That is, watching him cry without offering the breast. I rubbed his belly. He screamed. I said shhh. He screamed. I panicked. I offered him the breast. Okay, total mom fail.
Last night, I was determined that things would be different. As we snuggled up in the family bed, we had a sippy cup of warm water waiting. We explained to him how things would be different tonight and why. Several hours later, presumably at the end of a sleep cycle, he woke up searching. As I watched his long strong body writhe around I realized that he was no longer a tiny babe with a physiological need to eat at night. Although it's happened so fast and it is difficult to accept, he is becoming a little boy. As he continued to writhe, getting louder and louder it dawned on me that this wasn't a simple issue of dental hygeine or even scheduling.
I know the value of sacrificing short term pleasures for long term gain and of course I do it daily. It is not always a pleasant task to face but it's a vital one. As a mom (or in the words of suburbansnapshots "a grown-ass woman") it's my turn, my obligation to teach that to Max. As mom, I long to cradle him and give him everything. But I realize that a mother's love is not helpful in every form, in fact it might not even be love.
Years down the line I imagined him with rotting and prematurely extracted baby teeth, made fun of on the playground, wincing when he tries to eat carrots or worse... an undisciplined, spoiled, weak adult. Because of my need to coddle? Harsh thoughts, but all possible outcomes of not being taught to sacrifice the pleasure of comfort and familiarity for the benefit of presently invisible gain. So now, knowing what I know about tooth decay, I realize that every time I nurse him during the night I teach him self-indulgence and procrastination and I am in a sense enabling his own self-destruction. Yikes.
As we sat in the darkness and began the indefinite cycle of crying, groping for milk, drifting to sleep and crying again, trading him back and forth between the two of us, I looked at the clock and realized that this was also an issue of self-discipline and sacrifice for us. I remembered the dreaded sleep training tactic, the psychological arguments against it, and how just as night nursing our way to cavities is an easy way out, sleep training is also in many ways an easy way out. Both involve a degree of "closing the door" and letting your child sort out the consequences. As time-consuming and confusing as it may be, I'd rather he undergo this transition in our arms knowing that we are here to support and experience it with him. In the moments of quiet I explained to him notions about tooth decay and personal sacrifice. I know that he understands a lot and for what he doesn't understand, I imagine that he at least draws some comfort from the fact that mom is trying to explain something.
In that middle-of-the-night-philosopher kind of way I struggled to make sense of what was happening. From a metaphysical perspective, I know that the arrival of teeth is an indicator of deeper developmental changes.Thoughts surfaced of Steiner's take on teeth representing the positioning of the soul on the physical body. So while he is still an infant, the baby teeth signal the fact that he is a developing person ready to absorb life's lessons, even some of the tougher ones.
So last night we basically stayed awake from 4am until the sun came up. Then we played a little and for the first time in many days I felt myself really present with him. We were connecting, communicating and laughing in a deeper way. An unexpected consequence of starting this new leg of our parent-child journey? I hope! When the sun came up he nursed a little and fell asleep. Not a perfect night I know, but it's a start.