On a cold winter morning, I tromped through the snow towards the gym at my high school in Concord, MA. I had two number 2 pencils, and my game face on. I was ready - prepped by the handsome Jimmy from The Princeton Review - to take my SAT's or at least in my estimation that morning, kick a#% and take names. An hour later, I was in the thick of ... is it A or D or perhaps B. For some reason a passage on the vegetation of southern China was really holding me up. It went something like this ... main idea of the passage is .... the vegetation of southern China (a), the mating habits of the panda (b), the rise of industrial cities in China (c), and all of the above (d). Here's the thing ... the answer was of course - A - but yet there I sat approaching the passage like it was written in Chaucerian Middle English and needed a close, careful analysis. Sadly this process repeated itself again and again - I found myself pondering the meaning of "syllable" or the concept of an "opposite". The word problems - you know the ones with the two trains coming from two different directions at two different speeds - really weighed me down. The clock ticked on, the erasers on my pencils slowly disappeared, and when time was called just before lunch I was a weepy mess.
This story eventually has a happy ending; I ended up at Brown where I could use my analytical mind to abandon. However between that miserable Saturday morning and my eventual college applications, there were a lot of difficult conversations, bad news in the mail, and repeated attempts to not "over think" the test. I think the worst part about it was hearing a boy in my class wave his amazing scores around and claim over and over again that he had taken the test stoned.
13 years later, give or take a few weeks, I sat in my living room and then my bedroom, and then the hallway outside of my son's room listening to him cry and cry and cry and cry. That morning at the playground the plan had sounded so easy: feed him, burp him, give him a kiss and say good night, close the door and don't go back until the morning. Just like the SAT's right? If they want the main idea, give them the main idea. If they want to know where the trains meet, tell them it's Chicago - answer (c). Don't over think it, actually don't even think about it.
But that was my problem, I could not stop thinking about it - his wails, his crying. They would stop for a few minutes and just as I was finally inhaling and drying my own tears, he would start again. My husband was like the test booklet, asking over and over, "what do you want to do?", and I would dive deeper into my head. I was working, and he was in day care. Did he now - crying himself to sleep at 6 months - think that I did not love him? Was he giving up on me? Losing his trust in me? I would throw my hands up walk towards his door to go get him - answer (a), but then stop and go back to my spot on the couch - answer (b).
I wish I can say that this story ends as happily as my SAT anecdote. To make a long Tolstoy-esque story short(er), I ended up getting him sometimes and not getting him other times. Like my relationships with standardized tests, I could not be consistent. He eventually learned to sleep through the night despite all of my mistakes - and there were so many.
So am I condemning 'cry it out' sleep training, otherwise known as "extinction" in the sleep world? Absolutely not. Was it the wrong plan for me? Yes! Some of my closest, most loving friends, have done beautifully letting their babies cry it out. They are consistent - admirably consistent - and it works. Sometimes as a parent, you have to be honest with yourself about yourself. I know that I can't be consistent when it comes to letting my children cry it out. I can however by consistent with bedtime routines and sleep behaviors. I can be consistent with nap times and bedtimes - sometimes to a fault - just ask my husband. Perhaps this is the happy ending, the same reflective spirit that nearly killed my college dreams helped me see and thus understand my limitations as well as my strengths - hidden in the shadows - as a parent.