My 4-year-old daughter, Zelda, was pinned down in a hospital cot that looked like a cage, her sleeping face wrapped in bandages securing electrodes. Her quivering body lay next to Shmutzy, her pink stuffed cat, nearly her size.
This is just a sleep study, I consoled myself, yet no one had warned me about all the circuitry. Zelda was sensitive; she found shining a flashlight in her ear too invasive. She’d been hysterical for two hours as the brusque technician wired her up to sensors and oxygen monitors that rose up her nose. I’d been forbidden to hold or even touch her. Yiddish lullabies had never been more useless.
Finally, Zelda zonked out. But when her whimpering resumed, I couldn’t take it anymore. I leapt from my cot to her cage.
The technician bolted in. “Do not touch her,” she mouthed.
But this study was a terrible mistake. Zelda’s troubled sleep was not medical, I was sure, but behavioral, psychological. A fault of my parenting, my personality. Maybe even my DNA. Certainly, my fault.
The day Zelda was born, she was alert like a soldier guard, watching every interaction, shunning slumber. “She’s so engaged,” the nurses cooed. But I worried she was already like me.
I came from a Canadian family of Holocaust survivors who suffered from mental illness. Having had their worlds broken apart, everything taken from them, both my grandmother and mother were compulsive hoarders who struggled with severe depression, anxiety, and paranoia. My domestic life was chaotic, people up at all hours. My European grandparents put to me to bed at 11 p.m.—if I wanted. From a lineage of peril and flight, I was a hyper-vigilant insomniac who fainted during blood tests and when putting in contact lenses.
My calm husband, Jon, came from a disciplined British household. His cousins still mock him, at 45, for his childhood 6 p.m. bedtime. Jon reacted against his upbringing, shunning structure, whereas I wanted to avoid my family’s insomnia curse. I dreamed of sleep schedules, 7 to 7, strict.
The culture supported me, experts warning parents to be consistent in teaching babies to sleep alone. When Zelda was 8 weeks old, our pediatrician suggested cry-it-out, leaving her for 12 hours. My gut felt she was too young, but at 3 months, when the babies from my moms’ group were doing eight-hour stretches, Zelda woke every 90 minutes. Formula supplements helped her doze—sometimes. We waited six months for her sleep to extend naturally. It didn’t.
I’d put Zelda down and distract myself by organizing kitchen cupboards while she cried, pleased when she quieted. Then I’d check the video monitor to see Jon smothering her in kisses. It felt like all our parents, whole generations were perched on the edge of that crib.
One night, when Jon was out, I left Zelda. Within minutes, she vomited and was aspirating. I flew over, shaking and terrified. Later, Dr. Google explained that parents were supposed to leave children in vomit. Otherwise, babies would manipulate you by retching. I couldn’t. I felt guilty for doing this to her, and, guilty for not doing it.
Jon and I attempted moderation, but after eons of rocking and singing, flirting with Ferber, sampling swaddling couture, rearranging nap times, meal times, drink times, and studying “tiredness” cues, we lost our voices and minds. We tried cry-it-out again. Zelda shrieked upright in her crib from 7 p.m. to 1 a.m., falling asleep standing up. Worried she’d hit her head, we caved and went in.
Friends (who radiated, thanks to their extreme amounts of beauty sleep) offered tips: Did you try making the room dark? No, we’re idiots. What about a sound machine? Sound machine? We’ve tried waves, white noise, electronic lullabies, and baby slideshows. Our pediatrician tsk-ed us; we hadn’t listened to her eight-week plan. A colleague shamed me at a meeting: “Man up, Judy. Lock the door and walk out.”
Not having achieved a five-hour stretch of sleep in nearly a year, we were delirious. We hired a sleep consultant. She assessed Zelda’s personality (problem-solver, required wind-down time) and our marital personality (ambivalent). She devised a plan honed hourly based on text message reports I’d send crouched behind the crib. I taught Zelda to fall asleep by holding her down on her stomach and nudging her head against a stuffed cow, my 5-foot-1 figure on tippy toes and humped over the crib’s edge, back aching, body sweating, Zelda howling for a full hour, until I heard little snores. At first, it worked, and I sat outside her bedroom door as she dozed off. But weeks later, Jon and I found ourselves taking turns parading the stroller through Times Square at 10 p.m.—only the neon lights and European tourists seemed to calm her.
As Zelda grew, I surmised that her sleep-resistance was related to her alert personality. Other toddlers sat in highchairs, gleefully suckling on grilled cheeses; I spent hours pacing diners, chasing Zelda as she over-involved herself with the waitstaff. As a preschooler, she was aware of conversations I assumed she didn’t hear and couldn’t understand (“Mommy, how come some women need medicine to have babies?”). She covered her ears during airplane safety announcements. “I don’t want to think about the bad stuff.” I was horrified that—through nature, nurture, or likely both—I passed a heritage of panicked unrest to my little girl.
Then, at Zelda’s 4-year-old checkup, her pediatrician noted that her tonsils seemed engorged. An ENT took one look: “If Zelda’s tonsils were any smaller, they’d be enormous.” The bags under her eyes might not be from tiredness, he explained, but swollen adenoids, which usually accompanied large tonsils. These tissues could be blocking her nighttime airflow, causing apnea, leading to wake-ups. He suggested removing the tonsils and adenoids.
Surgery? “No!” Jon had enlarged tonsils, and even as an adult, he was always sick. Zelda hadn’t had one ear infection, nary a case of strep throat. I explained that her disordered sleep was a long, complicated process, personality rather than pathology. Zelda was miraculously healthy.
“You can do a sleep study to confirm.” The doctor eyed me skeptically.
Now, at the study, I headed to grab my girl.
“Leave her,” the technician scolded me. “She’s having an apnea episode.”
“She’s crying because this is the worst experience of her life,” I accused.
“She’s waking because her oxygen is low.”
“No,” I still insisted. “She’s stuffed up by the phlegm from her crying.”
The technician sighed before walking off.
I stood in the fluorescent lights, clutched the linoleum walls. Could it be true? Our years of sleeplessness were not due to unresolved conflicts spurred on by the burdensome emotional legacy of the Holocaust but to swollen nasal tissue?
I’d been so eager to blame my psychological makeup over my husband’s physical one. Why had I assumed so firmly that it was my fault? Sure, mothers are routinely held accountable for their children’s health habits. Plus, I was emotionally drenched with generations of survivor guilt, of not-having-done-enough, and I carried around an inflated sense of failure and responsibility. But more than all that, as much as I dreaded my daughter suffering from my pain, it was reassuring to feel that she was like me, that her challenges were similar to my own, that my arsenal of coping mechanisms would be adequate. I thought of all those who’d rolled their eyes at my lack of rigor. But so much of parenting had to do with the individual child we had birthed, her peculiarities and peccadilloes. Zelda was her own person, a blended vintage made of tangled roots, stamped with the unknown. I had to recognize that she’d have her own tastes in food, friends, fashion, and one day, love—predilections that may stem from Jon, or neither of us, and be so far from my own.
Two weeks later, the ENT called. Zelda’s apnea bordered on “severe.”
I signed the surgical release forms.
Before the procedure, Zelda was given steroids to reduce the swelling. Zelda slept through. I jumped up at 2 a.m., panicked that she’d suffocated, shocked to see her schluffing peacefully.
Zelda’s surgery was successful. Plus, her eating improved, now that she could swallow and taste. Her bedtime still comprises hours of wind-down, but most nights, our apartment is graced with a nocturnal hum instead of howls.
I, of course, wake up regularly at 3:30 a.m. But watching my gently exhaling girl, I comfort myself hoping that, at last, anguish was working its way out of my family line.
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Judy Batalion is the author of White Walls: A Memoir About Motherhood, Daughterhood, and the Mess in Between. Her forthcoming book is about Jewish women who fought in the resistance against the Nazis.