Safe harbor

October 19,2010
Professor Mom
Aliki McElreath( )

Aliki is a writer and college English teacher. She lives in North Carolina with her husband, two children (ages seven and ten), a dog, a cat, a rabbit, and too many fish.

T. has a cold. It's not one of those stay-home-from-school colds (thank goodness), but one of those I-feel-cruddy-at-night colds. Most nights, on average, T. sleeps in her own bed until about 6:00 am or so. On weekends she'll wake and come rushing into our room, where she'll climb into bed between us, snuggle down, throw her arm across my neck, and we all go back to sleep--until 8:30 or even 9:00 in the morning. As T.'s grown older, she's been spending more and more time in her own bed, just as I expected she would. But with this cold, she's been coming into our bed at 11:00 at night these past few nights. I'll get into my bed and settle down for sleep and then, before I know it, she's there, burrowing into my back, nestling her face deep into my shoulder, snuffling her way back to sleep. Her need to seek us out when she's not feeling well always strikes me as strange, really, because when I'm sick, I like to be away from people, away in my own private misery, coughing and sniffing and not worried I might be bothering anyone. But I also feel moved, too, that T.'s physical discomfort sends her to us, and that simply being there for her--a warm, familiar body in the night, can do more for her than all the Motrin or Little Noses decongestant in the world. My kids are older now--ten and almost seven. I'm not sure I can call us a co-sleeping family anymore, the way I did when they were younger. L. slept in our bed on and off until his sister was born, and then he slept on a mattress next to our bed for another six months, then every now and then he'd come into our room, dragging his blankets and sleeping bag behind him like Linus. Now he's an intensely private person at night, preferring his own space and his own personal configuration to his blankets and pillows. He sleeps with a clackety fan blowing right onto his face, and a light on and, usually, a pile of books and/or papers stacked up around him. There wouldn't be room for half those things in our bed, so I'm glad he's happy in his own space. I still remember wondering, what seems like centuries ago, when oh when I'd ever get to sleep without worrying about a child's body, curled up next to me. I still remember how frustrated I sometimes felt, positioned so my arm would go numb and tingly, that I couldn't roll over and toss about the blankets without a care in the world. I slept, hyper-conscious and fitfully, always seeing, even in my sleep, the tiny baby nestled next to me. So many of those childhood milestones have come and gone, and I know we'll never see them again. They belong to the past, and they will stay there, firmly rooted in other places and times. I know I will never nurse my kids again, or feel their little hands splayed out across my chest while I doze and they nurse and I doze some more. And the pacing at night, the endless rocking, the singing-to-sleep, the dancing-to-sleep, those convoluted sandman tricks are done and, even if I once couldn't wait for them to end, I still miss them now and again, of course I do. There are no sippy cups left in our kitchen cabinets, although T. still uses the same cereal bowl I mixed her first cereals in, all those years ago. My kids are losing so many teeth now I've lost track. Those little baby teeth, slips of white, impossibly small, are going fast. With the loss of each one I remember again the first time ever I saw it poke through the gums, turning my baby's gummy smiles almost overnight into something different--someone different; a hint of who they would become. I cleaned out the closet a couple of weeks ago and found an old diaper bag. In one pocket there was a half-squeezed tube of Balmex, slightly crusty at the cap. Balmex! There was a time we couldn't even fathom leaving the house without it and yet how quickly, how soundlessly and without fanfare it dropped from our lives, along with those diapers and tubs of wipes. I can see, right there in my line of vision, the time when T. will no longer come to us, in the wee hours of the morning, or at night, when she's sick. We might go to her, as my parents came to me when I was older, with medicine, or a cool hand on my forehead, or a drink of water, but she'll outgrow this need for her parents' bodies as safe harbor. I wonder if the imprint of my children's bodies will always be there, at night, in our bed, in my dreams.