This week's beautiful words come from a good friend of mine, Ryvenna. Ryvenna was due a few months before me with her daughter in 2014, and through-out our pregnancies and way into motherhood her texts and messages would help me feel a little less alone during sleepless nights and endless days. She is one of the most patient, generous and authentic people that I know and it really makes me happy to publish her story.
When I wake up in the morning, it’s often because my nipples are aching. With my two and a half year old still nursing and often switching from side to side every few minutes in the hour before she wakes, I rarely wake because I’ve slept enough. Eventually, her eyes will open but she’ll keep nursing as I pet her fair hair, curls slightly damp from a sweaty night’s sleep. My bladder will finally announce that it’s time to get up, and I tell her I need to use the bathroom, waiting for the first words she tells me most mornings, a predictable, “Up, up!” Resisting is futile, because frankly, I can’t be bothered to deal with a meltdown ten minutes after I’ve opened my eyes, and before I’m really fully awake myself. So my 99th percentile toddler gets scooped up in my arms, and we head off to the bathroom together. I pee holding her, and most mornings she grudgingly, laughingly accepts that I will not let her nurse while I pee.
On the weekends, my husband will manage to occasionally bribe her with some fruit snacks and a cartoon to let me sleep for an additional half an hour. I know that half an hour later, I’ll wake to her frustrated cries as he tries to convince her to let me keep sleeping, so I rarely manage to get back to bed. I’ve been tired since I was in my second trimester. At coming up on three years old, my daughter has never “slept through the night”. She’s usually asleep by nine pm, and will wake between midnight at two to nurse, again sometime before she’s in the “waking” phase, and then will drift between breasts for her last hour, usually waking fully before seven.
I don’t love the term “high needs”. I think of myself as a gentle parent who adapts to my daughter’s needs. A sensitive mama. But when I see mothers who are able to carry quiet infants around in a carseat, letting them calmly look around while they enjoy a long lunch in a restaurant, I don’t identify with their experience. My daughter nursed around the clock, needed to be worn in a Moby wrap, and would not sleep on her own. I remember obsessively reading “Back to Sleep” literature about babies needing to sleep on their own, solid surfaces on their backs. My daughter slept on my chest or my husband’s for the first four months. I remember about two hours in three chunk where I managed to get her resting in the Arm’s Reach cosleeper I’d purchased for her while I was pregnant. I texted my sister, I danced in my living room, and then realized that it wasn’t going to work. I could get two hours of sleep with her on top of me, or half an hour (after two solid hours of failed attempts) with her in the cosleeper. So we moved our mattress to the floor with our side up against the wall, removed my pillows and sheet and blanket, and I made do with socks and sweatpants in bed for the first year. After that, I reintroduced a blanket around my waist and a light pillow. When she turned two I let a fluffier pillow back into my life, and let myself wrap a blanket around her waist as well. She sleeps most of the night with her head on my arm, and I leave the room, I still keep the baby monitor on because I know she’ll wake shortly without me there.
My daughter is distracted by my grandmother, my sister, or my husband from time to time, but her unwavering focus directs like a laser beam onto me for the vast majority of the time. When she senses that I’m trying to let Dada run the show for a minute, she immediately rejects him, pushing him off the couch and telling him that he can’t play with us. You can practically hear the sound of my husband’s heart breaking every time. He took lower-paying jobs for the first two years of her life so that he could work from home to be near her. His lunch breaks were spent on snuggling her down for naps as she kicked and screamed, fighting sleep. If I’m not around, they’re the best of friends.
In the last month, I’ve been able to plop her in front of the TV in the morning for long enough to take a shower. Not long enough to also throw some makeup on my face, but it’s enough for now. Two months ago, each shower was a tear-filled event with her begging me to pick her up, to nurse her, to watch a show with her, to play with her, to do anything other than leave her side for the fifteen minutes it takes to lather my hair and shave my legs in steamy water. I resorted more than once to reapplying deodorant, running dry shampoo through my hair, and spraying on a layer of body oil so that I could dry shave. I could probably count on one hand the number of times I’ve been able to poop in privacy in her lifetime.
I’ve gotten a lot of judgement over this. If you don’t set boundaries now, she’ll walk all over you for the rest of your life. You’re spoiling her by indulging her like this. She has to know who’s in charge. But I know my daughter. I know that pushing her toward something when she’s not ready doesn’t work. She has an innate sense of what she needs, and she knows how to ask for it. And I know how to give it to her 95 times out of a 100. I do try to explain is that adapting to a high-needs child is not the same as giving in to every demand. It’s about knowing when to pick your battles. Her emotional needs are very real, and they are not wants. They are needs. She is still nursed, we cosleep, I carry her often. Because without these physical connections, her emotional needs are not being met.
Her emotional landscape paints her perspective of the world. Many of her conversations revolve around the way she feels, and they are often the first things she wants to discuss in a recollection of her day. “I cried this morning because I was sad when you wanted me to put my shoes on the other feet” is not an unusual thing to hear from her. Neither is “I think about you all day when you’re gone, Mama”. She is able to understand emotional nuance that I find startling in a two year old. She offers to care for those around her when they say they’re sick or in pain. She initiates telling people that she loves them and enjoys their company.
Indulging a need for physical connection does not lead to a spoiled child. At two and a half, my daughter is articulate and polite, caring, and concerned. That said, she’s still a toddler. Occasionally, I’ll still get her coming up to me, grabbing at my shirt, and an obnoxious, “Nurse!” Most of the time, pointing out that isn’t the most polite way to ask will elicit another, nicer ask. When it doesn’t, I ask her where her beautiful manners went, and we explore the inside of her mouth, giggling, until I miraculously discover them, reposition them so that she can once again access them, and she happily uses the manners we both know she possesses. She helps set the table, has running jokes with the adults around her, tells me she loves “family dinner”, and feeds the cats.
What I will tell you, if you’re reading this while holding your high-needs baby, is good luck. Not sarcastically, but lovingly. Good luck, because I needed it. High needs babies do not suddenly become easygoing toddlers. I have shown up to events two hours late, and bailed at the last minute, and avoided making plans entirely with parents who have a different parenting experience than I do. Those folks who can just throw their kid in the car and show up to pretty much anything on time? We don’t have a ton in common. That said, on nights when I need to stay late at work for a Board meeting, she goes down okay with my husband. We’re finally starting to get in date nights, since we recently moved closer to my sister who is the Toddler Whisperer and can also get her down. When we need her to adapt, she often surprises us with how easily she can do so.
I doubted myself a lot. It’s hard to ignore people telling you to let them cry it out, make them walk, force them to potty-train, or wean them before either one of you is ready. But I learned quickly that I could trust my child. She’s not making it up when she says she needs me, and she wasn’t “manipulating” me when she couldn’t sleep without being held as an infant. When I tried something that didn’t work for her, I learned that adapting to something that did (with a good amount of trial and error) was always the best solution. I didn’t have a lot of friends to reach out to commiserate with on tough days when I was trying to enforce a useless sleep schedule and it (literally) took me three hours to get my then one year old to sleep at night. But we got there. It got easier in stages as she became more verbal. It got easier once we realized that giving her space to deal with her emotions while remaining calm helped. We work, together, on taking deep breaths when she’s upset, and on asking her if she wants to talk, or needs a hug.
I don’t think I need to tell you that I love my daughter. That she’s the center of my universe. That she and I are pals in a way that I didn’t realize you could be with a toddler. But just in case you needed to know, I wouldn’t change a thing about her. There will come a time when I will not nurse her to sleep, when she will not want me to carry her, when I don’t wake up with the scent of her warm, toddler body filling my nose. And if she always wants to cuddle up to read a book or watch a movie together? I’m down with that.
And kiddo, if someday you read this on whatever version of the Internet exists when you’re old enough to care about parenting advice… I love you “to the moon and to the back”. You weren’t an easy little one to parent, but you were totally awesome.