When I put you down for sleep, you believe it’s a game, and I believe it’s a war. One I am losing. For one, the pacifier no longer pacifies you. You’d prefer a breast, but you’ll settle for a hand. You flail your arms and legs, spit you pacifier out, and then wait to spring your trap like some nocturnal predator. I put my hand in the crib to replace your pacifier, and you spring upon me. Your saliva-soaked mittens grasp at my hand while your legs grip my wrist. You open your mouth wide and move your head back and forth like a gaping vacuum cleaner that desperately desires to get off of the carpet and suck up a curtain instead.
You latch onto the thick part of my palm near the base of my thumb. As your gums separate my muscle from tendon, crimp my veins, and stretch my skin beyond its elastic limit, I develop the deepest, most primal respect for your mother. Not because it helps me to appreciate what it’s like for a mother to nurse her baby, but instead, because it clarifies that my brain is incapable of accurately hypothesizing such as a sensation. When I try, a shiver goes down my spine and my pecs quiver.
When I extract my palm from your mouth and thrust the pacifier back in its place, I already know what you’ll do, and I know that I am powerless to stop it. You will flail your arms until I hold them down to settle you. Then, you will gently spit your pacifier out next to your mouth and wait for my hand to arrive. If I delay, you will pout, and if I am strong, you will frown your face into an imitation of deep, disappointed sadness until I break. When my hand goes to the pacifier, your mouth goes to my hand, and we start the process over.
I adapt, though, and begin to hold one of your arms up and the other down so your cheek can rest against my hand while it holds your arm down and your pacifier in place. After five years of college and two degrees, this was my proudest contribution to society. I had learned to use my two hands to accomplish more than two things, and you, in turn, learned to move your head to the other side, spit your pacifier out, and then jerk your head back to my hand before it moved.
I wish I could tell your mother that I was calm and diligent and gently kept to our protocol of incremental assistance during these exchanges, but I did not. I knew what you were doing, and I could not bear to be outsmarted by a baby. My competitiveness kicked in, and if my high school athletic career was a disappointment with occasional moments of exhilarating mediocrity, I wondered if in fighting a baby’s hands I might finally satisfy that desperate desire for varsity glory. What ensued was most akin to a tennis volley while my hands flew against all of your appendages in an attempt to make you so still that your only option was to sleep. It seldom worked.
Sometimes, as a cheap shot when I know that you’re winning, I give you a knuckle instead of my palm to suck on. Each time I do this, you try diligently for a moment before you realize what I’ve done, look into my eyes, and slowly, forcefully, bite straight down until I know your toothless gums have cracked my knuckle like a walnut and you are surely extracting the marrow from my delicate finger bones.
Through it all, my posture erodes. A perfect metaphor for my life. I start upright, but as time goes on, I increasingly rely on your crib frame to support my aching back muscles until I look like a dead man draped over a fence. My face rests a mere handful of inches from your face, and my hands continue to fly against yours. It’s a scene better reserved for a Disney movie rather than real life – a nearsighted Gepetto frantically working to constrain his latest enchanted and troublesome creation…a baby.
My only excuse is that you are freakishly strong. Nothing as small as you and as pudgy as you has any business having the strength that you have. It’s a mystery to me from where it comes—you are, after all, seemingly exclusively made up of interlocking fat rolls. Like a Lego set, but instead of sharply cornered, hard pieces, you’re assembled from squishy innertubes. Even so, you overpower me, and I have to acknowledge the truth that every sportscaster asserts upon every underdog win. You wanted the win more than I did. You outhustled me. You were tenacious, relentless, and you came to play.
Your physical strength isn’t your only weapon though. Sometimes you pursue a psychological tact. When you know the game isn’t going your way, you take a breather to look at me with eyes wide with excitement and smile. Psychologically, it’s devastating for me. Your message is clear, you are thrilled that even though we both know that you’re supposed to be going to sleep, instead, I have broken all the rules and decided to play an exciting game with you. You suggest that you are likely more awake now than when we started your bedtime routine. The first time I heard you laugh, actually, was fifteen minutes after you were supposed to have gone to sleep in your crib. It was a hysterical, uncoordinated giggle at the sheer thrill of my pathetic efforts to wrangle your hands, legs, and mouth.
Although she hasn’t told me this, and I haven’t asked her, I think your mother has seen all this unfold on the baby monitor. I think so because of her casual comments to me. Once, she told me that when things became desperate, she found that putting a bounce in her step helped you fall asleep. She reenacted her methodology for me, and I watched her gracefully sway around our living room like a ballerina. She has always been such a beautiful woman.
I knew that I could not do what she did, but I tried it one night anyway. I am, after all, an optimist that believes in miracles. Doubly delusional. I scooped you up and staggered around your nursery like a blitzed narcissist, but it did nothing to soothe you. Eventually, though, you found my bicep and sucked on it like the night you were born. Drool streamed down my forearm, and I woke the next morning to find a hicky bruising out of my arm and a vague memory of both of us drifting in and out of sleep.
One of my great fears is that during these protracted intervals of struggle I lose my mind to selfish thoughts and grow frustrated, angry, and irritated with you. For this, I have employed the help of the most calming voice known to man—David Attenborough. When I can feel the blood start to pulse against the back of my eyes, I know it’s time to summon the muse himself to tether me back to the extraordinary reality in front of me. I begin silently narrating your calculated actions against my hopeless struggles in the vein of Planet Earth. You have been named, in my best British accent, a jaguar, a lemur, a howler monkey, and a holy terror. It works splendidly. I cannot help but become fascinated with you when forced to describe your behavior. Time goes on, and eventually we all fall asleep.
Unless, that is, my own body commits subterfuge against me.