Stop Doing, Start Being

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From the day he was born, Benjamin, my four-year-old, has fought sleep. No season of my life has been as difficult as the newborn days of exhaustion we faced as we attempted to care for an infant who never slept. He had to be sleeping on one of us or sleep simply wouldn’t happen. When he was awake, he was crying , because he was just so tired.

After reading a great piece by Auntie Leila over at Like Mother, Like Daughter that offers explanations for why kids are whining, I started to pay more attention to behavioral differences between a well-rested Benjamin and a tired Benjamin. At four-and-a-half he still desperately needs a nap because he only sleeps 8-9 hours a night (and no, if he skips the nap he doesn’t sleep any longer). When I started to pay attention to the difference between napping days and days he refuses to sleep, I was startled by how obvious it was: the whining and meltdowns happen because the poor kid’s exhausted. When he gets a decent nap, he’s cheerful, cooperative, and delightful (ok, MOST of the time.) Naptime is a must at our house. Even if he can’t fall asleep, he’s expected to play with LEGOs quietly in his room and listen to audiobooks while I rest with the baby or get some work done.

Naptime to me means accomplishing something: whether catching up on sleep or catching up on writing. But lately, I’ve been paying attention to these thought patterns and reminding myself that motherhood isn’t about productivity. And I love what Calah said recently about learning that parenting isn’t what’s important, being a parent is: so stop obsessing over methodology, be the parent your children need. I’ve been thinking about that.

I was feeling irritated when Benjamin was calling out for various things at naptime last week: a glass of water, a different CD, more stuffed animals. “Just put your head on the pillow, bud! Close your eyes and go to sleep!” I barked. “But Mama! I need you!” I closed the door and walked away annoyed, convinced he just wouldn’t fall asleep and I wouldn’t get a break.

But then I remembered my son as a baby, needing me in order to fall asleep. “But Mama! I need you!” and I felt compelled to go back in, to stop trying to accomplish something and just be his mother. I climbed in bed with him and put my arm around him. He grinned and sighed, “thanks for snuggling with me!

His body relaxed, he started breathing deeply, and in two minutes he had passed out. In his sleep, he readjusted his limbs and put his little arm around me. I knew I could sneak out, get something done: write a post, work on the book, tackle the laundry and dishes and sticky floors. But I just stayed there, breathing with him, drifting in and out of sleep until Baby Gwen called out for me.

Now that we’re starting to move out of newborn survival mode into a daily rhythm, I needed this sweet reminder to simply be a mother and not do mothering. To stop doing and start being. To “waste” time with my babies, like Pope Francis tells us to do, so that they know that “love is always free.”

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  1. says

    Get out of my head, Haley! I have been dealing with sleep issues as Walt transitions from infant to toddler and have come to this exact conclusion. Lists of things I “needed” to get done were rolling through my head while I nursed a baby who refused to nap, but as a friend said, “Baby cuddles don’t last.” We are rearranging the budget to find a babysitter for two hours a day, four days a week, so that we have structured work time for writing and blog re-designing (DIYing that is HARD) and, most important in the deadline sense, finishing my HypnoBirthing certification. More structure is so good for all of us. Also, my Walter has never fought sleep, but sleep still begets sleep! The less he naps, the harder it is to get him down at night and the harder it is to keep him asleep. I am so thankful for breastfeeding, because it lets him sleep more, and lets his tiny brain and body relax and grow and learn during that precious time.

    • Haley says

      Aw, sweet Walt! I need some structured writing time. Maybe after the holidays we’ll readjust our weekly routine.

  2. says

    Ah, so beautiful!!! And yes, sleep makes all the difference in the world for so many children. It makes me so sad how many kids are labeled, medicated, screamed at, abused, or just spend years unhappy when the poor things are just plain exhausted.
    And who knew the pope said that?!? That is AWESOME. And something I am horribly bad at and need to work on.

  3. says

    That is exactly what me and my husband have been doing for the past three years. Jacob needed somebody to fall asleep with. As my husband said, that was his favorite parenting responsibility:) Then last week, out of the blue, Jacob decided that he is a big boy and will fall asleep by himself! No struggle, no fighting, no feeling guilty!

    • Haley says

      I usually feel so spent by naptime that I desperately need ALONE time. But I think I just need to readjust my expectations and enjoy snuggling as long as my boy will let me 🙂

  4. Pat says

    What a beautiful post, and what a wise young woman you are! I’m at an entirely different season in my life and it still inspires me to be reminded that I’m a human BEING, not a human ‘doing’! lol. If I made a “To BE” list for today, I wonder what I would accomplish, purely coincidentally. 🙂 Thanks for sharing your thoughts and your beautiful family. <3

  5. Caitlin says

    I read your blog religiously but have never commented before… I feel compelled, however, to thank you for this entry as the sleep struggle has been one with which we have dealt since day one with our boy and are now revisiting as he turns two. It is so, so very difficult to maintain patience and grace during this time when Liam so desperately “neeeeeeds” us (and we so desperately need sleep, and time, and peace). Your entry helps to refocus me on the call of this season of my parenting journey and helps to remind me that I am not alone in muddling through!

    • Haley says

      Thanks for taking the time to comment, Caitlin (it’s so hard with little ones to find a minute to do it!). You are soooo not alone. Some kids just need more help falling asleep and staying asleep and there’s not a “solution” except patience and time. The good news is that with all his sleep challenges, he does sleep well through the night once he gets to sleep and has slept through the night except when he’s sick for a couple of years. So your time of getting some more sleep and peace may be around the corner ; ) Hang in there, mama!

  6. Mary Keane says

    I think my Anthony (age 3) is a lot like your Ben. Lately he’s stopped going to sleep by himself. So frustrating, because he is definitely tired out. But if I lie down with him I’m sure to conk out too or else I can’t with the toddler getting into mischief. And all that other stuff does need to happen, as nice as it would be to just “be”! Always trying to get that balance right.

  7. Mary Keane says

    I think my Anthony (age 3) is a lot like your Ben. Lately he’s stopped going to sleep by himself. So frustrating, because he is definitely tired out. But if I lie down with him I’m sure to conk out too or else I can’t with the toddler getting into mischief. And all that other stuff does need to happen, as nice as it would be to just “be”! Always trying to get that balance right.

    • Haley says

      Such a hard balance. I feel like I’m constantly readjusting it, “OK, the house is a disaster, time to make some to-do lists and get it done” and then the next week, “Have I even stopped to play with my kids today?” I’ll probably be figuring out the balance for the rest of my days, haha.

  8. says

    So beautiful! I have to remind myself of the same thing when my toddle needs me to take a nap with him still. It just doesn’t work unless he sleeps in my arms. Some days I just sit and watch him sleep even though there are so many things I “should” be doing instead.

    • Haley says

      Aw, love that. When I let myself just watch my babies sleep, I’m always struck with how precious they are and how I love them, even if we’ve had a rough day. Like a little gift reminding me why it’s all so good (even when it is so hard.)

  9. Katherine says

    Haley your writing enriches so many lives, thank you for sending out your thoughts.
    I agree, you will look back on this time and realize they were so little for such a short time. Mine are all adults now.
    Here’s a tip to get a three or four-year-old to nap, doesn’t always work but it’s worth a shot. Ask them what they need to go to sleep. They have such a strong sense of fairness at that age that sometimes they will absolutely honor the bargain if you give them what they ask. Good luck!

  10. says

    So true! We’ve got a whiny 3 yo over here at Casa Elder. And when I actually take the time to listen to her complaints, get down on her level, usually everything can be fixed with a hug (fancy that!). It’s hard though, now that whining has become a pattern, to keep my temper from being the first thing to flare instead of patience and love (I know love flares, but can patience? I think I like the idea of a burning, intentional patience…).
    Time to go “be” a Mama! Feeling some mom-idarity with you today in WA!

    • Haley says

      Mom-idarity! Whining has been a huge issue over here lately. Lucy just discovered it and Benjamin falls into it. And then if I lose it, everything snowballs and gets real horrible, real fast. Whew. I need so much grace in that department!

  11. Sherry says

    What a TIMELY post! I woke up (late) this morning KICKING myself and thinking that I should have listened to my sister (the “bedtime Nazi”) and put my babies through the “cry it out” method so I can have some ME time. My 3 year old has slept ON or NEAR me to fall asleep since he came home from the hospital. Now, nearly 4 yrs later, I am exhausted and DONE with this routine. Last night, the perfect example. He was in the bed with me and daddy….snuggling up against me SO TIGHT he is nearly on top or under me. This, I confess, I love….until about 3am when his tossing and turning and kicking has kept me from a deep slumber. I moved him to his bed, as I usually do, only to hear him cry out a few minutes later. As I entered the room, “mommy, lay wif me”. I tried to fake it, one leg over the rail, a hand on his back, my head at the pillow. I left too quickly and was called back. *sigh* I am thinking now that (lack of sleep or not), I should embrace this time, when he needs me, wants me to snuggle. Before too long, he’ll be a “big boy”.

  12. says

    Lovely post and I love that quote from the Pope! I’m always trying to get too much done and the days always go better if I am able to just pause and be with my children when they are having a difficult day so this resonates with me too.

  13. says

    This totally reminded me of something I learned in cultural immersion training in Latin America. One talk we had was about “ser,” to be, vs. “hacer,” to do. It was basically about how in Latin culture being with people was more important than getting things done. So it was okay to be late, even two hours late, if there was someone to finish a conversation with. And we had to be okay with other people being late too. This was a huge lesson for me and I have looked at the world differently ever since! As I spent time in Argentina and Mexico and grew to love the “ser” way of living. It is such a beautiful way to value the human person in every day life. God Bless our Holy Father for sharing that beautiful part of his culture with us all!

  14. Beth says

    Thank you so much for this post. I needed to be reminded of this. My three year old has been so very needy recently and I have been irritated with her in my desire to get more done around the house or just to get some quiet time. (I have a four month old as well, and I’m so tired!) I need to remember that her needs are more important than trying to have the dishes done all the time. 🙂 Thanks also for the link to Pope Francis. I absolutely loved it!

  15. says

    Ugh, I’ve been dealing with this for a couple weeks. My two-year-old knows exactly when I have “checked-out” on her, even when I’m doing something productive. She’s begun to scream, “Mooooommy!!!” when she sees my eyes are full of the things my mind is busy with, knowing that I’m not “present”. This makes me sad–mostly when I know that I can be present for my girls, even when my hands are productive. And ESPECIALLY when they aren’t. 🙂 Thank you for this! It was timely and needed for me.

  16. HL says

    Just beautiful Haley! You are spot on. My son was just like that, and I was never able to put him down to sleep for the first couple years without laying down with him. He would flail about in the first year and only my protective encircling of him with my arms would allow him to relax and sleep. He nursed frequently but hardly slept more than an hour at a time. I really did just have to live in the moment with him. But of course it got easier and he started sleeping longer chunks of time.

    It’s funny how even at 17 if he gets cranky and upset (not his usual disposition) I make him a snack and encourage him to sleep a little. He will tell me afterwards that he really was hungry and sleep deprived. Your little ones are so fortunate to have a mom who understands their real needs. I love how they have the confidence to call you back and how you respond. I know exactly that feeling of wanting them to just fall asleep and having to go back repeatedly seems such a waste of time. But as you know, you are telling them how important they are to you and that will build a lifetime of confidence and deep contentment. They will love their children with the same generous heart you have shown them.

  17. Becky says

    This is the kind of post I needed to read today!! I had a really rough day yesterday with hyper kids who wouldn’t nap and woke their 1 year old sister up in the process. I love all of your posts, but this one hit home today. Love it!

  18. Meg says

    Absolutely beautiful, Haley. Thank you for sharing and for this gentle reminder to be still and be and know. So much needed every day! I think I’ll go take a peek at my sleeping baby 🙂

  19. says

    There are already a slew of comments singing emphatic affirmation to this story but I thought I’d add another:

    At 15 months, my sweet boy has started doing some serious screaming throughout the day and night that can only be quelled by ME. Not my husband, not crying it out, nothing.

    The other night, we let him CIO because I was just quite frankly OVER IT, and deep down I knew that I was “doing mothering things” by letting him cry. “It’s what we have to do,” I kept justifying to myself as I put in earplugs and prayed for sleep.

    But last night he sat up, exorcist style, screaming his head off around 2AM and my sleepy husband groaned, “Oh gosh, what can I do?”

    “Nothing,” I said as I got up. “He just needs me. Go back to sleep.”

    So I went into his nursery, picked his tired body up and sat down in the rocking chair and let him fall limp on me to nurse himself back to sleep. Not ten minutes later I was putting him back down, sound asleep, and crawling back into my own bed, feeling sad that I’d let him cry the night before because it’s “what you do”.

    But it’s not how I want to be.

  20. says

    What a beautiful post! This line brought tears to my eyes: “But then I remembered my son as a baby, needing me in order to fall asleep. “But Mama! I need you!” and I felt compelled to go back in, to stop trying to accomplish something and just be his mother. “


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