It’s Not Time to Talk About Flamingoes

June had just drifted off to sleep. I lay on her bed, curled around her, wondering where I’d left my stack of papers on household toxins. If her nap was long enough I could read and highlight the whole thing and get it in the mail tomorrow before Noah got home from school, which would be two and a half hours earlier than usual, due to an early dismissal. Whenever I can I like to mail my packets to my sister on Fridays. I try not to do my research on the weekends and I like having my paid work done for a few days. It’s a luxurious feeling for an ex-academic who used to spend her weekends grading papers. The Friday mailing was looking iffy this week, though. Between running out of ink yesterday and forgetting to take the early dismissal into account until today, I’d fallen behind schedule.

Here I should note that the schedule is entirely of my own making. Sara sends me a topic and I send her the research when I finish it. She always says, “When you get a chance” or “June permitting” and she never makes me feel pressured or rushed. I do that to myself.

I climbed halfway out of June’s bed. And she woke up, crying. I put the pacifier back in her mouth and rubbed her tummy lightly. That will often do the trick, but not this time. She cried harder. I settled back into the bed, waiting for her to drift off again. And she didn’t. I began to sing “Hush Little Baby,” then “All the Pretty Little Horses,” about a half dozen times each. She was not sleeping. Every now and then she’d pop up to her knees and I would set her gently down on her back. This went on for about a half hour. We’d started the nap later than usual because she’d slept in the stroller during our morning walk. I might be able to get her to sleep again by putting her in the stroller again and going around the block a couple times, but even if I did it would be too late to get any work done before Noah got home from school. That much was clear.

I got up out of the bed, leaving her to wail while I collected jackets and shoes for both of us. Then I came back, picked her up and took her to the bathroom to change her diaper and get her coat and shoes and mittens on. I did not make eye contact or speak to her during this operation. I was fuming.

When Noah was a toddler there was nothing he could do that could make me madder than resisting naps. Beth and I were both working full-time then and he was in daycare only about half-time. I was doing a lot of my work at home with him, under real deadlines. A missed nap could mean not turning back papers on the day I’d told my students I would (which I hated to do) or having to stay up late, not knowing how many times Noah would wake me up or at what ungodly hour he would want to start the day. (I make smart, pretty, charming babies, but good sleepers, not so much.) I resolved that this time around it would be different. There’s just no point being angry with a child who can’t sleep. It’s not her fault. And even it were, what do I gain from it? Taking care of her is my primary responsibility most days. Anything else I do, whether it’s research, doing laundry or getting dinner on the table is extra. It’s gravy.

Somehow, though, when she won’t sleep it feels just as urgent and disastrous to me as it did five years ago. Even if what I was going to do during the break is non-essential, the break itself feels essential. I am just not an on-all-the-time kind of person. I need my alone time, even if I’m working during it. That’s why teaching college suited me so well and I can’t fathom teaching all day like elementary and secondary teachers do, day in and day out. Of course, I parent all day without a break some days, but often I do it badly, with ill will.

We had twenty-five minutes before Noah’s bus came, time for two circuits around the block. I’d been harboring the tiniest sliver of hope that June would fall asleep right off the bat, allowing me to go back to the house and get just a little work done, but near the end of the first circuit she was still awake. As we passed the baby swing hanging in a neighbor’s yard, a swing we’ve been granted permission to use, June began to struggle in the stroller and say “Out!”

“You are not riding in that swing!” I said, not in my kindest tone. “It’s time to sleep.”

A few houses later, we passed another neighbor’s pink lawn flamingoes. “’Mingo!” June declared.

“It’s not time to talk about flamingoes,” I said uncharitably. “It’s time to sleep.”

The second time around the block, on the part of the walk that goes by the creek, I noticed I was walking under a red maple, most of the way turned. The early November mid-afternoon light made the green-tipped red leaves glow. All around me trees were in various stages of turning, some still green, others greenish yellow, others fiery red. The trees burned and were not consumed.

It would be nice to say the beauty of nature made me forget my anger and filled me with appreciation for life and its cycles, but that’s not precisely what happened. I noticed the maple and considered how I’d walked right by it without seeing it ten minutes ago, and what a loss it would have been if I’d never seen it at all. I felt my anger abate just a little. I was calmer. As I reached the uphill part of the walk, I concentrated on feeling my muscles push the stroller up the short, steep stretch of asphalt. I tried to clear my mind of negative thoughts and emotions.

When we went by the swing again and June again started to struggle and say “Out!” I checked my watch. There wasn’t time. I used a nicer tone of voice, however, when I told her we wouldn’t stop.

And when we passed the flamingoes and she identified them, I just said, “Yep, those are flamingoes all right.”

At the bus stop, the stay-at-home dad who waits for his son there mentioned that his preschooler gets up at five on a bad morning and six on a good one and that he has given up his afternoon nap almost entirely. It could be worse, I thought. And later, I decided, we’d go back to the flamingoes.