Seconds from Shaken Baby

The light is off, and Lydia and I just finished our bedtime routine – read a story (tonight, Big Little), use the potty and point out repetitious things like the fact that we painted the bathroom (“Oh, looks good!”) and the boo boo on her knee is healing, and migrate upstairs to her bedroom. Elvis is across the hall in his room, still yelling himself to sleep – the nightly agenda since he won’t take a pacifier and wakes up after falling asleep in mom’s arms – but typically by the time Lydia is settled, Elvis has also fallen asleep, and if not, usually a revisit to the bedside to pick up and check diaper contents solves the problem.

I lift Lydia up into her big-girl bed, dig her pacifier out from the crack it has fallen into, and raise the blanket over her legs. She asks, “Pray?” and so we do, for grandmas and grandpas and relatives and the playground and toys and the dog and whatever else comes to mind, and we ask for protection and safety and thank God for Jesus Amen. And then the radio request show starts, the first song up is Away in a Manger followed by Rock-a-Bye Baby and last but certainly not least, I sing Row-Row-Row Your Boat. Lydia lets out the commonplace whine as I kiss her forehead and say, “Night Night.” The whine escalates into a forced cry to which I reply, “Do you want me to turn on some music?” She says yes and settles back onto the pillow.

It is dark but I know the play button is right in the middle, volume pre-determined the previous night or during afternoon nap, and the instrumental music of Phil Keaggy begins. I return to Lydia and again kiss her on the forehead, pat her arm and wish her good night.

As I turn toward the door, the wailing starts. Before it’s closed, Lydia is upright and sliding out of the twin bed. Before I can get down the hall, the thump of bare feet on hardwood echoes toward the door. And before I am halfway down the stairs, the door knob turns, a sobbing two-year-old waiting for me to come back.

One technique recommended by Super Nanny is to quickly, firmly and quietly return the disobedient and sleep-deprived back to bed, tucked in, and wished good night. End of story. Or beginning of two hour story, depending on the strength of the two-year-old’s will and the fragile emotional foundation you feel certain you are crushing with every return to bed. But I try it, for awhile, thinking she has to give in at some point. She will get the message, roll over and silently if not hiccup-y suck her pacifier, the beautiful locks of fine blond hair swept away from closed eyes, tears still sliding softly down each cheek… asleep, nonetheless.

It is now four hours later… no, just ten minutes but it might as well be hours, and the wailing has reached hyperventilating screams of MOMMY! from the bedroom doorframe. Meanwhile, Elvis is still awake. I have given up temporarily on Lydia and move to the equally urgent but fewer decibal screams coming from the crib in the opposite room. Elvis is dry as far as I can tell except for his face which is damp with tears and I hold him close, do not hold him responsible for being awake still, and sway back and forth, whispering “shhhh”. Elvis slowly calms down in spite of his sister hovering by his door (working up a wail here and there to be sure I am aware she’s still awake), calm enough to lay him down and try his routine again. He begins crying but stays on his stomach, pushing forward with his legs until his head is wedged up against the crib bumper, a security he seems to have discovered to help sleep.

As soon as Lydia realizes I’m done with Elvis, it is back to the full-on crying. I quickly close his door and trot Lydia back to bed, envisioning Super Nanny with her hand on Lydia’s shoulder all the way, speaking firmly with her British accent, “Now it’s toime tu go tu bed, sweet hauht.” We resume what now has turned into a game of how quickly can Mom shuffle out the door before Lydia springs from her bed.

Upon multiple failures at the Super Nanny approach, I try a new tactic – hold the door shut. At first, I think this will work – force her to stay in her room. She’ll give up and proceed back to bed in a huff, clearly defeated, tired, and sick of this game. But coming from the other side of the door are heightening panicked yelps, “MOMMY!” sob, gulp “MOMMY!!!” and then the pounding begins. Lydia is beating on the door with her fist, and I am shocked. My hand is clenched on the doorknob, my throat tightening. The door is flung open, likely over the toes of my preschooler but I don’t care. “Get back in bed!” I shout, louder than I wanted to.

This is extremely effective. At making the situation ten times worse.

I bound down the stairs into the kitchen where my friend Hilary, waiting at the back door, has called to see if I’m home. It is 8:15, 15 minutes past bedtime and it feels like we’ve been at this for an hour. “You’ll have to bear with me, I have an irate two-year-old who won’t go to bed.” Hilary has a seat at the kitchen table with a book and I return to Lydia who is now standing at the top of the stairs hyperventilating.

The muscles in my arms are tense, my fingers tight around my daughter’s biceps. I launch her into the air and swing her into bed. Her rear end bounces on the mattress. Between sobs I whisper, “It’s past your bedtime, you need to sleep, why are you doing this?” and wait for an answer, my hands still firm on her arms. She replies, “I need to go potty,” a routine bedtime prolonging answer that makes my blood boil because I know most of the time she is lying but some of the time she really needs to go, so we have to listen all of the time. But this time, I place my bet on the former. “No you don’t, we just went.”

I realize the force I’ve kept around her arms and loosen, relax, pray, pray for patience and intervention, please Lord. Lydia has forgotten about the potty and asks instead if we can pray and sing again. My voice creeps back toward normal levels of sanity and I say okay, “But this is the last time. No more crying and screaming or getting out of bed. Right?” She says okay.

“Dear Lord,” I begin, exhaling a sigh from somewhere eternal, “Lord, thank you for Lydia. Thank you for Elvis and Mom and Dad and Granny and Pop. Thank you for Gramma Rose and Pop-Pop. Thank you for Uncle Ben and Aunt Kelly and Cousin Braden and the New Baby on the Way. Thank you for Uncle Bill and Uncle Phil. Thank you for all of our friends and family and we ask you to please bless us, Lord, keep us safe, and help Lydia to feel loved, protected, and safe tonight. We are thankful for all that you’ve given us and provided us. Amen.”

In the time it takes my weight to shift from the mattress to my right foot, Lydia is wailing again. I lean back toward her and ask if she wants me to sing. Of course the answer is yes and so I do the whole line-up again, Away in a Manger, Rock-A-Bye Baby, Row-Row-Row Your Boat, and for the grand finale, Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star. In the twilight shadows slipping between the curtains, Lydia’s eyelids are heavy, her thumb and forefinger rub the knob of her pacifier which is tucked securely underneath her nose, a position she’s preferred since birth. I rest my hand on her shoulder, sigh, praise God for silence, calm, steady breathing, and rise up off of the bed.

Before I am out the door, Lydia yells again. This time I pick her up. I need a distraction, something to ease the tension and frustration, so I carry her downstairs where Hilary waits at the kitchen table, reading a book. “I think we’re going to need to reschedule,” I say, “Someone is having a tough time going to sleep.” I introduce Lydia to Hilary and take Lydia back upstairs to sleep, this time certain I can placate this child.

We climb back into bed, Lydia’s voice calm, tears and hiccups gone. “Do you want me to sing?” I ask, and launch into Away In a Manger… “Away… in a manger – no crib for a bed, the li…ttle lord Jesus lay down his sweet head. The stars… in the sky… look down where he lay, the li…ttle Lord Jesus asleep in the hay.” Every line of every verse I drag out, “The ca…ttle are lowing, the ba…by awakes, but little lord Jesus, no crying he makes,” the melody familiar but off-tune as usual, “I lo…ve thee, lord Jesus look down from the sky, and stay… by my cradle til morning is nigh.” Lydia is still underneath my palm, but just to be certain, I continue through to the end, “Be near… me lord Jesus, I ask thee to stay, close by me forever and love me, I pray. Bless all the dear children in thy tender care, and take us to heaven to live with thee there.” This last verse I’m fairly certain is misinterpreted lyrics from years of listening to first-verse-only Christmas carols on the radio, but I like it – I find my own comfort here in the third verse and let the “there” hang in the dark air a bit longer.

Aside from Phil Keaggy track 5, it is quiet. I stand, tip toe from her bed and pull the door shut behind me. And then it happens again – the wail, the cry, the thump of feet, the door opening, the hovering at the top of the stairs, the calls for mom who has huddled in the now-empty kitchen with her forehead pressed against the refrigerator pushing those tears back and dialing the phone, hoping her husband brought his cell into basketball with him, hoping he doesn’t roll his eyes when he sees the call but instead checks his message and hears the despair. Lydia is yelping “MOMMY!” again but I ignore her, whisper into the receiver the report, hang up and wait, wait to see if she makes a move either back to her room or further down the stairs. Instead she cries, “I have to go potty!”

I climb the stairs once more. It is back to the bathroom, onto the potty chair. “Oh, it’s dark outside!” Lydia says, staring out the window, and then, “Look at the star!” “Try to go pee, Lydia,” I return. Lydia pauses and the sound of success rings true from the bowl. “I peed my pants.”

I reach down to feel the damp crotch of her panties and pajamas, whisper, “Lydia,” and gently pull off her bottoms. “I’ll be right back,” and return to her room for new underwear.

After she’s done, she bolts back to her room and climbs into bed. “Where’s my pacifier?” she asks, and I rustle through the blanket and under the pillow until I find it. She burrows in, asks for the routine again and so I sing. I promise her waffles with peanut butter and honey in the morning if she stays in bed, and we pray again, thanking and asking for forgiveness and protection. When I’m done, she cries again.

And again. And again. In between episodes, I text my husband, “Please come home” and return to her. We resume the Super Nanny approach, and when that doesn’t work I pin her to the bed, angry, frustrated, crying. I leave her and she screams all the way back to the door. I threaten to spank her. I spank her. I put her back into bed. I put her back into bed again. I put her back into bed again. She’s hysterical, I’m irrational. I walk out, close the door, hold it shut. Lord, intervene. Please make her stop. Please, please I am losing it. I’ve lost it. It’s 9:30, Lord give me patience, peace, clarity, protection. Intervene.

This last time I do nothing different. Lydia is standing at the door and I’ve opened it before the knob turns. I walk her back to bed, lay her down, push the pacifier toward her mouth and pull the blanket over her. My head is inches from hers, my eyes staring into hers (“Oh, she has her mother’s eyes!”), I speak loudly but not yelling, “This is enough. I am done. No more crying. No more yelling. I love you. Good night.” And she says, “bye,” what she says on a normal night at 8:00 p.m. after a book and a song and a prayer.

Published by Sarah M. Wells

Sarah M. Wells is the author of The Family Bible Devotional: Stories from the Gospels to Help Kids and Parents Love God and Love Others (2022), American Honey: A Field Guide to Resisting Temptation (2021), Between the Heron and the Moss (2020), The Family Bible Devotional: Stories from the Bible to Help Kids and Parents Engage and Love Scripture (2018), Pruning Burning Bushes (2012), and a chapbook of poems, Acquiesce, winner of the 2008 Starting Gate Award through Finishing Line Press (2009). Sarah's work has been honored with four Pushcart Prize nominations, and her essays have appeared in the notable essays list in the Best American Essays 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2017, and 2018. Sarah is the recipient of a 2018 Individual Excellence Award from the Ohio Arts Council. She resides in Ashland, Ohio with her husband and three children.

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