One Sunday morning, I found myself in what seemed like an unending battle to get my three-month old son to sleep.
He had undiagnosed reflux, which made things more difficult. The most promising way to induce sleep I had found was to have him in a sling, and so upright, in motion and close to me. At that point, If I’d have tried to lie him down, he would just cry out in pain.
Whilst he was happy there that Sunday morning held in my sling, happy to watch the sunlight through the trees, interested in all the sounds of the morning, he was not going to sleep. Walking around the park, I sang to him. Walking around a fountain at the end of the park for an awkwardly large number of times, I hoped to bore him into slumber. But he remained happily awake. So, I went on to the high street. I tried to hold his head close, pressed into my chest. I felt myself getting hotter as I carried this weight around on an increasingly hot summer morning. But that was OK. I knew this heat, the monotony and a lullaby almost always did the trick.
But not today. He remained stubbornly awake. I knew he was tired, but for some reason he just wouldn’t drop off.
Now, sleeping babies are much easier to carry. They don’t fidget. They aren’t bobbing their head this way and that. They just curl up close to your centre of mass, leaving you pretty free to move around. Or, on this occasion, leaving me free to go to a coffee shop and have a sit down in the knowledge that he would remain asleep for a while.
My son was not letting me have a coffee and a sit down. He wasn’t letting me rest.
Through all this, I persistently refused to look at him. Somewhere I must have read (and having a baby with undiagnosed reflux meant I’d become quite an expert on the diverse books and approaches to sleep training) that looking at a baby at naptime gives the wrong signal, as if it’s time to play with them. Nevertheless, as I entered the shopping centre and then walked around a shop, I became increasingly aware that he was just looking up at me. Sometimes he’d snuggle into me, but not for long. Sometimes he’d look around, but his head was too tired to do this for long. But, mostly, he did find the energy to keep just looking up.
Eventually, I could refuse him no longer. I looked at him, smiled, kissed his forehead and then went on with my business. A few minutes later, I realised he’d gone to sleep.
What was it in that look? What did he need to finally rest? I think it was just to be seen by his dad. Once he’d experienced that, he was safe and loved and his whole body could finally rest.
And I could have a coffee.
For many men, there is a part of us, a young part, that just wants to be seen by our dad. It’s a small part. A vulnerable part. We’ve been taught that we must be tough, independent, self-reliant, big, and so we often forget that we have this part. But he’s there. And he won’t go to sleep.
We carry him around with us. He sees the world with us: the sights, the sounds, the people we interact with. He senses when our body tightens with anxiety or frustration. And he responds. Maybe with fear. Maybe with shame. Maybe with rage. Maybe with joy. But often, we don’t want to be carrying him around anymore. We just want him to go to sleep and leave us in peace.
One way we try to avoid having to carry him around with us is to put him down and leave him in the cot. But we soon find that he keeps screaming out in pain. Sometimes, we’re able to drown him out in something addictive - porn, drugs, work, gambling, relationships. But we soon find that we hear him again, even more confused, scared and lonely. So we return to the thing that we found drowned him out.
Another way we learn to get this small part of us to rest is to ignore them, even as we carry them around with us. It’s like we’ve read somewhere that this is a good way to deal with him. Tough, maybe, but needed to put our emotions and feelings and vulnerabilities to sleep. But we often find that he just won’t drop off. He keeps reacting. He keeps being heavy. He keeps looking up at us asking what we’re going to do about it all. Asking if we see him there. Will look after him. Asking if we care enough to notice him.
Perhaps we, as boys, never experienced our dads noticing us and smiling. Perhaps, if we got his attention, it was often negative. Like we’d annoyed him. Like we were being a nuisance. Like we were disappointing somehow. The message we got was clear: man up.
But now we have manned up, and we carry around a boy who never got to sleep, still looking up, waiting to be seen. His feelings that we still carry all wait to be seen. Only then will they flow on. Only then will they rest.
Of course, our dads never learned this. They didn’t know. They too learned to avoid or ignore their own small boys. And when we, as boys, cried, raged, or just wanted attention, we reminded our dads of their small boy, and all the pain he carries, and so they react in the same way to us as their dad did to them.
Perhaps it’s time to do something new. To accept that we have manned up, that we have become the adult, and so we can look at the small, vulnerable, ashamed, scared, hurt, raging parts of us - our boy within - looking up at us, waiting to be seen. And smile at them, kiss them on the forehead, and then go on with our business.
Perhaps then we’ll realise they’re finally resting by our chests.
And we’ll finally get our coffee.