Our Family Bed: Lisa Marshall
I did not immediately warm to the idea of sharing my bed with our baby. At the time, I only knew a few radicals who practiced bed-sharing and I felt that these mothers did so in order to put their child first and keep their husbands at bay. That was certainly not what I wanted! My husband and I had only been married for 9 months when we conceived our first child. Although I couldn’t wait to become a mother, I also did not want to start off motherhood by pushing my husband out of our bed. A child of divorced parents, I was not about to let anything get in the way of a healthy marriage. Yes, of course I planned to breastfeed. I loved the idea of gathering up my wee angel from her bassinet and settling in the rocker while she suckled to her heart’s content. But like so many pre-conceived notions of what motherhood looks like, this one went right out of the window when our daughter arrived.
Grace was born on a sunny and cold December day the week before Christmas. After several visits to an OB/GYN office where my list of questions and concerns were brushed aside like so many pesky flies, my husband and I abandoned modern medicine, and opted for a home-like birth with a local midwife. The birth rooms at the midwife’s house were decorated with local antiques and Amish quilts and had lovely little cradles in them. One day I commented on the cradles and Nancy, our midwife, explained that she was required by law to have them in the rooms but that she didn’t really let her parents use them. If parents lay the baby in there, she told us one day, I just scoop the baby up and hand it back to them in the bed. Clearly our midwife was an advocate of bed-sharing but I still had my doubts.
So Grace slept with us at the midwife’s place but on our first night together at home, we were getting ready for bed and I tenderly laid her down in the bassinet I had prepared. My husband came in and said, “What are you doing with that baby”? picked her up, and brought her over to our bed. It suddenly dawned on me: this is a man who carries the dog upstairs up to bed each night, no wonder he won’t let the baby sleep alone. I didn’t have it in me to object. After a long labor and delivery, I was happy to sleep with our baby by my side and not have to get out of bed each time she needed to nurse. I figured this arrangement was alright, for a little while, it was certainly easier than getting up several times a night. I figured I would soon have her sleeping in her own crib. In the meantime, I was a very happy mother. My baby got enormously fat and seldom cried. I got plenty of sleep as I had gradually learned to nurse lying down and hardly even woke up as Grace and I learned that she could latch on and nurse in a state of semi-consciousness. Our family bed was so peaceful that I overheard my husband tell someone that the baby was “sleeping through the night”: no, I thought, the baby isn’t but I guess you are!
I was still a bit concerned about what others might think of our sleeping arrangements. Once I spoke to my mother-in-law on the phone and she said “You’re not letting that baby sleep in your bed are you? And before I could think of how to answer she went on to say “I slept with my parents until I was six and my baby brother was born and I still remember how mad I was at him for taking my place”. On the one hand, she most definitely didn’t approve; on the other, she had given me a new insight, this was not some new-fangled hippy notion, this was something parents had done for years. Moreover, despite her objections, she had fond memories of sharing her parents’ bed.
Nine months passed and there I was expecting another baby (so much for nursing as birth-control). Now the pressure was on, I was not going to sleep with and nurse two babies! I started a new bedtime routine putting Grace to sleep nursing in the rocking chair and then slipping her into her crib. When she would wake in the night, I would bring her into the bed and I thought this arrangement was workable. After my first trimester, I weaned Grace (then 12 months) from the breast but the bedtime routine remained otherwise the same.
On a beautiful day in May, Katie was born into our family. Soon after we brought her home (and I’m not even sure how exactly this happened) I ended up sleeping with Katie in the spare room and my husband and Grace were sleeping together in the big bed. I was not happy with this arrangement but it was working well in that everyone was sleeping. Well one day, little Grace referred to the guest bed as “Mommy’s bed”! That was too much for me, I didn’t intend for my husband and I to start having separate bedrooms at the age of 30. I started sleeping in our room again with baby Katie and Grace was back to being put to sleep in the crib and being brought into our bed when she woke at night. The sleeping arrangement was: Bed-railing – Grace – Me – Husband. And that worked fairly well, I was satisfied to have part of the night next to my husband if not the whole night.
The next several years, various sleeping arrangements were tried depending on what else was going on. My husband is a Naval Officer and his duties took him away from home for months at a time so of course, when he was gone, it was easier for us all to sleep together. There were times when I felt the need for my own space and I would try to enforce separate sleeping. I spent many nights resolutely putting girls back into their own beds. Looking back, I think we would all have been happier to give into their desire (need?) to be close to us but one doesn’t always have such perspective, especially in the middle of the night. As the girls grew, they also enjoyed sharing a bed with one another. Now we had a whole network of friends who also co-slept so I did not feel that we were doing anything odd. My children were so healthy and happy, bedtimes were not a struggle, our girls were attached and self-confident, we knew we were on the right track with what we were doing. And, crucially, my husband and I still found time to spend with one another.
Our son, Charlie, was born in a rented hot tub in our living room one fine November day. By this time the girls (ages 3.5 and 5) were sleeping together in their own room and mostly coming into our room in the early morning hours. Charlie never spent so much as a single night in a crib. By this time, I was convinced that co-sleeping is a precious gift of warmth and love that imbues a child with a deep feeling that all is right in his world. Charlie is 5 now and has been the most stalwart of nurslings and of bed-sharers. Around the age of 4, we started putting him to sleep in his own bed in order to catch some adult-only time and just to be able to stretch out a bit more. One of us will put him to sleep in his own bed each night, lying there with him until he is asleep, and around 2:00 he’ll come padding across the hall, climb in next to me, and entangling his little fingers into my hair, whispering “I love you Mommy” in my ear as he falls asleep for another 4 hours. Blessed with the perspective that our marriage has survived 12 years, 3 kids, 4 moves, and a mid-life crisis and is more-or-less in fine shape; that our girls (now 10 and 8) are happily sleeping in their own beds; and that Charlie is our last child, I look back without regret on the sacrifices we made. It is easy for me to welcome Charlie into our bed whenever he needs to be there and to relax and enjoy this time with the full knowledge of how short it really is.
April 3, 2008