an expat Thanksgiving in Sweden with magically sleepy children

You hear rumors, urban legends.  But you don’t believe them.  Nah, that is not realistic, you say.  And if it does happen, well, there must be some cruel stuff going on.

I am talking about babies and toddlers that go to sleep early and then stay asleep all night.  You know, good sleepers.

Tonight is the third night in a row that both children went to bed before 7.  We have no idea what to do.  How do you have an adult life again?  We wander around, exhausted, talking, watching a little TV, waiting for the kids to get up.  They have to get up.  But they don’t.  They sleep. (Not until morning.  No, we don’t have kids like that.  But, for them, they sleep soundly.)

We made it happen to some degree.  We got real hard about no naps after daycare for NK – even 20 minute ones.  We are finally ready to pounce on the 6pm drowsiness, not waiting until the 7pm drowsiness.  As for the baby, he no longer has an ear infection, is not teething at the moment and is not learning any new skills.  So he can rest a bit.

Tonight, they went to sleep early after a big Thanksgiving dinner.  Here is an expat Thanksgiving for you.

Wake up.  Wish everyone a Happy Thanksgiving.

Take toddler to daycare.  Go to work.

Remember Thanksgiving occasionally.  Forget it completely most of the day.

Work.  Go to meetings.  Edit stuff.

Talk to the daycare teacher about Thanksgiving.

Come home to turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes and pumpkin pie made from scratch, among other things.

Almost cry of joy at the smell of the pie.  Thank your Swedish wife profusely.

Try to explain to the toddler that the turkey decorations and pilgrim candles are not for her birthday, but for everyone.

Eat.  Do a video call with grandma and grandpa.  With the cousins.

Watch the toddler obsess over the pumpkin pie, which she knows from the end of the second verse of “Over the hills and through the woods.”

“Hurrah for the fun.  Is the pudding done?  Hurrah for the pumpkin pie!”

Children sleep – magically and mysteriously.

Watch football.  Eat more pie.

Be happy.

the streaming rewards of cosleeping and sleep deprivation

We have two children; we have two light sleepers. Well, the toddler is sleeping pretty soundly. So, really, it is now all about baby sleep.

We also cosleep, meaning that we sleep in the same bed, or more accurately, a series of ever shifting beds in ever shifting combinations of parents and children (the toddler does go to sleep in her own bed in her own room, but usually with me beside her, and she never ends the night there).

We believe in this, really believe, if you know what I mean.

Which means we suffer, have suffered exquisitely on two continents, in a bat-infested house in New York and through the Swedish winter, through hard pregnancies and in a tiny apartment. We speed past the point of breaking, zoom around and go past that point again and then, just for fun, race past it again.

0ne constant – the kids have stayed in the bed with us.

In the latest chapter, I have spent hours in the past weeks walking around the apartment in the darkest night holding a baby with jangling, kicking, crawling legs. For long stretches, he simply cannot sleep on his own. Way too busy. So I am not just walking. I am high stepping or jogging or singing or turning on faucets for the noise (horrible, I know, I know – but we do not own a car, that is my answer to all enivronmental guilt).

His sister crawled in her sleep. I know babies do this. But he is in the middle of a months-long learning to sit, scoot, crawl, stand, walk continuum of poor sleep.

Then he wakes up at 4:30. This behavior we have tried to manipulate – early bedtimes, late bedtimes, extra naps, no naps.

It always comes back to about 4:30. It always comes back to choppy sleep at best, no sleep at worst.

More than three years of this.

But suddenly, there is a light in the night. Specifically, the light of a computer screen, the light of playoff baseball.

And in the mornings, if I want, there is the dim bulb of the NBA regular season, though I find I cannot actually watch the games, so boring that I can’t justify drawing the attention away from the baby, who is cute and charming even at 4:30 in the morning, even when I am pretty grumpy with him for waking up.

But the baseball. Glorious. I watched Johnny Damon steal two bases the other night. I have seen A-Rod strike out in the clutch and hit homers and doubles. I watched the Dodgers lose (always a pleasure to a San Francisco boy). I finally have watched the Phillies with regularity and realize how much I like that team, and not just because I went to college in Philly.

I kind of, sort of, even hope that the baby will be too fussy at 3am for me to put him down. Because if I do soothe him and he hits that blessed deep sleep, I can’t quite justify watching sports in the middle of the night. Sleep is too precious. The bones ache just a mite too much.

But game six of the World Series starts at 2am Central European Time.

Hmmm, he seemed awfully fussy tonight. I might just have to stay up and hold him an extra hour – as long as the Phillies don’t fall too far behind …

scooting and falling down and no sleep

Our son has a differently philosophy to baby life than his big sister. At nine months, he has six teeth, eats a lot of real food, scoots around, stands up, falls down, stands up, falls down, cries and cries. At nine months, his sister not really eaten even baby food yet, was getting her first tooth, had just started to push herself backwards after months of happy sitting and rarely cried.

I marvel at how different BT’s life is from his sister’s. This is the sort of comment that, if I said it at lunch at work, would draw nothing but blank stares. Duh. Obvious.

Maybe it is that NK was a baby in a Victorian house in a small town in upstate New York, and BT is a baby in a tiny apartment in Stockholm.

Maybe it is that I have been awake half the night holding him with his little legs crawling in his sleep. So I have time to think all this over, or sort of think it over, well, more like vaguely consider it before I trip over a toy in the dark.

The sleep deprivation – and a recent wave of family illness – are sneaking up on me too. I get by on shockingly little sleep now. I used to be a nine hour a night guy. Now I sail by on five or six – and choppy sleep at that, broken up by lifting toddlers to her mother, hugging squirming babies.

But I can tell. Not at work. And not with the kids, as I have controlled a slightly fraying temper (didn’t want to end up in a New York Times story on yelling …)

No, I have a different problem. I can’t read a book. This particular book. I reallly want to read it – The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann – for a lot of reasons. But there is a hitch. It is set in a tuberculosis sanitorium in the Alps. So, basically, everyone in the book has consumption, feverish, coughing, pre-antibiotic fatal consumption. And I can not get my head around it; reading each page makes my head spin and my stomach tingle. I do not want to think about TB.

I am not usually afraid of illness either, though have had these attacks a couple other times – curled up in the fetal position on a gym floor during an anorexia movie in the 9th grade, or paralyzed in a chair 14 years ago in Chicago when a roommate told us all that he had diabetes.

No, it has to be the sleep. I may just have to put the book down and start reading magazines. Just nothing medical …

the overnight train, a lifetime later

I am riding the rails all night tonight, traveling for work. It takes me back a decade or more, when I used to sleep on trains or in train stations all the time.

I was usually cold and nervous or fighting for space from some huge Russian guy or obnoxious German woman and her loud kids. The trains were stuffy and my backpack was always too heavy and I was always worried that I would go hungry, so had bought lots and lots of food before I left. I was headed towards rural Romania or Venice or out to rural blown up Croatia, which was also going home, which seems so weird now.

I also loved every moment of it.

Tonight I will have my own compartment, paid for by the company (I am flying home tomorrow afternoon). I will be on an expense account, though have already packed extra food because, well, I am still terrified of getting hungry on a train. I will take a taxi when I get in to Helsingborg, and I will take that taxi to a corporate office building.

And I do not want to go. I keep trying to build up the romance, but I would rather stay at home with the screaming sick baby and the fussy toddler and my wonderful wife. I think my trip to India last spring killed the buzz. India was magic but I thought the plane flights would be cool and liberating for a relatively new dad. They were not.

But who knows, maybe the romance of the rails will reassert itself tonight. Maybe I need to get a little chilled and slump down in a corner of the waiting room first, then buy too much food and haul a huge backpack to the corporate office. Maybe I will be rocked to sleep in that solo compartment. For four hours, until I have to switch trains. Then I am second class all the way …

empty streets, squeaking doors and tired arms

Some weekends are like this. Cold and gray, with temps dipping below freezing in early October. The stupid teachers at stupid daycare gave your milk-allergic daughter milk again (more on that another day – she is fine, by the way). Then everyone in the family develops flu-like symptoms one by one. And … the baby stops sleeping.

When the baby stops sleeping, I sometimes end up on the streets of Solna, walking with him in my arms so he will not scream and wake up his sister in our tiny little apartment. I did this last weekend up in the country, and that was almost cozy, a sky so full of stars and dark trees talking in the woods. It was a little dramatic the first time the first night in Solna, wandering the empty streets, trying to take some time for my own thoughts.

By the second time last night, however, I just wanted back in my bed. And this is where the doors and keys and lights get complicated.

See, it is really hard to get the keys out of your pocket when you are holding a baby (no sling, because I cannot get him out of it without waking him up). Then the front door squeaks — loudly. Then the lobby is super bright and super warm. Then the apartment front door also squeaks and is hard to close. Then the apartment is pitch black, at least after the super bright lobby.

I think I tried four times last night, all ending with a whimper and the starts of screams and me cursing and looking for my shoes and heading back outside. Then my arms cramped up. And it started to rain, and his little eyes just kept fluttering open and shut, his little brain racing and racing.

Eventually, his mother took him for most of the night. And when I took him early in the morning, he was so focused and calm, fixated on a garlic press for a silent half hour.

As if he was learning something.

end of the endless summer

Our seven-week summer vacation ended today. We left the country yesterday, from the house and expanse of grass to our small city apartment, and Grandma and Grandpa went to the airport for their (much delayed) flight to America. This morning, NK went to daycare, and I headed back to work.

Now that we have kids, I knew that the rhythm of my life would return somewhat to that of childhood, with summer vacations and that tingling nervousness and excitement of September and school (well, in Sweden, August, but it feels like an American September). But, what with all this vacation and parental leave and multiple kids, I got the summer off, so I had that tingling feeling first hand, not second.

Seven weeks is a long time. Long enough for a baby to gain several kilos and really get comfortable in the world, a slightly fussy sausage (to directly translate the Swedish) turned into a beaming Energizer battery sitting and getting up on all fours and smiling and laughing with anyone and everyone. It is long enough for a toddler to noticeably grow and grow up, to get potty trained, to make her first friend over the summer house fence. It is long enough for two parents of young children to get enough space for mushroom picking and fishing and lawn mowing and writing and that is even with the complete breakdown of sleep patterns, toddlers up to 10, babies up at 4, the works.

But order was restored this morning. NK did not want to take out her braids and wash her hair. No, that did not go well. But the rest of the morning did, and the girl who did not want to go to daycare in the spring, was happy to be there this morning, even with the chaos of a new beginning and almost no teachers and just a few familiar faces. And I cleaned up, if taking a shower and shaving and wearing a 30-year-old blue shirt of my father’s counts for cleaning up. And the baby and his mother picked up the wreckage in the apartment, with smiles and songs and a long, long nap.

Here comes the fall. Which is good. Though I can not wait for next summer …

breaking a sweat, missing the vacuum and tricking a baby to sleep

In the country, I sit on our hammock and rock the baby to sleep. He does not know he is being rocked to sleep. He just looks at the leaves and listens to the chain creaking and drifts off.

Not in the city. In the city, we have no hammock. But we do have a step machine. So I lift up little BT, who is not so little anymore, and start stepping. Again, no laying him in my arms or anything, no sir. Just holding him upright, stepping, breaking a sweat if I am lucky, and watching for that head to droop a little, any sign of sleepiness.

For we have a baby that defies sleep cues. In fact, he resents them. We change techniques every couple days because once he catches on that walking around town and singing “Three Blind Mice” means he should sleep … well, he does not like that.

We used to have the vacuum as the catch all, the loud whine that made some of our improvisations work a day or two more. But we broke the vacuum habit out in the country, and we really do not want to get back on that drug.

Anyway, we tried the vacuum yesterday. The baby screamed.

So off to the step machine. Can’t match the hammock for soothing the soul, but better for my waistline.