Since my daughter was born last December, I have played the role of the sandman most nights. Putting her to sleep has been fairly easy the vast majority of the time, but in all honesty, the peaks and valleys associated with this duty are the most exhilarating and terrifying that I have ever experienced in my life.
Nothing compares with the first realization that your child doesn’t know how to sleep. They don’t even know the difference between night and day until they are about six weeks old, when their brain starts to secrete melatonin. You literally have to teach them how to sleep. And you can’t show them how to do it, and then watch as they mimic your actions. No one remembers learning how to sleep, so how do you teach it? I’d never even thought about it before, and I don’t think that reading a book beforehand would properly brace you for this experience. Only the desperate need for sleep, blocked by the sole obstacle of your wide-awake child, can create this tangible panic.
All that said, I’ve learned how to do it pretty well. I have a few songs that usually work (“Good Night” by the Beatles, Brahms’ “Lullaby,” etc.) , a few sounds, and even some phrases. “Walla Walla Washington” popped into my head one night, and that city that I’ve never visited has saved me on many occasions. It’s often sung as a tag to “Feelin’ Groovy” by Simon & Garfunkel, which oddly enough I started singing once just because I wanted her to slow down (she was growing too fast), and it became “the song” for over a month.
But on bad nights, like lately when she’s been cutting a new tooth, nothing helps. Absolutely nothing. So you have to find this very special place inside yourself to hide in until the screaming stops. The key to success is finding a place of supreme serenity, where time does not exist. You can’t think about what else you could or should be doing—the very thought of it will be your undoing. Here are ten of my favorite familiar movie references (some strange, some not so strange, some downright twisted) that have found their way into my mind during these dark moments, fictional scenarios where I have taken refuge. They may seem a bit dramatic, but I know that you other parents out there will relate. The rest of you—just wait.
- Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. That moment when he has to step out into the abyss is very much like the moment right before I pick her up. Some nights it’s hard to remember that eventually, by god, she HAS to go to sleep.
- Silence of the Lambs. I know, macabre. But the truth is, Hannibal Lecter’s voice is so calm and monotone, no matter what he is doing, I have found myself looking to him as a weird sort of spirit guide. Our daughter also has a little lamb—one of those really creepy half-blanket/half-stuffed animal things—that we have named Clarice, and even worse, a doll that we call Frederica Bimmel.
- Aliens. Before she was born, my wife and I called her “Newt”—she was very small (minute = “my Newt”), we didn’t know if she was a boy or a girl (“Newt-ral”), plus all babies have little tails in the beginning. That final confrontation between Ripley and the Alien Queen really says it all, especially the look on her face when that egg opens, right before she torches them all. It always helps me to think of her inability to sleep as something completely separate from her in those moments, and all I’m really trying to do is rescue her from the aliens so that we can both get back to the spaceship and hibernate all the way home.
- The Money Pit. Some nights, I actually go a little mad with how long it takes to get her to sleep. This particular reference is problematic, because in the middle of however many repetitions of whatever loop of nonsense it is that I’m unsuccessfully performing, I start laughing maniacally inside about how I, too, am currently trapped in my own weird hole in the floor that I never knew existed. And it’s hard to keep laughter of that quality inside. So then I try to think about something else that isn’t funny. Like clowns.
- Groundhog Day. Of course, there is the obvious endless loop of timeless time comparison. But just as sometimes her inability to sleep turns into scary aliens with acid for blood, sometimes it turns into the annoying Ned Ryerson. And then I think of more variations on how to punch his lights out.
- Poltergeist. Sometimes, her sleepy cry is so loud, all I can think of is Carol Ann. So I imagine that I am Craig T. Nelson holding onto that rope for dear life, just trying to save her and my wife from a ridiculously large demon-shaped insomniac.
- Contact. In the first months, I swayed, jiggled, bounced, and shooshed her to sleep so much that I swayed, jiggled, bounced, and shooshed everywhere—in the shower, while I was cooking or doing dishes, even at the grocery store. As she gets older, subtler moves are more effective, but sometimes the desire to jump around is overwhelming. So I imagine that I’m in this pod, unhooking myself from that violently shaking chair, calmly floating while I instantaneously travel across the universe and back again, folding space-time into a neat little package. And then I try not to look at the clock after I leave the room.
- Monty Python and the Holy Grail. It was a very counterintuitive thing to learn, but it’s easier to get her to sleep when I don’t think of the goal. If I think of the moment that she’s asleep, then I want to get there as quickly as possible. So I imagine her sleep to be Lancelot perpetually running toward the castle, never getting closer. I’ve often found myself wondering exactly when it was she fell asleep, saying “Hey…” just like the guard that Lancelot leaves standing at the gate.
- Raiders of the Lost Ark. I know, another Indiana Jones reference. But this one is specifically about escaping after I get her down in the crib. I promise you, even when I accomplish this task, my heart is full of trepidation. On the really bad nights, getting out of the room looks like this famous opening sequence, with one very important difference—I have to go back into the temple and do it all over again.
- The Lost Boys. As she starts to fall asleep, her screams are like a much, much longer version of Jason Patric falling off of the bridge. He stops screaming and looks around in the fog, surprised that he isn’t dead yet, and then he just starts screaming again because he doesn’t know that he’s flying. Apparently, it would be weird to hit the bottom of a ravine without saying AAAAAAAHHHHHHHHH!!!!
I did reach a point at one point where my lack of sleep made me doubt the worth of this endeavour. And then last Sunday, she said “da-da” twice. I don’t think that doubt will happen again. At least, not until the next tooth.