Published on March 28th, 2016 | by Jade Sanchez-Ventura5
Sling City: Jade Sanchez-Ventura on THE ART OF (NOT) COMPARING
I confess. My son doesn’t nap on his own, not since he passed the threshold of his sleepy newborn state into a four months sleep regression. And now he is ten months old. For the last six months, he’s slept on me in the rocking chair (while I read with my free hand), in the stroller (bundled into a sub-zero sleeping bag), in his carrier (as I walked the city streets). He has napped, it seems, every which way except stationary, alone, in a bed.
In the beginning I did try, of course, until I couldn’t take the false start of even one more nap and surrendered.
“Is he a good sleeper?”
I have been asked this an infinite number of times. Sleep, it seems, is the currency of parenthood. I used to be able to laugh and say, “I don’t know how to answer that question.” I knew what they meant: does he sleep through the night? Does he sleep in a crib? My answer would be, of course, no, but at first I thought he was a dreamy sleeper nonetheless.
Actually. I thought he was the best sleeper.
That’s what I really have to confess. That in the dueling of parents conversing, I thought I was winning.
But the problem with winning is that it demands that there also be losing. And it was only a matter of time.
I’m not sure when our parenting got harder. My new mama stamina started to give out. And it got cold. And the walking got boring. And then I lost the rocking chair naps, which had been the sweetest ones of all. Those open eyes! And his bemused stare as I rocked and rocked, counting down. Ten more minutes. Five more. Two. And we’re awake.
I began avoiding new mom groups because I didn’t want to hear about sleep training or the naps of others. I was haunted by the naps of others. I got so tired of the word nap that I began referring to my son’s “daytime sleeping.” One of my few burgeoning new mama friendships began when she mentioned in her email that her baby didn’t “day sleep” either. Halle-fucking-leyah. She I could hang with.
These days when the email from the mothership of all neighborhood list servs (just imagine all those Slope parents gathered into one digital space) appears in my inbox I shut the app and put my phone away. Nap-trigger-warning. First I have to breathe and repeat my mantra: All babies are different. All parents are different. There is no one right way. When I do finally open it, I scan obsessively still for anything that might have anything to do with sleep, read those first, and then text my husband, “Am I a terrible mother?!”
Am I terrible?
I’ve been here before.
When I finished my MFA I thought I was on the fast track to literary stardom. Two famous professors had told me they’d help me when I finished my memoir, and an essay of mine was going to be included in a real, physical anthology, and I was sure that I’d be an “it girl” before my thirtieth birthday.
And then. I did not finish my manuscript. Or more exactly, I abandoned what I started of it. I wrote the first third, sent it to the famous professors, and was told, essentially, “Finish and then let me know.” Because their emails didn’t come with a publishing contract attached, I considered the work-in-progress a failure. I then dismantled what I had written, worked on it for another six months, and resent an incomplete manuscript.
The more years passed without an agent or published book, the more I withdrew from other writers. I stopped going to readings. I applied for only the most selective residencies and fellowships, and then savored my acute disappointment when rejected. The more rejections, the less submissions. Hours upon hours alone with my laptop. My work did not go out, and I wasn’t connecting, let alone networking, with other writers. My desk became an airless, closed off space. When asked what I did, I always said, “I teach and I write.” I needed to say it, but as the years passed, it started to feel less and less true.
My graduate school also sends a helpful email every month. It’s broken into these categories, in this order: An introduction that lists the really big news, the most prestigious publishing contracts, the most glamorous reviews; Student/alumni Publications & Other Accolades; then Jobs, Internships; and finally, Calls for Submissions, Fellowships.
This email comes with a debate instead of a mantra. Success-trigger-warning.
I don’t want to open it. I don’t have to. I heard one of the professors never reads it.
You should be bigger than this. Be happy for everyone who gets published.
I’ll read the next one. I’m not up to it this month. I’m going to practice self-acceptance and delete it.
There might be good opportunities. You don’t want to miss out.
What if I scroll through quickly and just read the calls for submissions.
Yeah, try that.
And then I read every single word, jealously noting who published what, in what genre, and when they graduated, all of their successes confirming that I never will be one.
A year and a half ago, on a mid-summer day, I sat down at my desk to try again. I thought I was weeks, months at most, away from finally finishing. For seven years, even at my most uncertain, my book had been like a landscape I could see stretching ahead of me. When I sat down to write, I could gaze out at the distant horizon of its last pages, and plot and wander my way towards it. I had yet to fully map it, but it was always there, the land I visited, and spent much of my time living in.
I set up a fresh iced coffee, my best pens, my notes from a recent workshop. But when I pulled the first chapters towards me, its story disappeared. Not physically of course. There the pages sat in paper-clipped stacks, but my landscape was gone. I had no sense of setting, place, character. It was like the maps Europeans drew before they crossed oceans; a blank expanse with a few dragons drawn in to mask what they didn’t know and couldn’t imagine.
I was terrified. I didn’t know what to do. So, I did the equivalent of freezing in place when lost in the woods. I gathered the stacks, put them on my shelf, and decided to give myself ninety days away from my manuscript.
A week later I found out that I was pregnant.
And then something miraculous happened. Something, that is, beyond the growth of another human being inside my body.
You see, I thought I was going to be great at being pregnant. I thought I was going to be the best at it. I thought that until my belly was big and unwieldy I would simply live a more radiant version of my life with this little bundle of cells inside of me. I would swim and do yoga and cook and read books and teach and have sex with my husband and be all wonderful and happy and goddess-like.
Instead, by week nine, I was incapacitated by nausea and fatigue. My stomach rolled all morning, afternoon, and evening. I could not get through a work day at my school without hiding in an upstairs office during my lunch break and taking a nap after eating a piece of bread and maybe cheese. I spent every evening and most weekend days flat on the couch, lost at sea, praying that someday I’d want to eat, much less have sex, again.
Trapped in a body that was roiling and shifting, and yet, given the edict to not talk about it until miscarriage was assumed to be a distant possibility, I began to write. First in a notebook, then on a blog whose link I didn’t share with anybody. Until one day I did. And then, for the first time in years, I was sharing my writing. I sent out submissions to online literary magazines. Some accepted my pieces, some did not. I applied, and was invited, to reading series. And the more I shared, the less I thought about being a success or a failure. I was just a writer like thousands of other writers. And when a friend from grad school published his first book, I was able to celebrate him with unmediated enthusiasm.
And then my boy was born. I’d never felt such joy. I felt close to the marvels of the universe, as if I could see the minute threads of creation woven through every day. I could touch and smell and hold the divine. I was the divine, as was every mother I passed on the street. I smiled at them and nodded, bonded by the recent memory of birthing and the awesome fact that they too had done this impossible thing. I wept at the hardships of other families and reached out to other parents, wanting only the best for every single one of them. I felt as if my nonsense had been burned off.
Happiness, success, sleep, publishing contracts: The world was abundant, with plenty for everyone.
What makes me a writer?
I write every day. But it’s not enough. I have to share the work, and I have to celebrate the work of others. The words have to come in and the words have to go out.
What makes me a mother?
I mother every day. But it’s not enough. I have to share the work in some way. My son needs me, and I need others, and he needs others, and so when a mother tells me her daughter sleeps twelve, thirteen hours in a row, I have to find a way to smile and say, “That’s awesome,” and mean it.
I’m declining to duel.
Some days I wake up energized from four hours of sleep, other mornings drained after ten hours of fitful turning. Almost every day my child wakes up and rolls over, pauses there, lifts his fuzzy head, grins at me and my husband and then scoots his butt over the edge of the mattress to begin his day of constant motion. And somebody somewhere is going to read these words as I have laid them out on this previously empty expanse of screen. And yes, at some point today, he will need to nap and in order to get him the rest he needs, I’m going to have to pick him up and get in motion myself. En route, I’m going to pass countless strollers in the park, and the windows of every café will be glinting with laptops. And I’m going to nod and smile and then stop thinking about them. My book is back you see, and I’m trying to find my way. I’m determined to cross the horizon of its last pages, except that this time it will be with a baby, hopefully sleeping, beside me.
Follow MUTHA to read more from Jade Sanchez-Ventura in an ongoing column, Sling City, where she will write about her experiences in the first year and beyond as a working writer with a new baby in New York City.