If I had been born at home, surely it would have been into a family bed. As it was, my parents brought me home from the hospital, where I was promptly given a place aside my mother in the bed which slept us all: mom, dad, my brother and I. I nursed until I was nearly four, when the arrival of a younger sibling forced shared privileges. I was not, as a rule, thrilled with anything that wasn’t mine alone and so gave up the breast and my place between my parents for slightly more independence on the outskirts of our small country. I slept on the edge (had my parents been a bit more intuitive, they may have recognized this as foreshadowing, and thus been more fully prepared for the journey of parenting a true Sagittarian daughter…).
By that time, the eldest Dotson child had moved on and now slept in a wood framed bunk bed hand crafted by our father. In a family of five, he was the only to sleep solo. This left me as the senior child in the family bed, a title that lent me a certain amount of privilege, and these are the days I remember most when I think back to the last time I slept in the same bed with someone under the age of two.
I remember the stories of my infancy, more from the telling and re-telling, I am sure, than from genuine memory; countless friends and family have heard of the night, sleep deprived and exhausted, that my mother lay me down to sleep next to my father. I slept huddled in his arms on the side of the bed, my mother an ocean away on her end of the king size waterbed. Lured by the scent of her leaking breasts and some clearly primal instinct, I managed, at just a few months of age, to roll over my father and across the broad expanse until my lips at last found the relief of my mother’s waiting nipple. This could have been my first successful experience at rolling over. Suffice to say, mom did not sleep as anticipated, but who could deny such determination?
For years I laughed at this story, until I had a toddler of my own and understood, finally, the sacrifice that lay at the heart of attachment parenting. Despite the pain of too many sleepless nights, I am hooked, just like my mother before me. I am a co-sleeper at heart, a habit brought on by genetics, it would seem. I know the warmth of my parents’ bodies, a peace surpassed only by the warmth of own daughter’s sleeping body as she lay- covering me in bruises with impulse kicks and left hooks- sleeping next to me. A woman of the new millennium I never thought I would stand for such abuse, and yet imagine my surprise at not only standing for it, but demanding it continue. While I can’t honestly say I love the pain, I can say I will happily put up with it. And while I am anxious for the day when she can confidently spend a night- or even an hour- asleep without me (a time to finally let the wounds begin to heal), I dread the day she moves out of my bed and into her own. Yet another instance, I am sure, when she will be ready for the next step far before I am ready for her to be ready. I suppose I will have to get used to this.
But this is not a story about the virtues of co-sleeping, for if you are a co-sleeper you have doubtless already read a library of those. Nope, this is the story of a co-sleeping alumna. This is the story of why we do it: it is what you will remember at three o’clock in the morning when your twenty-three month old rolls over to nurse for the seventh time that night; this is a mantra you can chant when your sex life has disappeared completely and your idea of well-rested is a solid three hours; this is the answer to your repeated “why’s?” when your bed becomes so crowded that, like my mother, you end up spending your nights lying crosswise at the foot of the bed hoping for just an hour. It is as simple as this: co-sleepers breed co-sleepers. You’re giving your grandchildren the gift of their parents’ bodies. You’re breeding a noble instinct, a culture of love and commitment, of families raising families instead of a technology of baby monitors and flashing light mobiles. That baby you are cuddling will likely someday know all it is to cuddle his or her own baby deep into the night, evening after evening for years and years.
I feel safe in the night, for all the ways my parents held me rather than a crib. Between my mother and my father the night time was never more dangerous than the day, and when the slow transition of movement into my own bed began, my parents continued to cuddle me in innovative ways. It is only now, with a daughter of my own to keep me company through the long and short nights, that I understand the dual gift of co-sleeping. I thank my parents for the nights they kept me close, for the bond created and the emptiness avoided, for all the good I know co-sleeping does for a child. But who knew that the gifts extend way beyond childhood? Today I thank my parents for teaching me to continue the tradition; for giving to both me, and my daughter, these nights we now share together. And lord knows, I hope that one day Ruby will lie in bed next to her own sleeping infant, reveling in the little body so inspired by her side.