The night was like many others. I sat huddled in bed with my sleepless two-year-old. He was snuggled against my body, his face reflecting the glow of my e-reader screen. He held my head between his hands, my chin resting in the fleshy cup of his palms. He ran his fingers along my jawline, repeating “Mommy? Mama? Mom? Mom? Mom?” He should have been sleeping—should have been asleep hours before—but he was fighting bedtime in the way that overtired toddlers do.
Pausing his “mommy-mama-mom” chant, he turned my head so that my eyes met his and smiled. I returned the smile, though I was more annoyed than amused by his attention. And then with a fervor he’d been whipping up all night long, my smiling toddler punched his forehead between my right eye and the arch of my cheekbone.
There was no blood—none that I could see, anyway—but I tasted the salty, metallic tang of pain and saw a cartoonish flash of white light. I felt my rage grow, and I probably swore. And yelled. And though I’d like to say that I calmly and rationally explained to my child the consequences of his actions, I’m quite certain I scowled and gritted my teeth and said, “Just. Go. To. Sleep.”
If I didn’t drop an f-bomb between the “go” and the “to,” I’m sure I wanted to.
The sort of bedtime frustration I experienced is nothing new; it’s certainly not going away for exhausted parents any time soon. For parents, sleep is priceless. It gives us patience. Clarity. Focus. Functionality. For children, however, bedtime is something to avoid, something that keeps them from all the wondrous, most magnificent parts of their days. (I should say for “most” parents and for “most” children because there are some children for whom bedtime is an easy, tranquil transition into restful sleep. I try not to begrudge them or their parents.)
And so when children fight sleep, they destroy those precious nighttime hours that allow a parent to rejuvenate, to spend some time as a person who is not actively parenting. To parent is to empty one’s cup of patience, clarity, focus and functionality all day long. Sleeping children allow their parents to refill those cups; children who don’t sleep drain those cups to the dregs.
Or in the case of my head-butting son, those sleepless children can smash those cups to smithereens. I’d had enough of this bedtime gone awry. I was done with singing. Done with cuddling. Done pointing out the same red boots on the same picture of the same board book for the thousandth time. And I was done with my reckless, chattering child. My fraught web of emotions reminded me of something Adrienne Rich described almost 30 years ago in “Of Woman Born”: a “suffering of ambivalence” between my consuming love and near murderous rage toward my child. My heart was tender with love for him. My mind was seething with fury. My body was tense and trembling, wedged as it was between these contradictory feelings.
After a few minutes of deep breathing, I returned to my book—Donna Tartt’s “The Goldfinch,” which “everyone” had read, or is reading, or is planning to read. If my son wasn’t ready to fall asleep, at least I could read and try to ignore him. A few pages in, one of the characters in the story recounts a Polish lullaby about kittens. I didn’t care much about kittens at the moment and paid little attention to first few lines of the song. But then I read these lines:
“Oh, sleep, my darling,
If you’d like a star from the sky I’ll give you one.
All children, even the bad ones,
Are already asleep,
Only you are not.”
And then these:
“Oh, sleep, because
The moon is yawning and he will soon fall asleep.
And when the morning comes
He will really be ashamed,
That he fell asleep and you did not.”
“This mother isn’t just singing about kittens,” I thought. (I assumed it was a mother, though it might well have been a father or other caretaker.) “And she’s not just singing to her child. She’s singing to herself. She’s singing the rage and the frustration. She’s singing the darkness that I feel right now.”
Ready to fetch the stars out of the sky, ready to invoke the shame of the moon—the moon!—this mother, I imagined, was singing an ancient, PG version of “Go the F*** to Sleep.” And I wanted to crawl through a wormhole back in time, hold that person’s face between my hands, and say, “Mama, I hear you. I am so right there with you. I understand.”
Her raw feelings were there, oozing under the surface of the song’s sweet melody. There was a darkness to her lullaby.
Upon further inspection, I realized that many other lullabies harbor this element of darkness: Melancholy. Wistfulness. Desperation. That mingling of tender love and murderous rage.
Examine, if you will, the American lullaby canon. Babies’ cradles tumble out of treetops. Mirrors shatter and horses and carts fall. Mothers, fathers, sisters, and brothers all leave the baby alone to hunt and kill and skin a rabbit to make a blanket for the presumably cold infant. The darkness is there, barely concealed by the words we still sing to our children.
My curiosity piqued, I began investigating the lyrics of other countries’ and cultures’ nighttime songs. In one Russian lullaby, a mother sings to her son about the melancholy, the interminable waiting she’ll experience one day when he goes off to war. In the fourth stanza, she sings:
I’ll pray the whole day long,
And at night I’ll wonder,
I’ll think that you’re in trouble
Far away in a strange land.
Sleep now, as long as you know no sorrows,
Through my new lullaby lens, I read: “Kid, I’m right here, you’re not a soldier yet, life for you is pretty good, so please, just please, go to sleep.”
Another song, this one a popular Japanese lullaby, expresses a caregiver’s feelings over all that she is missing, and all the ways that others judge her, because her crying baby won’t stop wailing:
“I certainly hate
Taking care of the crying child.
They hate me for keeping the child to cry,
They hate me for keeping the child to cry.
The sleeping child’s
Cuteness and innocent look!
The crying child’s ugly look,
The crying child’s ugly look.”
Reading between the lines of this lullaby, I heard, “Crying pushes me to the brink. Rage, maddening rage. It even distorts this beautiful baby’s face until…until…sleep transforms it into something innocent and beautiful, as if by magic.”
Even “Hush little baby…” became “I will buy you diamonds, mirrors, goats, horses—literally anything, if you would just go to sleep. You’re the sweetest baby in the world, and I need you to sleep, dammit.”
Researchers, anthropologists, ethnomusicologists, and many others have long acknowledged and examined the not-always-light-and-airy lyrics of some lullabies. In 1928, Spanish poet Federico García Lorca delivered an entire lecture on the peculiar darkness of lullabies. Noting how this darkness spans across countries, cultures, and generations, these lullaby-investigators often point to issues such as the high infant mortality rates, disease and social instability of years past to explain why some of these songs are so dark. Mothers had a lot to fear when it came to their children. Cloaking their feelings in tranquil melodies probably helped them to soothe their babies while allaying their own fears.
But now I think that there is another layer to this darkness. It is the layer I recognized while trying (and failing) to get my toddler to sleep: the internal darkness. The unraveling of the self and sanity that occurs when a child fights sleep. The draining of that cup of patience and clarity. The shattering of our focus and functionality.
Beyond mirroring my own inner maternal darkness, I like to think these lullabies reflect other important stories too. Many of the mothers and caregivers who first sang these songs had no other way to transmit their stories. Relatively few knew how to read or write, and even fewer had ready access to journals and writing materials. But for these lullabies, we might have no way of knowing exactly how they felt about, or struggled with, parenting.
It’s difficult to distinguish what these mothers might actually be saying in their lullabies from what I project onto them. But I’d like to think that their stories are somewhere in there, lurking in the underbelly of the cradle songs that mothers, caregivers and, today, many fathers still sing to their babies. I’d like to think that their ambivalence about parenting—that their own, personal darkness—is being heard: That their songs have carried their thoughts across the centuries, and that if we listen closely enough, we can hear them.
Some nights we might even identify with them.
Kristen Oganowski, a writer and mother of three, lives in Ohio. She blogs at www.everyothermoment.com.
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