By sheer luck or perfect providence or simple coincidence, the day I called the Montessori School about a job was the same day a full time assistant had quit without notice. They would be thrilled to hire me back to fill the position, the Head of School told me over the phone while my heart began to beat again. We set a start date, hung up, and I stared at the bulletin board trying to collect myself. It hung on the wall of a coffee shop in a strip mall outside town. I had driven there in a gold 1994 Honda Civic on twenty-four hour loan from the mechanic. It was December in Idaho. My car was totaled, I’d just learned I was pregnant, and I was going back to my hometown.
This is how the winter of my pregnancy found me bending gracefully to speak to young children in short calm sentences. Now it is time to wash our hands. Show me where this work belongs. You can tell him, ‘No, thank you. I don’t like that.’ Let’s sit down and put on our shoes. This is how we carry a chair. You can lie down now, it is time to rest our bodies.
This particular Montessori School was an old brick schoolhouse situated on a photogenic hill. Roses and hydrangeas bloomed out front in the springtime. Sunlight filtered through tree leaves and into the classroom through plate glass windows stretching to the high ceiling. Wooden shelves sat full of lessons arranged in wooden trays. Houseplants and crocheted doilies marked the spot for the tin watering can and the tray that held the tiny sponge. Children carried their lunches in baskets and left their shoes in a neat row outside the classroom.
Each day after lunch, it was my duty to lead a line of sock-footed children down the hall into the nap room. Each day I watched as some of them willingly lay down on their nap mats and fell asleep without my help. Others required me to sit at their sides and patiently rub their backs in smooth circles, reminding them gently over and over: This is the time to rest our bodies. Others required firm pats between their shoulder blades. Still others could not lie still no matter what we did and never, ever, slept. After a time I would usher these last quietly out the door, down the hallway, and onto the playground where, with a certain relief, I would take my place in the line of teachers standing in the grass.
It was the only moment in all our days together when the adults could stand and talk, and we did—informally debriefing the morning’s happenings and discussing our strategies for managing the more challenging patterns. Invariably, after other ideas had been exhausted, the question would be asked: Have we brought it up to their moms? Or, I just can’t help but wonder what’s going on at home. Or, I just don’t understand why parents [blank]. Don’t they see [blank] is happening?
It seemed to me, having seen firsthand so many common mistakes parents make, that I could and would avoid them all. I would be the ideal Montessori mom, and I would therefore raise one of the best Montessori children. I visualized a child who would place his shoes neatly side by side in his wooden cubby. One who would carefully place the tiny sponge over the spout of the watering can before carrying it to each plant to be watered, and then return it to its place marked by a doily on the shelf. One who would choose his mat at naptime and carry it to his spot in the room. He would roll it out so carefully and lie down on it to fall asleep, all by himself.
In the months that my belly swelled, I observed carefully and read as many books as possible, collecting advice for my future mama-self. Choose only toys made of natural materials so as not to overwhelm the baby’s delicate senses. Only wear the baby and never carry him in the carseat, to encourage bonding and the development of a strong core. Breastfeed exclusively and make your baby food from all organic vegetables. Use cloth to ease toilet-training and not to be wasteful (I even downloaded a pattern and sewed a handful myself). Give birth naturally. Co-sleep in order to nurture a secure attachment. I knew that if I could just do enough of the right things, my kid would grow up to be one of the good ones.
My son is fast approaching his second birthday, and in spite of my efforts, he has never slept well. Any night of the week I will wake to the sound of J— wailing in his toddler bed. I hold my breath and listen through the dark to the rustle of his diapered bottom scooting across his tiny mattress, and then to the sound of his feet pat-pat-ing across the wood floor to the trunk full of blankets at the end of my bed. He scrambles as high as he can get before letting out the final fussy whine that only I know means, “Help me up, Mama.”
Each night I sigh and I roll over to the sleep-stained image of my son’s puffy hands reaching for something to grab hold of as he climbs into my bed. I pull him up by the arms and drop him next to me on the mattress, where most nights he settles down. Usually, I roll over and touch my forehead to my partner’s back and we all go back to sleep, just a little closer than before. But one particular night, J— did not go back sleep.
For the first four minutes I was patient and gentle. Then I moved quickly to firm, then to desperate. Before too long I had built a veritable wall of pillows between myself and J—, leaving my partner, who can sleep through anything, to bear the brunt of those tiny, wakeful feet.
I lay there in the dark, listening to J— kick my partner and considering all the advice I didn’t take. Don’t co-sleep; they’ll never sleep by themselves. Never let your baby fall asleep nursing. Arrange your life around your baby’s sleep schedule; nothing else takes higher priority. Never wake a sleeping baby. Never let your baby fall asleep in your arms. Never rock your baby to sleep. Establish a bedtime routine, and never stray.
Clearly, I had chosen the wrong method. Perhaps if I had listened to different advice—all of which flashes through my mind with such clarity while my child pummels my partner’s sleeping back—if I had read more books, or different books, or asked more questions, or listened when people offered the oft-slandered unsolicited advice, J— would be a super-Montessori-baby who chooses his nap-mat off of the shelf and lies down on it to fall asleep, all by himself. Perhaps if I had done everything differently, my son would sleep peacefully through the night in his own little bed. But then of course, perhaps not.
Today, J— fell asleep for his nap in his own bed for the first time in many months. I covered him with a blanket decorated with little drawings of sugar snap peas. I didn’t feel guilty about the fact that he fell asleep clutching his sippy cup of milk, or that he only fell asleep because I crouched by his side patting his back for half an hour, and then only after asking him to lie down three or seven times. He only got up twice to get a different stuffed animal out of his basket. At least, I told myself not to feel guilty, and that’s an improvement over what I normally tell myself.
It turns out I’m not a super-mom, and my kid is not a super-baby. We’re both just regular people, fumbling along as best we can through each day. And while there are certainly harmful ways to raise children, it turns out there’s no way to know what’s the right thing to do, or who to listen to, or which is the right advice on how to raise your baby, but I’ll be darned if me and my kid don’t have a happy life and a lot of love.