Parental Fade
Polly Rosenwaike

You can do it the long and painful way or the quick and painful way, the pediatrician says. The quick and painful way, otherwise known as crying it out: put the baby in her crib at bedtime, shut the door, leave her there till morning. Whatever it takes to ignore the cries—blast the TV, have noisy sex, take turns leaving the house—this is what we must do.

The long and painful way is called a parental fade. Put the baby in her crib and get comfortable in the rocking chair. Don’t pick the baby up. Try not to even touch her. Wait for her to settle down, to cry herself to sleep. Each night, move the rocker farther away from the crib. Remain in the room for a shorter amount of time. Cry it out takes a few nights at most. Parental fade may take several weeks.

Either way works. It’s up to you, the pediatrician says. He is the gentlest, smilingest man we have ever met. He sings our baby’s name when we bring her in. He keeps a musical frog on the ceiling, sets it swinging as he draws the needle for her shots. Look at the frog, he croons happily.

We cringe. We think: the baby will develop a phobia of frogs. We’re exhausted, despairing, mad at each other, and at all parenting manuals, all parents whose babies don’t regard their cribs as horrible cages of doom. Our insurance covers a thirty-minute sleep consultation; it’s coded as a necessary medical intervention. Now our thirty minutes are up. The pediatrician offers a final compassionate, or pseudo-compassionate, smile. Believe me, it works. You’ll be surprised. You’ll be relieved. You’ll be okay.

In the car on the way home, we consider our options. Can we get a hotel room for the weekend, pay the babysitter to do this cry it out all night thing? Can we commit to two weeks of being stationed in a rocking chair, pretending to ignore our screaming child? Can we accept that a baby crying is nothing more than a baby crying—that this is only the first of many battles, and we must be strong, we must not yield, we must stay fixed on the goal for the good of all?

Our daughter, in her rear-facing car seat, gnaws on the legs of a rubber giraffe. She is ten months old: crawling, pulling herself up to stand, pointing, clapping, shaking her head no, saying “da” and “ma,” though not necessarily in reference to us. She has two teeth on top and one about to break through on the bottom; she eats mashed sweet potato and peas and banana, but not spinach or apricots or squash. She has her father’s broad forehead and rounded nose, her mother’s blue eyes and brown hair tending toward frizz. She will fall asleep in the stroller and the car seat, in our bed and in our arms. When she’s asleep in our bed, she sprawls out, hits and kicks us, sends one of us to the couch. The other one sleeps fitfully, afraid she might roll off the unattended side. If we sneak her into the crib, she usually wakes up. When the sneaking thing works, we tiptoe around and speak in hushed voices. Perversely, we miss her.


We are in our forties; we look it and feel it. This doesn’t fit with our vision of how the world should work. We should be twenty-three always, uncertain of the future, yet convinced of the promise it holds. Though we could be the parents of a twenty-three-year-old, we feel too young for parenthood. Mama and Dada? How can these words apply to us? We still have trouble with Ma’am and Sir.

No, we have to remind ourselves: this is how the world works. Our own parents and stepparents are senior citizens, retired, ailing, acquiring new knees and hips, losing their memories. All of our grandparents are gone. Pictures of these people from another era line our mantle. They are young there: dashing in their military uniforms, zaftig in their bathing costumes, stern in their wedding attire. We would like to have known them then, but we were born too late. The ’70s will be as remote to our daughter as the ’30s are to us.


So, it’s decided, starting tonight. Parental fade. An aging rock band, a haircut for the going-bald, a chronic illness, the way of the world. We wish we could do quick and painful, but let’s be realistic. As soon as we put the baby in her crib, she’ll stand up and scream. She’ll either never lie back down, or she’ll collapse in a mangled heap. She’ll cry so hard she’ll throw up, then choke on her own vomit. We’ll have to go in and check on her and all will be lost.

Actually, we believe the pediatrician is right. The baby would be fine, she’d work it out on her own. In the morning, when we enter her bedroom, guilt-ridden and spent, our daughter would smile her smile of delight—her oldest and best trick—the smile she offers to anyone who shows her a bit of interest, but most of all to her parents, who are most in need of it. She’s a narcissistic insomniac, prohibiting others from sleeping if she cannot. A sentimental whore, refusing to sleep alone in her own bed. The most grating of alarm clocks: no radio option, no snooze button. But here are her trump cards: she smiles as if she herself had discovered joy, and she never holds a grudge.

We can’t do quick and painful, though we’re not those kind of parents—the ones who declare on their blogs that crying-it-out leaves psychological scars, gives the kid lifelong feelings of insecurity and abandonment. Our objection is not on philosophical grounds, nor out of genuine fear for the baby’s well-being. We’re softies, weaklings, cowards. It’s easier for us to do things the hard way.


Instead of the typical Saturday frenzy—going to the grocery store, cleaning, vacuuming, doing laundry, making calls, sorting through mail, shopping online for time-and-space-saving devices, clipping our toenails, while the baby is juggled from her stroller, to her jumper, to the rug, to a parent who keeps one hand free for other tasks—we spend the afternoon, both of us together, playing with the baby. We lie down on the floor and let her take it from there. She climbs on top of us, examines our belly buttons, our teeth, our ears. She gets closer to our faces than anyone would dare. She peers into our eyes with an expression of both pleasure and astonishment, as if to say: now that I have you, what will I do with you? She grabs wooden rings, rubber ducks, tennis balls. She taps on the plastic protectors we’ve installed in the electrical outlets.

Everything is toy and teether, everything should be graspable, everything must be mouthed. She flaps her arms when we bring out the canister of Cheerios. When we tell her not to play with the fireplace grate, she stops and starts, stops and starts. She makes a goofy face: half pig, half rabbit. She comes galumphing across the room to smash a tower of blocks with her fist. She prefers the monkey to the teddy bear, Go, Dog. Go! to Good Night Moon, crawling to cuddling. One day she’ll speak in sentences, make up stories, reason her way through problems, feel things she will choose to talk about or not.

But for now, she knows only that she wants us. And we’re tired. As we stack plastic cups and wind the mechanical mouse, we debate which one of us will work the shift tonight, set the parental fade in motion. One of us rocked her to sleep for an hour last night. One of us got up with her at five forty-five this morning. One of us has a slightly higher tolerance for tears. One of us is a more comforting presence. One of us has more work to do tomorrow. One of us gave birth to her, nursed her for eight months.

One of us will do it, never mind which one. The off-duty parent can hear the wailing anyway, the banging on the crib, the coaxing sounds, the uselessly cheerful songs. The waiting-outside parent knows—from the interlude of silence, followed by renewed fuming—that the inside-the-room parent has cheated: picked the baby up, then put her back down. There’s the pull to give in, give up. But we told the doctor we’d try this. We joked about it to our friends. We promised each other and we promised ourselves.

We’re trying to remember what life was like before this baby. Interesting, mundane. Hopeful, fearful. Easy, tiring. Good, disappointing. In many ways the same as it is now. People say that a baby changes everything, but is that true? Are we more patient or less? More generous or more selfish? More engaged with the world or more in retreat from it? More accepting of mortality or more frightened of dying? These are things to think about, lying in bed with a pitiful soundtrack, or rocking back and forth in a sad, dark room.

The baby is still crying but she’s losing steam. The hiccups are setting in; the defeated, catching-the-breath sobs. In a way, those fading whimpers are harder to hear than the howls. Babies in terrible circumstances, we’ve read—starving babies, orphaned babies, babies living through wars—eventually stop crying all the time when they realize that crying will do nothing. The learned silence of a suffering baby: worse than all the yelling a healthy, privileged baby can muster.

It’s been quiet for some time. The door to the baby’s room opens and clicks shut. The emotionally exhausted parent enters the bedroom to report to the other one. We’re two adult bodies alone in bed tonight. We spoon in our clothes, keep our hands still. Sex is a sport for childless couples and retirees. Sex is a dream we used to have together. That’s partly why we’re doing this—to take back the bedroom, to unroll a condom at midnight (we’re not taking any chances) instead of a bottle liner that resembles a condom. Once it was romantic to trade sleep for sex. Now it’s just dumb. When the baby wakes up again three hours later, the second-shift parent assumes the position, watches the subject through the bars, a primatologist monitoring a screaming chimp.

Let’s be scientists, then, attentive but detached, asking questions, recording observations, setting emotional impulses aside. The baby is crying. Why do babies cry? A primal reaction, an evolutionary advantage. Long ago there was a race of tranquil, non-crying babies. When they wanted milk, when they wanted comfort, when they wanted to be picked up and rocked to sleep, their faces simply assumed sweet and hopeful expressions. A small number of parents always responded to these cues, kept their sweet and hopeful babies safe, taught them to speak, to make polite requests, to shrug in a that’s life way when they didn’t get the things they wanted. Most parents didn’t do so well, being blessed with an undemanding, mum’s-the-word baby. Their babies were malnourished, caught colds and then pneumonia, got lost in the woods, trapped in caves, eaten by animals. Eventually this race of babies died out. The shriekers, the protesters, the you-better-fucking-do-something babies—these were the ones that survived to pass on their talent for bellowing, for making themselves heard with a sound that reverberated inside their parents’ bodies, in that place between the stomach and the rib cage, the seat of love and panic.

Babies like this baby here, a fine exemplum of the species. This baby refuses to accept that her caretaker is right there within view yet offers no warmth, no breath, no scent, no cradling in the arms: the seat of reassurance and surrender.


Tonight, study the room, a room we considered carefully before the baby arrived, choosing what color to paint the walls (the delicate grey of pigeons’ wings, of the sky before snow), arranging the furniture (Ikea, craigslist), putting up pictures (Matisse dancers, Chagall village, a monkey at a typewriter painted by a friend’s kid). This room isn’t as nice as the rooms of other babies we know: the one whose parents made the furniture themselves, the one whose parents are professional designers, the one whose parents are rich. But we like to think it’s tasteful and comforting. We like to think that the baby, though she seems to prefer every other room in the house to this one, will come to think of it as her own special space.

Tonight, the light is dimmed to the lowest setting the dimmer switch will allow, obscuring the features of the baby’s tearstained face, while affording an eventual smooth exit from the room. The light fixture resembles a breast: the suspended globe, the pointy nub. In the almost dark, the pieces of furniture look like congenial beasts. The baby’s howling is the voice of the jungle, its animating force. Each creature within has staked out its territory. Here is the bureau: a bulwark, a hoarder. Keeper of clothes previously worn by other fast growing babies, a series of multicolored, spotted, striped, and flowered things that fit for now. The bottom drawer holds the next size up, clothing for a giant, until it’s outgrown and becomes impossibly small. Here is the changing table, warden of excrement, of domestication, of civilized waste disposal, of keeping one’s bottom covered and dry. Here is the bookshelf, stripped of half its books, the ones in danger of being torn apart limb from limb. The sturdy, simple ones remain, full of rabbits and moons, cats and colors, successful bedtimes and journeys by boat. Here is the mobile: a peaceable kingdom, an airborne jungle. The elephant is pink, the parrot stands as tall as the giraffe, the tortoise keeps pace with the cheetah. All look friendly, all dance at the prompting of a parent’s hand. And here is the baby, lord over all. Beware her wild cries! Beware her human ferocity!


We’d rather not think of ourselves as a we. We never wanted to be like those couples—all we think this, and we like that. We don’t share one body, one mind, one heart. We discussed this before we got married, before we co-signed the loan on the house, before we united that egg with that sperm, before we joined our last names with a hyphen (which has to stop somewhere—if a hyphenated daughter marries a hyphenated son, how many hyphens can their children bear?). We’re still two people, taking turns feeling depressed and contented, giving and receiving hugs, saying I’m sorry and It’s okay. Two people negotiating over who will call the plumber; who will change the diaper; who will get out of the house first in the morning; who will be right; who will win by shouting, by silence, by kindness. Two people angling for the newspaper, for the last piece of cake, for more time for ourselves, for more sympathy for our grievances, for the right to remain in bed while the other one stumbles out of it and into the room next door.

When you are older, which one of us will you confide in? Which one of us will you begrudgingly admire? To which one of us will you assign the most blame? Now we can joke and curse, mutter and huff in front of you all day while you go about your baby business, finding everything within reach: bottle, toys, teething ring, parents. Now, in the room next to yours, we can make love—again, at last—and you won’t even wonder at our strange pleasure sounds. How long do we have before you begin to track the flash in the eyes, the set of a jaw? How long before the word parents carries with it a sense of duty and burden, irritation and embarrassment? When you are old enough to consider such questions, will you believe—your existence aside—that we made the right choice in choosing each other? Will you keep our wedding picture on your mantle, missing the people you never knew?


Think of things that fade. Jeans and hair dye. Paper and summer. Music, clapping, laughter. The sex drive. The glow of human skin. Think of things that don’t fade. The colors in paintings by the Old Masters. Evolutionary principles. A certain order of things—earth orbiting sun, spring following winter, children succeeding parents.


We remember nights when we couldn’t sleep as kids. The house was quiet, the tree outside the bedroom window loaded down with blossoms or skeletal in the dark. At first, we celebrated our freedom: crept downstairs and pulled The Joy of Sex from its camouflaged place on the bookshelf; turned on a late-night movie about a bulimic or a serial killer; ravaged the Häagen-Dazs; opened the drawer with our parents’ private papers, thought better of it, then closed the drawer and went back to bed. Sheep leapt across a meadow, counting anxieties; the sandman got into a motorcycle accident on the highway. We tried everything: lying on a beach and letting the waves wash over us, relaxing every part of our bodies, masturbating against pillows and dolls, petitioning gods we were supposed to believe in. We envisioned catching fly balls, living out in the woods, punching some people in the face and kissing others on the lips. We imagined that our parents were not our parents, that our real parents were out there somewhere: movie star princess and sorcerer king, Judy Blume and Cal Ripken, Jr., perfectly normal mom and perfectly normal dad.


Someday, we will tell you this story. How helpless we felt, how weak, how unprepared, how we couldn’t imagine you falling asleep on your own—and for years you’ve been doing it: lying down in your bed in the dark and trusting that soon the darkness will overtake you. It will please you to hear this, the way it’s pleasing to think of oneself as a baby: tiny, goofy, not quite yourself. To think of your parents baffled by parenthood, younger, uninitiated, people in their own right. People like you and not like you at all. Someday, if everything goes according to plan, we will die before you.

Now here we are, in the chair by your crib, inching farther away each night as your crying fades, as you come to rely on your miniature pillow, your transitional object, your adaptable brain, your inner resources, everything you have that isn’t us. We don’t believe that babies are little angels. We don’t believe that god sent you to us. Before you were born, we were babies ourselves, then children, teenagers, adults with no dependents. We had two mothers, two fathers, three stepparents. We loved other people, left them and lost them. We had abortions and miscarriages.

Somehow, we thought, we will become parents, but the child that would grant us this title was no one we had ever seen before in our lives. Before, it could have been anyone. Now, it can only be you.