Wakeful State

by Jordan Dolfi

Our son, Malachi, is four months old, and has just entered the “wakeful state” period of babyhood. At first we were concerned – not eating, not sleeping. “He doesn’t seem himself,” we both said. He is so enamored with the world around him that he cannot sleep or eat for more than a few minutes without being distracted by the lights and sounds of life, his big blue eyes popping, toothless mouth agape. In the span of his life, Malachi has gradually shifted from sleeping and eating twenty-four hours a day to sleeping and eating for twenty, so this latest schedule shift—a major shift—to playing and cooing twenty hours a day, eating and sleeping four, has really rocked our household.

The dog seems to be most affected. Oscar, a thirteen-pound, low to the ground, wire-haired mutt terrier, is our first child. Previously spoiled, he now spends most of his time fretting over the baby, and a little bit of time being jealous of his constant attention. In the first couple months, Oscar would obsess with concern over the baby. Whenever Malachi cried, Oscar would run to find one of us and stare at us with intensity, whimpering. If we didn’t move fast enough (heaven forbid an uninterrupted bathroom break), Oscar would race back to the baby, then come to get us again (forcing his way into the bathroom, if need be), until we got the message. When the baby nursed, Oscar would sit in front of the rocker with his back to us, guarding against any interruptions. When the baby needed a change, even in the middle of the night, Oscar would run ahead to the changing table to make sure everything was in order, then oversee the process. Changing a baby is a tough maneuver when you 1. aren’t used to it, and 2. are delirious. Some new moms feel the pressure from their older sisters or mothers-in-law. I got disapproving looks from the dog. “Obviously you have no idea what you’re doing,” his eyes said, “he is still crying, in case you haven’t noticed.”

Not realizing the alerts we would get from Oscar, we splurged on a video baby monitor before Malachi was born. It should be noted that we live in an “efficient bungalow” built in the 1950s –  a barely 900 square-foot, yet stand-alone, house. The doorframe to the baby’s room actually butts up against the doorframe to our bedroom. When we first bought the house and painted the hallway we couldn’t fit a paintbrush in between the frames. My defense is that whether you’re in a small house or Downton Abbey, if the baby makes noise in the nursery, someone has to get out of bed to see what’s going on in there, and I didn’t want to get up in the middle of the night any more than I’d have to. Our fancy video monitor uses night vision technology so we can see the baby even when his room is pitch dark. It has an indicator strip across the top that lights up from green to orange to red depending on the volume of crying and screaming. Despite seeing the value in the video monitor, the indicator light strip seemed ridiculous to me at first, but on several occasions I have been so exhausted that I rely on the judgment of the monitor and wait to get up until the red lights flash.

One of the benefits of our little house is that our little family has plenty of little family time, all together in one room. My absolute favorite little family time is bedtime. It's summer, so when we put the baby to bed there is still a bit of light outside that seeps through the cracks between the curtains and the windows, just enough to give the room a dreamy feel. We can see each other, but we're faded in the near darkness. Bedtime is a whole-family affair. My husband changes the baby and gets him in his pajamas while I get my pillows arranged in the rocker for nursing and the dog sits at attention, supervising. I nurse the baby, then my husband burps him, and we trade back and forth until he is asleep. One by one, we head to bed, the dog always starting us out. Oscar likes to be involved in all of the parenting, but by 9:20 he is ready for bed, and unlike us, he has learned that he can choose to saunter out whenever he likes. Oscar seems to have noticed that despite our deficits, Malachi continues to survive, so he has let up on his critical looks and over-attentiveness and has even strayed into nonchalance in the middle of the night if he’s really tired. Since Malachi has been waking up so much, Oscar doesn’t even get off the bed to help us at the changing table half the time anymore. He lifts his head and rolls his eyes, “Really, again?”

On our third night of “wakeful state,” my sweet husband was up for hours in the middle of the night, rocking the baby. Malachi finally fell asleep, and my husband dragged himself back to bed, and not ten minutes later we heard Malachi cooing and whining over the monitor. My husband’s eyes watered. I turned the monitor screen on and found Malachi, feet in hands, rocking from side to side.

“Just leave him there,” I said.

“We’re going to let him cry?!” My husband was astonished. The idea is that when the baby wakes up in the night you are supposed to get him to go back to sleep, right?

“Let's just wait.  Let's just see,” I said.  Oscar approved, curling himself up tighter on the bed.

A few minutes in, Malachi stopped crying and just started looking around…in the dark…for an hour. I was so captivated with his amazement that I stayed awake to watch. “Sleep when the baby sleeps,” they tell you, but what about “stay awake in quiet delight when your baby is enchanted with the world around him”?

I wonder how long I will be able to recognize the beauty in this wonderment. Three sleepless nights in and I’m still energized by it. How incredible to discover the world, inch by inch, sound by sound, for the first time. And by the world, in his case, I mean Malachi’s crib, his father’s lap, my nursing pillow, the dog fretting all around us. That is as far as his world reaches, and I am thankful that our little family in a little house is enough amazement for him, for now.

Jordan Dolfi graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill with a B.A. in English and Art History and UNC Asheville with a Master of Liberal Arts. She works for the Asheville Graduate Center at UNC Asheville and serves as Copy Editor for The Great Smokies Review. Jordan lives in Asheville with her husband, baby boy, and well-loved rescue dog.