NEW YORK (JTA) — I slept soundly through the thump, then creak of footsteps, as my 18-month old son climbed out of his crib and ran to our room. He clawed his way up the queen-sized mattress to nurse. I turned toward my baby’s soft, warm body and fell back asleep as he sipped, shifting between our three older children, who’d also woken up from bad dreams and found solace in our bed.
Getting kicked in the ribs by four sets of tiny limbs, my husband, Dan, escaped to the couch, as he had for the last nine years that I allowed them to sleep with us.
“It’s chutzpah. I can’t live without sleep,” Dan mumbled.
Dan’s parents had never let him bunk with them, except once during a blackout. He could never understand the emotional comfort of a family bed or the intuition of a selfless Jewish mother.
The next morning he left for work frazzled, without saying goodbye, again.
Although I didn’t grow up religious, since I became Orthodox and married Dan at age 25 — donning a long blond wig and wearing modest clothes – I vowed to be the perfect Jewish mother, doing everything for my children. Ten years and four kids later, my life felt like a race I could never win. Rushing the kids to school, preparing supper and cleaning up left little time to shower, let alone find intimate time with Dan.
After my mother divorced my father when I was 2, she gave me the only bedroom in the apartment. When I had nightmares, she’d let me lie next to her, and I’d measure my breathing to mimic hers. But when she remarried six years later, I was no longer allowed to climb in.
Turning away the kids at night, I feared, could make them feel abandoned like I had as a little girl. I worried if I made them “cry it out,” I would damage them – with all the neighbors watching. All the other mothers in my Orthodox Brooklyn enclave, with far more children than my four, had no problems with these issues.
Yet Dan persisted. “Don’t pick up the baby the minute he cries,” he said one Shabbat afternoon. “Let him learn to soothe himself.”
“How can I ignore my children’s suffering?’ I defended, and went to pick up the baby before our neighbors arrived for lunch. The more Dan criticized, the less I listened. I searched for faults in Dan to even the balance sheet of domestic transgressions. There were few. Dan had made brunch every Sunday of our 10-year marriage.
“Can’t you put the ketchup away when you’re done with it?” I glared as he slid the offending bottle back in the fridge.
“The garbage,” I said, pointing at the stainless steel bin overflowing with half-eaten hot dogs.
I wanted the problem to be him. But when I recently saw a picture of myself, I saw it was me: I didn’t recognize the chubby blonde figure in the photo. A weak smile exposed a double chin, a cream-colored poncho blurring the image into a snowy mass. I hadn’t been sleeping and my body still looked pregnant nearly two years later. The candid photo caught the dark circles under my eyes and a vacant stare that makeup couldn’t hide.
I didn’t want to be a fat, cranky housewife who didn’t take care of herself, eating her children’s leftovers and whittling down her husband’s ego. It was unattractive and sad. My best friend watched me pick up my baby at the littlest whimper and walk out of my house covered in spit-up. She suggested I might benefit from parenting advice.
Dan and I arrived in Dr. C’s nearby Brooklyn basement office ready to learn child-rearing tricks. She was Orthodox like us and dressed in a crisp, black skirt and flowing teal cardigan. But as soon as we admitted our co-sleeping arrangements, she wanted to know why we did it.
“The kids are scared at night, so I let them into our room. Everyone does,” I said. My cheeks felt hot.
“I get no rest,” Dan told the therapist.
“Your bedroom needs to be private,” she said.
I was shocked. That’s what Dan had been saying for years. I couldn’t believe a religious mother would agree to a rigid, cold routine.
“Children don’t belong in their parents’ room,” she confirmed in a balanced, firm tone. I decided that I wanted to be like her rather than a washed-up sacrifice on the altar of motherhood.
“What about Scrabble?” she asked.
“Scrabble?” I repeated. For what? I hated board games.
“I recommend the Travel Edition,” she said. “Play it on date night.” Dan and I glanced sideways at each other.
A week later the box arrived with the first toy we’d bought for ourselves. Our 6-year-old ripped it open and her sister went to put the game on the shelf. When I said it was for Mommy and Daddy, she complained, “Why do you need a game?”
Lying in bed with the small zippered pouch full of letters, we made up our own rules: only words to express love, words to describe each other and our fantasies. Halfway through the game, we zipped up the black vinyl cover and turned the lights down to cuddle. It was a start.
The next day, we had a family meeting.
“From now on, you won’t be allowed in our room without knocking first,” Dan said. I nodded. It was drastic, but there was no way to change this gradually. The oldest doodled a picture but did not protest.
But after bedtime, they pounded our door so hard they broke the lock and loosened the handle. I was afraid the neighbors with whom we shared a wall would wake up from the midnight wailing as my kids shrieked in unison, “Let me in,” for two weeks in a row.
Yet we stuck to our plan. When I heard whines in the hall, I schlepped the kids back to their room, promising to check on them later. Tempted to give in, I texted Dr. C for moral support, receiving compliments from Dan.
As the kids settled into their own quarters over the next few weeks, they woke up rested, calmer.
“Will you tuck me in?” my oldest daughter asked, bravely reading herself to sleep after our five-minute special time. Dan went into comfort our sweet son in the middle of the night to help the little guy give up nursing. I felt more energetic all day after sleeping a full eight hours.
When my husband saw that our room was private, his attitude changed. “You wanna get the game?” he said as we trudged upstairs holding hands.
Dan and I learned to spend entire nights beside each other. Bottles of red wine and vanilla candles replaced scattered laundry and piles of paper on the nightstand.
Eventually we didn’t even need Scrabble to say I love you.
(Amy Bromberg, a journalist living in New York City, is working on a memoir.)