I cannot bear to hear a baby cry. I feel it right to my core. But in the first year of my daughter’s life she suffered from a chronic illness that caused a lot of crying. And I mean a lot. Her wails were heartrending, made all the worse by how little I could do to ease her misery. We got through the days with kangaroo parenting and lots of nursing, but, because it was so hard for her to sleep, our nights were unspeakably long.
For hours each evening she could stay asleep only if I walked while holding her against my shoulder. I’d circle the dining room table, looking out the dark windows hoping for the momentary distraction of a passing car. The minutes went by in slow motion. My arms were cramped and my body beyond weary. Finally, in the early hours of the morning, she usually calmed enough that I could slump into bed against a pile of pillows where she slept on my chest and I slept too.
During those hours of walking I couldn’t watch TV, even dim light kept her awake much longer. (Science now tells us that as little as a light shining on the back of our knees is enough to change our circadian clocks.) So I resorted to the only distractions available: the ones I could play inside my head.
Now that my daughter is grown (and healthy!) I’d nearly forgotten those mental games until I listened to my friend Bernie DeKoven’s marvelous new recording, Recess for the Soul, which is packed with ideas for playing on what Bernie calls the Inner Playground.
Bernie describes undergoing a procedure at the dentist, saying,
Under certifiably physical duress, my mighty mind can take me away from the all too personal now. I can, instead, should I so choose, talk to myself, joke with myself, fool myself into some semblance of squirmlessness, even when the world wherein I found myself proves so profoundly squirmworthy.
I wish I’d heard of Bernie’s tactics back then…
I’ll share a few of the games I played on my own inner playground. These weren’t clever by any means, simply last-resort mechanisms to keep a desperately tired and worried parent going. If you’re at the end of your rope for whatever reason, head on in to your inner playground. (For a much wider range of mental games, refer to Bernie’s recording.)
Betting On Myself
I’d tell myself that I could make it another 15 minutes without looking at the clock. Then I’d try to gauge how long that time period might be before checking the time. If I gave in and looked too soon, losing the bet, I’d lengthen the next time period, not letting myself look for another 20 minutes. And so on.
As I walked back and forth in my dark home in the wee hours, I’d challenge myself to reconstruct something in detail. One night it might be a book plot. Another night a childhood memory and another night a good time I’d had with friends. It wasn’t easy, but good mental exercise. It also, I’m sure, was a relief to so fully visit another realm in my mind.
Absurd Movie Screenplays
I’d mentally write screenplays, the more absurd the better. If I found myself with anything resembling a normal plot line I’d joggle it up by adding a talking giraffe, a time travel bathtub, or something equally implausible. The exhausted mind is actually pretty creative, maybe because logic is for people who get enough sleep.
When I was totally at the end of my rope and could find no way to ease my baby’s misery, I got to the point where I longed to set her down gently and fling myself out the window. So I’d pretend there was some omnipresent camera watching me. Somehow that made it easier to keep going, as if I were acting in a play about a very patient mother. When I was really tired, I pretended the film being made that moment was the only evidence that God might see of my life. I know, dire.
It wasn’t as if I didn’t want to be fully present with my daughter, I did. But there’s only so much mindfulness one can bear after hours of walking a sick child. Don’t wait until you’re ready to toss yourself out the window. Play as wildly as you’d like on your own inner playground.
(And if you’ve got techniques to help any of us through miseries like sitting on a plane with take-off delayed, waiting for the jury to come to a verdict, or pacing the floor of a surgical ward please share them with us!)