Parenting Songs and Stories to Keep the Ghosts at Bay
We all have them, those unmet needs or wishes from our own childhood, the painful bits that creep in and affect how we parent.
My father tells me he learned I knew how to crawl when he heard me crying at the top of my lungs, crawling toward the living room one evening. My parents were having cocktails and I was meant to be safely in my crib for the night, but somehow I managed to climb out and go looking for them.
Later, as a small child, I would lie awake at night, terrified. My mother’s rule: I wasn’t allowed to come upstairs to their bedroom; I had to try to sleep on my own. She would sing me one, two, three songs, then leave. My brothers shared a bedroom, and both of them found it easy to fall asleep at night. But for me, bedtime was miserable, a ritual of fear and loneliness. My mother’s songs only made me want more. I was too old to crawl down the hallway toward my parents, so I stayed in bed and cried myself to sleep.
According to the baby instruction books, you should put your baby down when she is sleepy, not quite asleep, and let her learn to settle herself. Self-soothing is a skill to learn, the books say. If you let your baby fall asleep nursing, or in your arms as you rock in a chair, you’re developing a sleep crutch they will never be able to sleep without. Children who lack the ability to self-soothe grow up irascible, disregulated. One author even warned that these children were at risk for becoming criminals or sociopaths. And that’s just the kid—if you nurse or rock or sing or read your child to sleep, supposedly you’re dooming yourself, the parent, to an endless string of nights nursing, rocking, or whatevering your child to sleep. This warning is patronizing, simplistic, and in my case, I’m ashamed to say, completely correct.
When I had my own kids, I couldn’t bring myself to follow my mother’s example, let alone the parenting books. My two children are thirteen years apart—one from each marriage—so I’ve had the opportunity to observe, as if in a scientific experiment, the way my choices as a parent have played out with two different kids. My older child, Addie, loved to be sung to and begged to hear original stories. I’m not a good singer, but luckily little children can’t tell the difference between good singing and bad. With her, I developed a repertoire that encompassed a kind of toddler starter-pack of Americana music: “O Susanna,” “You Are My Sunshine,” “This Land Is Your Land,” and “Home on the Range.”
The storytelling part was harder for me. I’m not great at making stuff up. So, for the better part of two years, I told her the plot of “The Wizard of Oz,” letting her believe I had invented it myself. I was able to carry on with this so long because Addie was the kind of child who demanded that I start again at the beginning each night. We rarely got past the introductions of the main characters before she fell asleep. This worked well until she finally saw the movie. By the time the Scarecrow finished his song, she turned and stared at me in a very accusatory manner. (Luckily, she’s quick to forgive, which she had done by the time the Cowardly Lion finished singing his.) I stopped trying to tell her stories and went back to singing.
I gradually tried to wean her off needing my help to go to sleep. She had friends who put themselves to bed easily, uncomplainingly, even cheerfully! But when I tried to leave her at bedtime, she would weep. As a result, I was still singing her to sleep each night up until I gave birth to her younger brother, Mack. Now that I was nursing him every night, Addie began putting herself to sleep: no complaining, no bargaining, no tears.
My husband, Kevin, was smug: “See? She could do it all along. She didn’t need you.” I wasn’t so sure. I’ve begun to suspect that when it comes to mothering, there’s some kind of scientific principle at work, an algorithm in which a child’s needs expand into any perceived available time and space, with my time and attention as renewable resources—always on the verge of being drained, but never empty.
After Mack was born, I trotted out the same old songs for him, adding a new one that appeared in a book he borrowed from his daycare. It was a well-loved book—so well-loved that it no longer had a cover or binding, but was a sheaf of laminated pages bound together with rings by his daycare teacher, Bill (to whom I owe an enormous apology, because we seem to still have the book in our possession nearly a dozen years later). Bill’s book contains the most traditional form of the lyrics—the mockingbird don’t sing, the diamond ring don’t shine, and so on. Mack, in his toddler voice, begged every night for “Bill Baby,” which meant the book, or the song, interchangeably.
I’ve begun to suspect that when it comes to mothering, there’s some kind of scientific principle at work, an algorithm in which a child’s needs expand into any available time and space.
Then someone, I can’t remember who, gave us another book with the same title. This Hush Little Baby is, I suppose, meant to ground the song in the natural world, replacing unlikely children’s toys like diamond rings and billy goats with things they’re more likely to encounter in real life: the sound of crickets and the feel of a teddy bear. It’s terribly sweet, although the mother bunny starts to seem a little too perfect—sanctimonious, even. The first time I reached the page where she whips out a banjo to play for her son, I audibly groaned. Mack took to calling this second book “Hush Baby.”
It felt like a cosmic joke when someone brought home a third version of Hush Little Baby . That someone was my husband, who was enthralled by its gorgeous illustrations. It is a book about a black family, which appealed to Kevin, who is black—I am white—and offers its own twist on the song.
I love it, too, but after Kevin bought it I had to master a third version of the lyrics. In this one, the father is singing to his little one. It starts the same as the traditional version, but where the looking glass gets broke, leading to a billy goat, the Pinckney lyrics posit that if that looking glass should drop, Papa’s gonna buy you a spinning top. Mack called this one “Top Baby.”
Each of these versions came into our lives as a book, but stayed there as a song. Only Mack and I knew which lyrics went with which baby, because I was the person who sang him to sleep—he was my baby, and I am his mother. I typed out the lyrics for others, but babysitters and even his father would invariably screw up one of the babies—swap a diamond for a cricket, a billy goat for a spinning top—and Mack would go from drowsy to irritated, wide-awake in a second, a tiny copy editor snapping to attention. Sometimes it felt like he was a visitor from another country, fluent only in the language of his three favorite books, and I was the only one here who could translate what on earth he was talking about. Like many other aspects of motherhood, I wore this as both a badge of honor and a kind of straitjacket, proud but resentful.
The three babies pushed out the other songs for a good year, nearly two. Then Mack slowly let back in the others I’d sung to his sister, adding a few new to him, courtesy of his father—Kevin would sing “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” and the spirituals “Ezekiel Saw the Wheel” and “Standing in the Need of Prayer,” songs Mack associates with his father, not me.
The child psychologist Selma Fraiburg wrote about a phenomenon she called ghosts in the nursery: the unexamined, maybe even unremembered, feelings from our earliest days that haunt us when we become parents. We all have them, those unmet needs or wishes from our own childhood, the painful bits that creep in and affect how we parent. I’m sure I’m haunted by more than one, but the one I know best is the bedtime ghost of fear and loneliness.
Selma Fraiburg wrote about a phenomenon she called ghosts in the nursery: the unexamined, maybe even unremembered, feelings from our earliest days that haunt us when we become parents.
My parents divorced when I was seven. My mother, a single parent of three children born within four years, grappling with her own demons, followed the instructions of the parenting books. That meant I was alone in the dark, always wanting another song I didn’t get. I don’t know how long I cried each night, but I know I cried every night. I know better than to blame my mother for what she couldn’t give me. But when I became a mother, I couldn’t—still can’t—shake that ghost from my nursery, the half-remembered feeling of wanting someone to stay with me, tell me every story, sing every song just right, make me feel cared for like the baby in the songs I sang to my son.
So yes, I sang my kids to sleep, years longer than I probably needed to. And I catered to my son’s meticulous requests that he hear every beloved version of his favorite song. Now he’s ten, and I still read to him until he falls asleep. And while I’m not having another baby to get out of the situation this time, I do sense that our bedtime rituals are winding down.
My kids will have their own ghosts in the nursery, no doubt. But the lullabies are powerful in guarding against this one, the one I knew. I will sing until they don’t need me anymore. And when the song ends each night, the child is asleep, the baby is safe, and the lurking ghost has slipped away.