Holding Fast: Fairy Tales and Wrestling My Baby to Sleep

What Fairy Tales taught me about loving my son and helping him sleep.

There’s a very old Scottish fairy tale called “Tam Lin” about a man who gets captured by faeries, much to the dismay of his beloved, Janet. Janet learns that the faeries intend to make a sacrifice of him and that the only way to save him is to stand at the crossroad at midnight on Halloween and take hold of him as the faerie court passes by on their way to make the sacrifice. “You must spring upon me suddenly,” Tam Lin tells her, “Then seize me quick, and whatever change befall me, for they will exercise all their magic on me, cling hold to me till they turn me into red-hot iron. Then cast me into this pool and I will be turned back into a man. Cast then your green mantle over me, and I shall be yours, and be of the world again.” Janet does as he tells her. The faeries turn Tam Lin to ice, then fire, then an adder, a dove, a swan, and finally, a hot iron sword. Janet steadfastly holds Tam Lin through all his changes, waits for the moment of iron, and then plunges him into the water and covers him with her mantle. And so, the story tells us, “Tam Lin was Janet’s forever.”

I’ve been keenly reminded of this story lately at nighttime when putting my son down to sleep. He arrived late to the rolling-over party just a few weeks ago at ten months old, but in the span of two weeks this has led to crawling, standing, and now cruising, so life has become suddenly much more exciting for our little boy. Much more exciting than bedtime and sleep.

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We have a settled nighttime routine—diaper change and pajamas, play and cuddles, nursing, reading a book, rocking and patting and singing his bedtime hymn. He does well with most of it. He’s begun to be very squirmy during clothing changes, but it’s nothing we can’t overcome. The change happens the moment we finish the hymn, or sometimes in the last verse or two–squirming, rolling, thrashing, kicking, hitting, pinching, crying! It feels at times like I’m trying to pin down a small alligator. It’s so obvious that he’s tired, but he’s so resistant to sleep right now that it sometimes takes us several hours to get him to actually go to sleep.

The most effective method so far has been to hold him as still as we can, pinning him so that he can’t roll over, and to sing. Eventually he stills his thrashing and drifts off, but the intermittent fussing and crying breaks my heart.

The story of Tam Lin is at its heart a story about loving bravely. It’s about loving the beloved in the midst of changeability and uncertainty and fear and hurt, and holding on to the one you love for his own good. Love isn’t always something reciprocal, and it makes no promise to always be pleasant. Sometimes it’s icy one minute and fiery the next; one minute it’s a snake, and the next it’s a dove. Or a red-hot iron sword, ready to pierce your heart. In the old Ballad of Tam Lin, Tam Lin begs Janet to be his savior. “Hold me fast, and fear me not,” he tells her.


My son doesn’t understand why I’m forcing him to lie still at night, why I won’t let him get up and crawl and stand and sit and fall over to his heart’s content. It’s probably true that the way I’m showing love to him doesn’t feel like love to him; but that’s okay. I’m learning to wait and watch for the moment of iron, when the little adder-dove in my arms changes back into a boy and I can tuck him snugly into bed. I know that what he needs is love, steadfast love, and not to be given his own way. I’m learning to love bravely and with patience (SO much patience!), to hold him fast and fear not his tiny baby rage.

We might not be getting a lot of sleep, but hopefully we’re growing in love.


Love and sleep to you too,



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What Fairy Tales taught me about loving my son and helping my baby to sleep.



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