I was once the envy of the Play Group, the Dr. Spock of the neighborhood, the Dear Abby of the toddler set. The world was in awe of me because my kids went to bed at 7:30 and stayed there.
There was really nothing to it. I just read them a book, plopped them in their cribs, patted their little heads, turned out the light and went on my merry way. They were so wonderfully submissive – as long as they were kept caged.
We thought it was oh, so adorable when the sweet-sleeping Molly asked if she could give up her crib and move into a real bed. Like all good parents, we immediately gave into her demands.
That first night our precociously-in-touch-with-my-feelings first born reached up and hugged me hard around the neck.
“Don’t cry, Mommy. Even if I’m in a big-girl bed, I’ll always be your little girl.”
As I felt my throat constrict, I knew life was changing. I just didn’t realize that it was the beginning of the end of my reign as Sleep Whisperer.
First there was the book. Then another book. Then the drink of water, the bathroom, the raised voice, the blanket, the book (another), the stern reprimand, the is daddy home yet, the when can Max move into my room, the stop right now or I’ll, I’ll, I’ll, the tell me the story about when I was born, the tell me the story about when Max was born, the yelling, the I’m cold, the I’m hot, the where’s my teddy bear, the I’m hungry, the I’m not tired, the closed door, the tears, the sore throat (from my screaming), the threats, the tears (mine this time). Night after night this went on, year after year.
One night Molly had a suggestion.
“Let’s play that I’m the mother and you’re the child. Now, lie down on my bed.”
MOLLY: Now say, “I want a book.”
ME: I want a book.
MOLLY: OK, Sweetie. Which book do you want?
ME: Owl Babies.
MOLLY: Now say, “I want water.”
ME: I want water.
MOLLY: OK, Sweetie. Just a minute. Here you go. Now say you want another
ME: I want another book.
MOLLY: OK, Sweetie. Just one more. Now say you have to go to the bathroom.
ME: I have to go to the bathroom.
MOLLY: OK, Sweetie. Now say you want more water.
ME: I want more water.
MOLLY: NO! (Screaming at the top of her lungs) NOW GET INTO BED THIS INSTANT OR I’M GOING TO LOCK YOU IN.
She storms out of the room, slamming the door behind her.
A year-and-a-half or so later, nothing had changed except that Max had moved into her room and we now had Leo, who was still sleeping like a baby. Rather than settling her down as I hoped, moving Max only gave her more fuel for the bedtime fire.
One night about 6:30 I closed the curtains, set the clocks ahead, dimmed the lights and told the kids it was time for bed. I didn’t really think it would work, but figured if I got a head start they’d be asleep by 8:30, a half-hour past the bedtime I strove for and an hour past the bedtime I prayed for. It was a typical riled-up night, the two toddlers running in and out of their room like wild animals, doing this, demanding that. I went in and tried to do my thing with reasoning, then bribing, then threatening, then screaming, then slamming the door shut. My insides were shaking and I just couldn’t believe that I had to put up with this nonsense every single night. I was a college graduate. It shouldn’t be this hard.
As I was holding the door shut, I heard my darling little daughter whispering to poor, malleable Max.
“Max, go get a drink of water.”
“No, Mommy will get mad.”
“No, she won’t.”
“Yes, she will.”
“Maaxxx. Mommy will be in and out of here at LEAST three more times before she REALLY gets mad.”
Molly eventually grew up and went off to college, far away. Bedtime dramas became distant memories, battles recorded in her baby book just in case one day she tried to deny she had been a difficult child.
But, when she called me one day during finals last semester, it came back to me all too vividly.
“Mom!” she cried. “I literally have not slept in three days.”
She was getting sick, she said. Really sick this time. I cringed. I quaked. I gave her my standard motherly advice. If you’d go to sleep at a decent hour…
I knew, this was all my fault. If I had kept her caged in her crib until she went to college she wouldn’t have the debilitating sleep disorder she was suffering with today.
But then, somewhere between “Mom!” and “Got to go!,” something clicked.
It may have taken twenty-two years and five hundred miles, but I realized, I was finally free. I hung up the phone and laughed out loud.
It was her battle now, not mine.