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Sleep tight

For the past week, and for the first time in their lives, my children have been falling asleep without me in the room with them.

My children are seven-and-a-half and almost four, so I wouldn’t take it amiss if you were to say that this has been a long time coming.

Here’s the thing. Chris snores, which is not his fault, and I am a super-sensitive princess type who cannot handle any kind of noise whilst I try to sleep. So when we moved into our current house I started sleeping in the guest room. Around that time, Mallory, who was about seven months old, suddenly decided to stop sleeping through the night, or to let me return her to her crib after a period of rocking or nursing, so the easiest thing to do – since I had to be up early to get to work – was to just bring her in the guest bed with me. And eventually she stopped sleeping in her crib altogether, and subsequently also rejected the toddler bed we bought as a replacement, so it was the guest bed (the geen bed, she called it, because it usually had green sheets) for her all the way, and I stayed with her every night while she fell asleep and then went to my own bed but usually ended up coming back when Chris’s snoring drove me away sometime in the early hours.

And I realize that at any point during this time I could have put my foot down and found a way to “force” Mallory to sleep in her crib or in her little bed by herself. But this was during my hippie phase, as I call it in my mind – when I was breast-feeding beyond infancy, and using cloth diapers, and so forth, and co-sleeping fell very naturally into this way of life. I read lots of articles about the benefits of “the family bed,” and about how the United States is one of the only countries in the world in which babies are supposed to sleep by themselves, cold and lonely and afraid (not really), in their own rooms. I read that bed-sharing increases the rates of successful breastfeeding and may even reduce the risk of SIDS (although opinions on this vary widely, so please keep in mind that I’m not making any recommendations, standard disclaimer, etc.). I read that sleeping with a parent makes children happier, more secure, and more independent than children who are left to “cry it out” in their cribs. So I felt philosophically comfortable with my sleeping arrangement.

On the other hand, I also knew that I was following the path of least resistance. I did try the “cry it out” approach a couple of times with Mallory, and I always caved. It felt wrong to me. I don’t think I necessarily believe, now, what I read then about psychological damage and breaking the bonds of trust and all that – now that I am almost four years removed from infancy, I am far less judgmental about how other people care for their infants – but I just couldn’t handle it, letting her cry when I knew that what she wanted was ME. Maybe it was because I was a working mom: I couldn’t be there for her when she cried for me during the day, so I just couldn’t bear to let her cry for me at night when I was there.

When I got pregnant with Phoebe, however, it occurred to me that I had a problem. I had pretty much decided to co-sleep with the new baby for the first few months (so much easier, no matter what your philosophy, than getting up and out of bed every hour and a half), but how could I sleep with the new baby and Mallory? Honestly, I can’t even remember what we did the first few months of Phoebe’s life – Phoebe, who turned out to be a terrible sleeper anyway – but I think it involved a complicated nightly ritual of musical beds. Eventually we bought a twin-over-full futon bunk bed, put Mallory on the top and me and Phoebe on the bottom, and that’s how we’ve been sleeping ever since. And every night, I sit in the bedroom with them, reading my book while they go to sleep (and often falling asleep soon after they do).

But things must change, not least because the futon mattress is doing bad things to my neck and shoulders. At some point this summer I’m going to reclaim the guest bed (which is now unhandily located in Chris’s studio, and covered in stuff and dust) and leave the children in their room. (Let it not go unsaid that I would much prefer to be sleeping, you know, actually with my husband. Right now I have no solution to the snoring problem, though. First things first.) But the first step is to get the kids used to falling asleep without me sitting in the room with them.

We began last week, as soon as school was out. I said that they were old to go to bed by themselves, so we were going to do stories and a few minutes of snuggle time and that was it. I said that I had things I needed to do each night that were not getting done, but that Daddy and I would always be either down the hall or just downstairs and they should not worry. I said this was how it was going to be.

There were protests and tears. “I want to come with you when you go downstairs!” Phoebe wept. “What if I see a bug?” Mallory demanded. “I’m scared!” Phoebe howled. And so forth. Once they realized I was serious, Mallory asked if she could sleep on the bottom bunk with Phoebe, so they could keep each other company. I agreed (although this presents a problem when I come in later to go to bed – I have to wake her up and coax her over to and up the bunk bed ladder and it’s comically difficult to do so). It’s been a week now, and they’ve always managed to fall asleep within half an hour, but honestly, that half an hour hasn’t gotten any easier. There are still tears, there are still protests. Phoebe tries to make me promise to “just do one thing, and then come to bed with me!” Mallory announced: “We’ve been talking it over, and we feel that it’s not fair if you leave us in here just to go watch TV or something. We guess it’s okay if you really have to do the dishes or something, but if you’re just going to do something fun, that’s not right.” (My response to this was, “Excuse me, I am the mother. I get to choose what I do when you are in bed, not you.”) I haven’t caved yet, though, I’m sticking to my guns, so I’m hoping that in another week or two, or maybe a month, I’ll be able to kiss them goodnight and walk away without difficulty, just like every other parent in the world.

I brought this on myself, I know. I’m enduring the difficulty and the annoyance now because I wouldn’t do it when they were younger. But I have to say that I don’t regret it. I loved sleeping next to my babies when they were tiny. I never had to get out of bed and go down the hall to check if they were breathing; I just had to reach out my hand. I loved waking up to see a toddler’s smiling face right beside me. My kids are secure and happy and close, and I don’t know if it’s because we shared a room for so long, but I think it can’t have hurt.

And I’m going to miss staying in the room with them at night. That’s when Mallory tells me her secrets, and when Phoebe tells me stories. If I’d started just tucking them in and walking away two years ago, I would’ve missed the greatest conversation ever. I’m afraid about losing a little bit of closeness. But I know we all need for this to happen. And I’m going to love having that extra bit of time for myself.


aimee said…
I have a friend (you've met her) who has a family bed and loves it. But she also knows someday she, too, will have to let them go to sleep by themselves.

Your kids will still tell you their secrets and stories. Bedtime is just that time.

Maybe you can make the studio your new room and decorate it however you want. :)
Charisse said…
Congratulations. I, too, did the co-sleeping with my child. I left her father when she was only a couple months old so it was a consolation for me to be able to sleep with her and whisper to her and look at her big brown doe eyes before we went to sleep. It soothed both of us. I could never have let her cry it out. It hurt my heart. And it also went along well with MY philosophy of cloth diapering, organic homemade baby food, sling-wearing, breastfeeding beyond a year attitude that I had and life that I lived. I did recently put her in her own bed. And it was hard. It still is. I miss our bed time. It will get easier. And you will not lose out on your special time with them.
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