Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Woeful Wails and Bedtime Tales

I have a terrible secret to share with you. I really, really do not look forward to my children’s bedtime. Each night I walk up the stairs with the same dread as Sisyphus rolling his rock up the hill.

At 8 pm, blocks must be picked up, legos collected, dolls brought upstairs. There’s crying from the youngest and the oldest magically seems to remember that there are a hundred toys left downstairs that must be retrieved—one toy at a time. The smallest child recovers from tears and scampers up and down the stairs gleefully challenging us, and on occasion, mooning us. Oh, the resistance to the end of the day. Once the short people are officially upstairs, there’s the bath, the teeth brushing, the search for pajamas and pull ups. I usually have to conduct some kind of peace negotiation between one child and the other. There are loads of explanations: Honey, this is why we don’t like to buy blue toothpaste. Tiny Man, water stays in the tub. There are reminders: Didn’t I just tell you to find your blanket? Did you dry your hair? Why are you drawing naked on your bed when it is time to get dressed and your hair is still sopping wet? And there are threats: Your mother is going to collapse from exhaustion unless you are in bed and quiet before 9 PM. You will find her motionless and bourbon will be required to revive her.

Children all of a sudden have a million reasons and a million excuses at bedtime. They have brain damage. They have a renewed sense of energy. I, on the other hand, have one mission, a limited period of time, and a limited amount of patience. I’ve been holding down the fort all day and I am ready to end my shift. By the time those warm, clean bodies have been snugly tucked into covers, prayers have been said, stories told, songs sung, and a million kisses exchanged, I am thankful for my motherhood, yes, but tired enough to have run a marathon.

“It’s 8:45,” I might announce. “Mommy is now off duty!”
“One more kiss!” pipes the youngest. How can anyone resist that? Even off duty?

My mother recently confessed her own distaste for the bedtime routine when she was raising my sister and I. Since I consider her the paradigm of all things maternal, I was particularly struck by this revelation. After all, my mother seldom raised her voice to us, she was home after school so we could make peanut butter balls, she let us fingerpaint, or watch her sew clothes for us. She was an incredibly intense and serious mother, but she was always there, always loving, always patient. I’ll never forget one Mother’s Day when I asked her why there was a Mother’s Day and a Father’s Day, but no Children’s Day.

“Because,” she sighed with fatigue, “every day is children’s day.” (This might explain why at one point, my father took over the final tuck-in and storytelling.) At the time I didn’t understand, but I have since learned that not only is every day for children, but really, every night, too. And long after the short people are comatose or at least should be, I am still working. There’s laundry, there’s research, there’s writing, there’s general household maintenance so that this place is sanitary and functional for short and tall people alike. There is some peace though, to that routine until I hear footsteps in the middle of the night.

“Why are you still up?” I call out. Pick a response from below.

“I had to go potty.”
“I was thirsty.”
“I was cold.”
“I was hot.”
“I heard a funny sound.”
“There’s a dinosaur in my closet.”

The tall, handsome man of the house, my line of reinforcement, who is actually responsible for the singing of the final song each night, must troop back upstairs and remind the child gone AWOL from bed that there is no negotiating sleepy-time. I might at first hear pleading or giggling depending on the situation, but ultimately, there is silence. And upstairs resumes the stillness of slumber for good this time.

Last night I surfed the web for suggestions to expedite bed time routines. One site said to put the kids to bed earlier—not an option for us most nights. Another said to explain the importance of sleep to the child. Umm, did that writer even have children? There were reminders to be patient, reminders to keep the pre-bed activities low-key—even suggestions to dim the lights to help the body read the bed-soon code. None of these sites really help me, especially in reference to the dinosaur that seems to have taken up residence in a closet.

The days are long, but the years are short, said someone to me once. I try to remind myself of this. Soon, the youngest will be too big to dance naked with glee before bathtime. And the oldest will eventually lose interest in the songs we sing. I might despise bedtime’s business, but the total lack of any of the craziness or comedy at night would be terribly sad, as it is when the children are away. I can keep doing this, I know. Besides, the reward is in those kisses I steal when children sleep like angels and the perfume of their slumbering warmth rises from the sheets. Perfect sweetness, which will fade when Sisyphus’ rock rolls back down the hill in the morning for the AM madness of readying for school.

I think we’ll be okay if I can just figure out what to do with the dinosaur.


  1. Just tell'em what i tell'em...if you don't get back in bed right now, be quiet, and go to sleep, there will be nothing left for that monster/dinosaur/noise to eat.

    Interesting question about Sisyphus...Why didn't he just leave the rock at the bottom of the hill? I mean, i don't remember ever reading any retributive action if he just said, "Screw this...i'm taking a stroll up there on my own sweet time today...and hell, i may just stay up there."

    Parenthood is not Sisyphean, you ARE making a difference. You have a husband, a father, and you are a mother (completing a cohesive unit severely lacking in this society) that is nurturing and caring for your children. It may seem that the rock rolls back down sometimes, but the reality is...and you know this...it's the repetition that provides experiential learning for them...and at some point, it'll be a different, larger rock, on a completely different mountain...and just that more beautiful at the top.

  2. Jay-- spoken like a good father. Thanks!

    You know, I always wondered the same thing about Sisyphus. Why didn't he just leave the rock at the bottom of the hill and go out for margaritas?


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