One of the ways my husband and I practice attachment parenting is to stay with Avery while he falls asleep. Primarily because we co-sleep, but also because transitions are difficult for most humans, and especially so for small children. This is one of the things that’s crystallized in Technicolor for me as I’ve gained my parenting legs: the devil is in the transitions—at least it is with Avery. It’s when all the other things I haven’t been paying attention to rise up and bite me in the ass. Things like sleep, food, exercise, and attention; if any of these resources are in short supply then our transitions will be rocky. Sometimes decidedly so.
I believe that waking up and going to sleep are the two most important transitions of the day. They are the bookends, the container, and they are powerful experiences for our bodies; one of the primary influences on our demeanor. Wake up crabby or tired or in pain? It’s gonna be a rough day. Heading to bed after fighting with your mate? Good luck getting to sleep and staying that way. You get me. And you know what’s unfortunate? We aren’t born knowing how to fall asleep under sub-optimal conditions; we require guidance to help us identify a method (usually through trial-and-error) that works for us, and even then it won’t work every time. As a small human, we’re at the mercy of our parents’ creativity or, more to the point, their ability to sit with their own distress.
Enter “sleep training.” Whenever I’ve encountered this broad set of ideas, it’s usually coupled with some barbaric practice like crying it out or leaving small children alone in a crib/bed to figure it out for themselves. I disagree with crying it out and abandonment because they’re abusive. Full stop. They also disrespect the child’s fundamental humanness. And they punish the child for not being able to do something efficiently that can be thrown off by myriad crappy things potentially occurring in the moment. Too tired. Sad. Hungry. Just not feeling right. You know: human things; not necessarily child things. This experience isn’t exclusively the domain of children and yet I perceive a society that punishes its children for acting badly during a transition I think we all know to be difficult.
The alone part of it I just don’t understand. Why is getting a child to sleep by himself considered such a coup? Certainly not because it’s better for the child. Because it’s better for the parent. It’s convenient for a child to go to sleep by themselves and not appear for 8-10 hours. It allows people to get things done; to study or do chores or spend time with their partner. And I think it does so at the expense of the child. Because what child under the age of 6 wouldn’t prefer the closeness of a warm body, a beating heart, and a loving voice? Our society has a serious obsession with kids going to and staying asleep by themselves. When many adults don’t expect themselves to do the same thing.
So. We stay with him until he falls asleep in a family bed. And I have to be honest; those 15 to 90 minutes during which he settles and then falls asleep have provided some of the richest, edgiest, most confrontational material for me to sit with. Seriously. The bedtime routine was where I finally grokked—right down to the core—that my feelings and desires are not the most important thing in the room. (Even though my husband tried to help me see it numerous times.) Obviously, this insight also has served me well when interacting with adult people. It’s a really hard thing to accept; crushing, actually, because I’ve spent a long time living with my feelings and trying to figure out what I want, and they both feel pretty damn important. They are; just not all the time.
I’ve also had to inspect my attachment to certain outcomes. Game Theory Mind says “Avery short-napped today, had a bike ride in the late afternoon, ate a big meal, and looks really sleepy right now as we read books. I bet he’ll go to sleep quickly tonight.” And with that thought, I exponentially increase my chance of being Wrong. Of course, now that I’ve arrived at a best logical outcome for this evening’s routine, I can’t let it go. I imagine what I might do with the 30-60 minutes of free time I just theoretically earned for myself, and I start to really enjoy how it looks. Bath? Chocolate? Watch a video with Brendan? Yes, all excellent options.
But someone has a better idea. Someone wants to climb out of bed or not lie still or chatter about the concrete mixer we saw in Georgetown. Someone wants more fresh water in his bottle. And then I start to get pissy; I want to be punitive and take away his toy or give him the silent treatment because DAMMIT you’re using up all my free time by NOT GOING TO SLEEP.
This is decidedly not the grounded, loving, cuddly bedtime experience I envision having. Not the mama I want to be. So, it all came to a head one night when I was being shitty in bed and ignoring him for not doing it my way, when the universe or my intuition or something poked me in the cortical stem and was like “Hey, asshole. He’s acting like this because he needs your guidance and your grounded attention. You’re mad at him for taking away something that wasn’t yours in the real, actual world. So, maybe there’s a better way to make this go faster than giving him the silent treatment, huh?”
Ouch. Fine. Whatever. So I counseled about it with Brendan, and my parenting/holistic peer counseling/embodied friends and got some feedback on how I could change what I brought to the room; how I could create the bedtime experience we both actually needed, let alone wanted.
I started by giving up my attachment to his going to sleep in a specific way, and that meant having to give up my expectation of getting “adult time” at night. Funny thing was, the time from 10:00-12:00 wasn’t being spent that well anyway; Brendan and I mostly sat on the couch watching videos after which I fought to stay awake, getting all jumpy and baby-necking like my Mom and my Grandmother always do and did. Instead, we started going to bed a lot earlier. I went downstairs with Avery assuming I wouldn’t come back upstairs, that I was going to bed for real. Teeth brushed, night guard in, jammies on. We’re snuggling down like cats, kid; bring it.
Two other hugely-positive (external) contributors: I started going to work an hour earlier so I could get home earlier; an effort to prevent kicking off his dreaded second wind at 7:00 pm. We now also adhere to a strict “no screen time after 6:00 pm” rule. This was a huge blow to me because the hour Avery and I spent watching videos in the evening had become my default Facebook time and I was loathe to give it up. He’s been pretty disappointed, too, because Pat and Mat, and Curious George. Duh. He now watches videos with Daddy earlier in the day, so it’s not a total loss and, on the plus side, he and I get to read a lot more books. I think the experience has provided an excellent lesson for both of us in letting go of attachment to routines that no longer serve or nourish.
Not surprisingly, everything changed. Suddenly, everyone is getting more sleep and that’s improved a lot of moods. Even better, now Avery and I are (mostly) having the bedtimes I had almost written off as unattainable. I’m more grounded and calm, knowing I can just relax my body and give into the sweet play and chatting he’s been craving. Instead of fighting it so I can go back upstairs and watch Game of Thrones. This is the naturally-occurring, organic wind-down period he needed; the one that I hadn’t realized I needed, too.
Bedtime has now become (mostly) a meditation for me; one where I trust my body’s need to relax and am reminded of how much I love that little guy. Instead of resenting him. It doesn’t always go “according to plan,” but he and I are learning to trust one another as I guide him to sleep.