Ah, the bedtime ritual. Oh how I love the constant interruptions of a good movie, dinner or maybe even a make-out session because my little one has decided to defy sleep.
Something happens to her sleepy body when I leave her bedroom. My absence acts as an amphetamine for her. I put her down. I leave the room. She gets outta bed. Sometimes she fakes exhaustion to get her little game going, and I fall for her deception every time.
Generally, I’m snuggled up on the couch with a trashy magazine, a book or Sweetie when I hear what sounds like Darth Vader in the hallway. The loud sucking sound of her paci gives her away and when we spot her, she always, always has a proud smile behind her paci.
The other night this went on for two solid hours.
I find that the “first time” phenomenon is one of the most difficult things to deal with as a parent. There’s a first time for everything – like for when she screeched “No!” at me in broad daylight in front of hundreds of eyes that are watching and waiting for my response. A first time that she bolted from me while I carried groceries that weighed me down during the chase.
Sure, I have sometimes have my doubts about how I’m advising or responding to her, but I hang on to the golden parenting rule which is to exude confidence, regardless. She’ll find me out some day, but until then I’ll fake it until I make it.
On the night Nugget did the two hour thing, we pulled out all the stops in the following order:
1. Carried her back to bed and rubbed her back for a few minutes.
2. Stood at the doorway and waited for her to climb back into bed, then closed the door.
3. Didn’t wait for her to get into bed before we closed the door after she walked (well, more like strutted) into her room.
4. Didn’t get up from the couch and just told her to go to bed.
5. Ignored her.
6. Threatened to take away the entire trifecta (paci, blankie, doggie). She handed them over. Happily.
This is when we knew we were in trouble, because we realized that she would never sleep without the trifecta, and we had to figure out a way to give them back without her thinking that we had caved.
The truth is, I was mildly entertained by her chutzpa. The commitment was impressive. I’m banking on it translating into her being a goal-oriented, high achiever who commits fully to the task at hand.
Alas, she finally slept.
Rehashing the night’s events, I gave myself a pat on the back. I was firm, respectful and consistent (excluding my giggle session, omitted from the above list because it was an obvious slip up.). I didn’t yell, say mean things or threaten to hit her.
In fact, it never occurred to me to say something mean or to raise a hand to her. To a parent who never experienced violence as a child, this may seem like I’m patting myself on the back for something that should just be. But it runs deeper than that.
Growing up, it never occurred to me that my brother and I didn’t deserve the yelling, threats of or use of the belt when we couldn’t go to sleep. I accepted all of those things as completely normal courses of action. Convinced that it happened in every house, I understood that it was just what was done when children didn’t sleep on command.
My night with Nugget took me back to a distinct memory of my father’s silhouette framed in the doorway of the bedroom I shared with my brother. He was nine years old and I was five. We had been giggling loudly. It was an infectious giggle that neither of us could shake, even though we knew we were pushing it with dad. Sure enough, Dad had briskly opened the door and stood barefooted, wearing a pair of cut-offs and no shirt. His belt dangled from his hand, folded in half. It was black leather and worn thin from years of use. Loose like a noodle, it was a handy whip. I hated that belt. I hated when dad walked in the room with it, hated when it was on his waist, hated when it was draped over the kitchen chair where it was often placed after he used it. Its presence eroded joy in our home.
My brother went silent. Trying to get it under wraps, I put my hands over my mouth to tame my laughter, but a huge smile remained. I couldn’t help it. Smiling when I’m in trouble is a nervous habit that I have even today. But dad recognized it as evidence that I wasn’t listening to his demands to shut up. I paid the price for it.
As a parent who has to deal with the same frustrations with my own daughter – who I can’t imagine hurting in order to make her sleep – I wonder what Dad felt when he left the room that night. Did he feel relief? Satisfaction? Control? I’ll never know. I just know that he was made of anger and in later years that anger made an older man full of regret and shame.
The instability of my childhood has in some ways made me feel unstable and uncertain of what I’m made of. There are certain strengths that I recognize in myself, but becoming a parent is, for me, the ultimate test. Before Nugget came into our lives, I was terrified of a repressed inclination toward violence that would emerge when I became a parent. Anger has historically been my go-to emotion when I feel vulnerable. (Note: This is what the Healer Lady says and I’ve come to believe her.) It’s an emotion that I know very well and its execution is easy.
I’ve wanted to talk to Sweetie about this, but how could I say to her that I was afraid I was going to hit our daughter? More to the point, that I was going to do it on a regular basis because I would “lose control,” as my father did. It’s been a painful, secret fear that I think I will always live with.
So, on the night of Nugget’s hopping out of bed for two hours, my rejection of violence is something to write about. It was a symbolic moment that distinguished my parenting from my parents’ parenting. It was me breaking the cycle of violence in our family.
I realized that I’m not made of anger. That instead, I’m full of love for my child and I’m able to appreciate the preciousness of her and all that our relationship offers to my own growth.
So when she looks at me with that huge grin, psyched about her ability to challenge me, I can’t help but to hug her, then send her to bed.