My friend Anne told me an anecdote several years ago that I think back on often. Anne’s sons were about one and three at the time, and she recounted a scene that plays out every few months between her and her husband. Just as they are about to head upstairs to get the boys ready for bed, she or her spouse will say, “You know, it’s still early. Why don’t we plan to do something after the boys are in bed, like watch a movie or have friends over to visit?”
Half an hour later, one or both of them will stagger back down the stairs looking like a cartoon character that’s been in a fight: glasses askew, skin smudged, clothes torn. “Oh yeah, that’s why,” the one who earlier suggested a post-bedtime plan will say wearily.
My daughter is seven, but I still think back on Anne’s story a lot because in some ways it still feels that way to me. Putting Holly to bed isn’t like dealing with a difficult toddler’s bedtime. She doesn’t scream or struggle or run around the house. She just takes so long and wants so much interaction from me. She wants help putting on her pj’s. She wants me to read to her. She wants to talk about the dream she had the night before and what might happen at school tomorrow. There’s the obligatory glass of water, along with a discussion about the adrenal system and how much I think it’s okay for her to sip before bed without the risk of a bed-wetting incident. There are the traveling rounds throughout the house: goodnight to Daddy, goodnight to Tim, goodnight to the dog, goodnight again to Daddy. And then there are the few details on which I insist: brushing teeth, using the bathroom (sometimes both before and after aforementioned sips of water), and the laying-out of tomorrow’s clothes, which inevitably leads to a discussion on meteorological forecasting, because how can Holly be expected to decide what to wear tomorrow, she says, if we haven’t precisely pinpointed the probable high and low temperature for the day as well as the likelihood of every possible kind of precipitation?
Lights out at last. It’s only eight o’clock. Surely I could finish drafting an article or fold some laundry or –
No. Like Anne and her husband, I can’t imagine how I thought I would get anything productive done after Holly’s bedtime.
The thing with Holly’s rituals is that in general, they are all not only reasonable but fairly enjoyable. I still like reading to her just as much as she likes being read to. I like the orderly feeling of laying out tomorrow’s clothes. I like tucking her in. I just wish it didn’t all have to happen at 8 PM when I’m starting to have an energy crash of my own.
But at the same time, as with so many aspects of parenting, I appreciate on an intellectual level that this too shall pass, and someday I’ll miss all these bedtime rituals. My son, at the age of 11, has long since forsaken the wish to have me help him get ready for bed or read to him. Without discussion, he takes a shower, reads or plays a computer game for a little while, and calls for me to kiss him goodnight (though of course he’d never use those words). And in a way, that’s really nice. I like the fact that getting him to bed no longer takes thirty minutes or more out of my already overscheduled evening. It probably won’t be too much longer before Holly is at the same stage, bathing and changing on her own, maybe even not only content to read to herself but actually not wanting me to be too familiar with the content of what she’s reading.
So as I drag my tired self through another protracted bedtime routine, I remember all of this, and I think too of all the mothers who cannot tuck their children into bed at night: those moms who work the night shift, are inmates or hospital patients, serve an overseas deployment.
It’s a privilege to help Holly get ready for bed. It’s tiring, but it’s one of the best parts of daily life as a parent. And of course, a successful bedtime routine is almost always followed by that most unforgettable gift of all: getting to creep back into a dark bedroom to watch your child sleep, a sight that grows no less adorable from the first night after the baby’s birth until, I would imagine, the night before she leaves for college. And beyond.
So, like Anne and her husband, I’ll continue to have selective nightly amnesia, thinking at 7 PM that there’s no good reason why I can’t still have hours of productivity or at least fun left in my evening, only to be reminded by 8:30 of just why nothing ever happens at that time of night. Someday, my kids will no longer need bedtime rituals, and I’ll have all the time I want. For now, I’ll keep trying to savor the moment.