My children have always been pretty good sleepers. As a baby, Jacob wasn't the best napper but he grew into an easy and low-maintenance bedtime sleeper. Ryan was easy from the start. For the past year, our bedtime ritual has been: brush teeth, get into bed, goodnight kisses, sleep. There was rarely any fuss. The entire bedtime process took all of five minutes. After I left their room, the kids would lay quietly in their bunk beds until sleep crept over them. Nap time was pretty much the same.
But now, suddenly and for no apparent reason, Ryan has decided to change the game. For the past three weeks, he will not lay down in his bed alone and insists that I stay by his side until he drifts off to sleep. The same for nap times. He has also been waking up at midnight and, upon discovering that his mommy is not by his side, he climbs out of bed and starts to ask for me in a sad, pathetic voice. He doesn't cry or scream in pain or discomfort. He just wants me.
If I try to put Ryan back into his bed. He strongly protests unless I join him. When he falls asleep, I sneak away to my own bed only to be awoken hours later by Ryan asking for me once again. This continues all night long unless and until I let Ryan sleep on the floor next to my side of the bed. This has been going on the same every night for the past three weeks. At first I thought maybe he was teething or sick. But this is clearly not the case. And I am getting very frustrated.
Monday night, I was exhausted and sick and fed up with Ryan's sleeping games. I was worried that I was enabling a bad sleeping habit. I tucked him into bed and did not lay down next to him. Instead, I sang a couple songs and then left the room. Ryan started to cry. He climbed out of bed and rushed to his door sobbing for me. I decided to stay strong. Every time Ryan snuck out of bed, I calmly waltzed back into his room and tucked him back in. For the first 30 minutes, I was sure he would get tired and stop protesting. I was gentle and sweet and kissed him on the cheek each time I left his room.
After 45 minutes, however, I was not so sweet and gentle. I was discouraged and angry and tired. I continued to put him back into bed, but less gently. Ryan was catching on to this game and each time I walked back into his room, he started to run, kick in protest, and scream at his inevitable fate. In the heat of the moment, I smacked him in the butt. Twice.
In that moment of action, I thought to myself, "I don't care if he is upset. I don't care how he feels." I need to do this. I'm going to do this. My anger has no where else to go. He needs to realize how angry I am. Nothing else is working. I need control.
Then I plopped him into his bed and stormed out of the room kicking the door as I went. Back in the dining room, I sat at the table, my body still pumping with anger. When Ryan climbed back out of bed, he was crying. I heard his wails travel towards his bedroom door where they stopped and became louder. Suddenly the wails were muffled and I knew he had buried his face into his blanket. Then, just like that, the crying stopped. He had fallen asleep, desperate, longing, eyes filled with tears, and his little heart deprived of a loving send-off into dreamland. His only transgression- wanting to be near his mama.
I sat at the table. My body heavy from exhaustion. But my heart felt even heavier. I snapped out of my state of rage feeling cold and broken. I had failed. I relived that moment over and over where I had picked Ryan up, hefted him over one arm, and smacked him right on the diaper with my other. Then I relived the moment when I not so-gently plopped him into his bed and kicked his door on my way out. Who WAS that person?
I was upset at what I had done. But I was devastated at how easily I slipped into that horrible place. A little exhaustion and anger had tipped me over the edge, peeled back my skin to reveal a truly horrible monster. Is that person always with me? Am I really always just a tick away from erupting into uncontrollable terror? Am I walking around life with an angry troll hiding just beneath the surface of my skin? Is that really part of me as a person or just an unfortunate mixture of bad-timed feelings?
How could I treat my own child like that? A child who, just an hour earlier, was the object of my deepest admiration. I felt small. Defeated. A failure. I sat at the table and cried before finally mustering the strength to face the aftermath of my wrath. I cracked the boys' bedroom door open and found that it was stuck against something. It was Ryan's body. In an effort to be as close to me as possible, despite my horribleness, he had fallen asleep right up against the door. I edged my way in slowly. As I picked him up, he wheezed, a result of crying too hard. His face was still wet from tears. Half asleep, he wrapped his arms subconsciously around me and I carried him off to bed. I tucked him in and laid down next to him. His eyes popped open and he looked relieved to see my by his side. That look killed me. I was rescuing him. But only after being the source of his harm.
I stewed all night on guilt and disappointment. It was hard to forgive myself. But I eventually did. When Ryan woke up at midnight, I brought him into bed without complaining. His trusting little heart was so happy to be snuggled up between his mama and daddy.
Last night, I dreaded bedtime. I toyed with the idea of continuing the effort to re-train Ryan back to sleeping on his own. But the thought of having to spend an hour carrying him back to his bed, through tears and cries, broke me down. I knew I just didn't have it in me. And I feared that I would lose control once again. I tucked the boys in and, testing the waters, took a step back. Ryan looked at me, lifted one hand up, and patted the pillow next to him. "Mama. Pillow." he said softly. He was asking me to stay. I crawled into the bottom bunk and fell onto the pillow. Ryan rustled contently into his blankets. Every minute or two, he would suddenly pop his head up and look in my direction, to make sure I was right there. Then, not satisfied with periodic sight-checks, he reached his hand over and grasped mine. He clutched my hand securely as he slowly drifted off to sleep.
I was still frustrated at this sudden change in routine. But I tried to keep some perspective. I glanced down at my hand, intertwined with Ryan's, and thought about the entire span of my life. Out of the infinite amount of time, if lucky, I might live for 90 of them (like both of my great-grandparents). Of those 90 precious years, Ryan will only be my clingy shadow for a small percentage of them. After that, he won't want to be by my side. He won't want to hold my hand until he falls asleep. His hand will outgrow my own. He won't smile broadly when he sees me every morning. There will be a time in the not-so-distance future when I won't see him for days, maybe weeks, maybe months at a time.
This proximity that we share now is precious and tragically short. His dependence on me will be short-lived. One day, I will have to say goodbye and let him out into the world a free, unexperienced, young man. Kisses and hugs will not always be unlimited. They will not always be readily given. But how can you savor these moments when you are exhausted in every possible way? This is the ever-present challenge of a parent of a young child.
I kissed Ryan's warm little hand and only reluctantly parted from it as I snuck out of his room. I have no idea what is going on. I have no idea how long this "phase" is going to last. I'm simply going to ride the course.