As I was putting the kids to bed tonight, I started thinking about how my pre-kid bedtime routine has been replaced by my post-kid bedtime circus show. One does not simply "go to bed" anymore. In fact, I think the bedtime situation at my house can best be described by breaking it down into ten distinct stages.
Stage 1: Disbelief
The show begins as soon as one parent utters the phrase, “Okay kids, time to get ready for bed.” With the stage sufficiently set, the players now take their marks, ready to play their pre-assigned parts in what has become a nightly performance. Frequently it is our eldest who assumes the lead role, exclaiming in disbelief, “Wait, what? But it’s still light outside? It’s definitely not time for bed. I can’t believe this. I just started watching this <insert YouTube Minecraft video>!” (All that is missing from his dramatic performance is an exclamation of “Oh, the humanity!”) Then, auditioning for the Oscar in the category of Best Supporting Actress, our daughter chimes in with, “We don’t even go to bed until 8:00. Wait, what time is it? (7:58) See! It’s not time, It’s not time!”
Stage 2: The Grand Bargain
Feeling empowered by their newfound camaraderie, the siblings now make an attempt to offer up a solution – a compromise, if you will.
Kids: “How about this Mom, if you let us stay up for 10 more minutes, we promise to be extra good tomorrow and we will even clean up the toy room when we wake up. Just ten more minutes? Just until this grown woman on my video opens up the last colored egg to reveal what plastic toy hides inside?” Okay, they don’t actually say that last part, but, honestly, how (weirdly) brilliant is that lady? Do you know she makes six-figures from those videos? I am in the wrong business.
Stage 3: Famine
I’m not a scientist, but I have a hypothesis that the word “bedtime” triggers the hypothalamus to go into overdrive in children, alerting them to the danger of their impending starvation. It doesn’t matter if they housed an entire Tombstone pizza for dinner an hour earlier, bedtime famine is an affliction that doesn’t respond to reason. As a mother (or father), what are we to do here? Do we send our children to bed hungry, satisfied in the righteousness of our no-snacks-before-bedtime crusade? Or, do we give in to their sad little faces and the thoughts of their empty tummies, growling in the darkness of their bedrooms. I’ll save you the suspense about what happens in my household. Most nights I find myself pouring bowls of cereal at 7:59 and saying things like, “This is the last time I’m doing this!” and “You should’ve eaten more of your dinner like I told you to!” I can’t take the thought of children going to bed hungry, be it real or imagined. One of these days I’ll call their bluff, probably.
Stage 4: The Long March
Sufficiently nourished, they are now required to physically move in the direction of their domiciles. In our house, this stage is characterized by a slow, methodic trudge up the stairs followed by an even slower shuffle step to the bathroom. Once inside, drawers will be pulled out, toothbrushes and toothpaste will be retrieved and the poor, tortured souls will half-heartedly commence the ritualistic cleansing of their sugar laced teeth. Most nights they won’t even attempt to reach for a hand towel to dry off their faces after brushing. Instead, they will lumber down from their stools, water dripping from their chins, and look at me with eyes that seem to say, “Why bother?” Heads hung low in defeat; they retreat to their bedrooms.
Stage 5: Last Requests and Lost Items
Inevitably, my husband will forget to bring up a glass of water or my daughter will forget her Elsa pillow downstairs. These minor inconveniences are annoying, but easily remedied. On rare occasions, however, the worst possible scenario plays out during this stage. A situation so dire, so tragic, that it causes me to shudder just thinking about it. What circumstance could necessitate such a drastic response, you ask? Answer: The disappearance of Turtle Friend. This green and brown stuffed animal has cuddled with my son since his birth, and sleep simply will not come if the two are separated. We’ve tried. It was a long, sad night and one that I don’t wish to repeat any time soon. Whenever Turtle Friend is missing from my son’s bedroom, we send out a search party to look high and low. No couch cushion is left unturned until this reptilian creature is returned to its rightful owner.
Stage 6: Confessional
After the last page is read and the last sip of water is granted, I am magically transformed from a mother into a Catholic priest. My children, with their sweet hearts and innocent minds, feel the need to confess all of their sins of the day to me before they drift off into dreamland. It is during this time of night that I hear admissions of guilt such as, “Remember when you told me to put the M&Ms away today? After you left the kitchen, I snuck into the pantry to eat a couple more. I’m sorry Mama.” Or, “I broke my green crayon today and then I put it back into the box without telling you. I’m sorry Mama.” I’m not going to lie, I’m a bit concerned about how these topics might progress as they get older.
Stage 7: Random Questions
With clean consciences, my children are free to move on to the most entertaining stage of the night – random question time. Some of my recent favorites include gems such as: “Who do you think would win in a head-butting contest, me or Dad?“ or, “What is 64 times 232?” I usually don’t know how to answer these questions and the topics swing wildly from school related items such as, “Do you know that a spider carries its eggs on its back?” to more, shall we say, anatomical queries such as, “But, how did the baby get OUT of your tummy?”
Stage 8: One More Hug
Feeling the lure of the downstairs DVR and the recliner calling my name, I tuck them into bed and kiss their soft little cheeks. I know that I will be called back to their bedsides for an encore performance of one last hug or one last kiss before I can make my exit. I don’t mind this, in fact I hope for this. Even on my worst nights, after a tiring day of changing diapers and correcting behaviors, I purposely pause before reaching the threshold of their rooms, wishing for a little voice to beckon me for another embrace. Because one day they won’t call out for one last hug. One day, probably too soon for my liking, they will simply say, “Goodnight Mom,” roll back over, and fall asleep. Their long arms will only reach out for one hug, and their teenage sensibilities will no longer allow for a kiss. But, thankfully, that day is not today. Tonight my daughter requires each and every variation of hug and kiss that she has discovered or created over the years: kiss, butterfly kiss, fish kiss, noozle, blow kiss, hug, bear hug, kitty snuggle, blow hug…and in that order.
Stage 9: The Waiting Game
And then we wait. We tiptoe downstairs and wait for a head to pop out, uttering one last request or one last-ditch effort to squeeze out a few more sleep free minutes. We wait to see if their time in their beds is a permanent state or a temporary one. We wait to see if we can press play on our pre-recorded show that we are already days behind on watching. As we pick up the clothes, the toys, and the dirty plates, we listen and we wait. And, finally, assured of their slumber, we get ready to go to bed too, content in the knowledge that we made it through another day of parenthood relatively unscathed.
Stage 10: Did I Do Enough?
In the minutes (and sometimes hours) that precede our own sleep, we venture through the very last stage of bedtime. We replay our day and analyze and second-guess all of our decisions. It is in these quietest of moments that we wonder – Am I doing enough? Are they warm enough? Did I pack enough food in their lunchbox? Did I give them enough attention? Did I tell them I loved them enough?
We know the answers, yet we still ask ourselves the questions - night after night, year after year. Do you know why we ask ourselves these questions? It’s because we know that the days are long, but the years are short. We are painfully aware of the fleeting nature of time. We know that we won’t always be the last ones to kiss them goodnight. So, despite our own fatigue and frustrations, we climb the stairs to reunite a lost stuffed animal and a little boy, and we give a million kisses to a little girl in a princess nightgown, and we rock a baby until our arms go numb.
If there were a thousand stages of bedtime, we’d do that too.