The racecar bed sits unoccupied. Instead of being fast asleep in it, you are a whirlwind of activity from the door to the corner beanbag, where I lie. I am yawning as I struggle to do a crossword on my phone. Your mind and body, on the other hand, are busy and energized. You sit for a minute by the doorway and use the light of the hallway to write out a new sign: “Only enter if you saw a Lambo / Free pass if you are a kid.” You tape it to your door then come over to join me on the beanbag to ask me a question.
Daddy, what’s your favorite kind of fast car?
You have never been much of a sleeper. As an infant, you needed to be held and rocked for an hour or so before you would fall asleep, and it was almost impossible to get you into your crib without rousing you. After your mom would finish nursing you, I’d sit with you in the rocking chair and read books to you while you strained to escape the swaddle. Your eyes searched around the room for something new to explore as I read you Danny, the Champion of the World, The Hobbit, and The Mountain and the Fathers. It was my favorite time of the day, and if you were not eager to leave my arms, well, I can’t say you were alone in that reluctance.
After I managed to somehow make the transfer from my arms to your crib, I’d head downstairs to work for a few hours. The sounds of the baby monitor would tell me when you were ready for your midnight feeding and I was ready to call it quits for the night. I’d warm up a bottle from the fridge and go sit with you again late into the night. Your mom would then wake up early the next morning to take over. It was an exhausting schedule but, since we were so thrilled to be with you, the exhaustion never felt unmanageable.
Daddy, when can I get a new app on the iPad? You said I could get one in three days and that was three or maybe two or four days ago, I think.
You quickly mastered the art of pulling yourself up by the bars of the crib. You’d stand there calling out for us, sometimes crying, and demand for us to hold you. (You were also quick to learn to walk and climb stairs. Other parents would remark at how quickly you picked things up and sounded a little insecure. I’d say, “Yeah, he’s amazing but does your kid sleep?”)
Your mom and I talked a lot about sleep training, letting you cry it out, being more rigid with our schedules to turn you into someone who loved sleep as much as we did. We could never stick with it. For one, we lived in a condo and I was terrified of having CPS called on us during a “cry it out” session. I had heard the horror stories of this kind of thing happening to other parents. For another, your mom and I were busy parents with demanding work schedules outside the home, and we could not always commit to the kind of rigid schedule that was advised. What if one of us had to work a little late? What if we wanted to go out to dinner since we didn’t have the time or energy to throw together a meal? We would come up with a new plan about every other week only to watch it fall apart a few days in. I remember talking to a colleague who described her kids going to be at 7:00 pm every night. I wondered what that would be like to have an entire evening to yourselves. To me, it seemed as serene as a stroll on the moon, and just as likely.
What was Mommy’s favorite color again?
– I think green and blue.
Did she have a favorite superhero?
– Probably Wonder Woman. Do you remember when we all dressed up as superheroes for Halloween that one year.
I just miss her.
– Me too, buddy.
Another difficulty with your sleep schedule was that your mom’s sleep habits and mine were always vastly different. Your mom could fall asleep almost anywhere and at any time. Shortly after we were married, for instance, we were in Montana driving on the Beartooth Highway toward Yellowstone Park. The road is one of the most scenic drives in the state, if not the country. It is full of sharp turns and switchbacks as you head up into high elevations full of glaciers, lakes, wildflowers, mountain goats, and a million other things to look at. As we made our way up, I looked over at your mom in the passenger seat, fast asleep, head flopping side to side with every switchback, oblivious to the majestic setting outside the car.
During more mundane times at home, it wasn’t unusual for her to head to the bedroom to lie down for a few minutes while I gave you a bath. I’d bring you out, wrapped in your towel, and see that your mom had fallen asleep with the lights on and the blanket pulled up over her head. I would read you a couple stories and we would begin our bedtime routine. Your mom would usually wake up to give you a good night kiss, then head back to our bedroom to sleep. The next morning, she would be up getting you ready for daycare while I lumbered groggily around the condo. It wasn’t quite how the parenting books tell you to do it, but it worked well enough for us.
Daddy, how will you buy me birthday presents this year without Mommy?
– You mean, like, how will I go to the store without you, so that your presents are a surprise?
Yeah. Will you have to use daddy magic?
– Maybe. I’ll figure it out, buddy. Don’t worry about that. You’ll get presents from me.
Since your mom died, and now that it’s just me doing the evenings and mornings alone, I have wondered a lot about trying to change up your bedtime routine. We usually begin reading stories by about 8:30, but it’s rare for you to actually fall asleep before 10:30. Many nights I leave your room after you finally drift off and head straight to my own bed, where I spend a few minutes on my phone before falling asleep myself. I have aspirations that some evening you’ll fall asleep early or on your own, and then I’ll be able to check a few items off my to-do list, or just read a book or watch a movie in peace. Instead, I sit in your room, talking about whatever comes to your mind, snuggling next to you on the beanbag until your mind and body finally start to calm.
You are the best daddy in the world.
– Thanks buddy. I’m so lucky to get to be your daddy.
I know now, as I have known from the beginning, that sleep training really isn’t about training the kid to go to sleep, but about training the adult to carry through behaviors that help the child settle down on his or her own. And maybe one of these days, I’ll finally train myself. To not let you have any sugar after lunch or let you use electronics after dinner. To start story time earlier. To leave you alone in the room to fall asleep on your own. To allow you to be bored and frustrated and restless and perhaps even scared as long as it takes, and for as many days in a row as needed for it to turn into a new routine.
But for now, I am grateful for all this time that we have together in the quiet of the evening. When you can still feel the comfort of my presence as you drift off to sleep, and I can be assured of your wellbeing. When we can talk about the worries of your day. When we can each imagine, for a moment, that your mom is just asleep in the other room, and will be there to take care of us when we both lazily get out of bed tomorrow morning. When you still think it is the best thing in the world to spend time with me, and you still want to feel my body close to yours like you did when you were an infant.
I’m not quite ready for this day to end and the next one to begin, knowing all too well how precious few of these days we all get. So, at least for now, the sleep training can wait. You yawn and come close to me on the beanbag. I reach my arm out and you put your head on my bicep. You put your hand on my chest and look up at me.
I love you daddy.
– I love you, too.