When I was in first grade, we had a spontaneous poetry contest. Spontaneous in that we were simply writing poems as part of a regular lesson when, later that day, our teacher told us that they were judging them as part of a bona fide school contest. No big deal right? Well, actually,yes. Bored by the lesson, I'd decided to "borrow" a poem from a book, aka: plagiarize. It wasn't my style, to be fair. I was already known for having good writing chops and I loved poetry. But, for whatever reason, I wasn't feeling it that day and figured no one would notice if I turned in a loaner. Big mistake. I came in second in the contest. When I heard the news, I panicked. I wasn't sure what would happen if I got caught, but I figured it couldn't be good. So I did the only thing I could think of: I confessed to my mother, sobbing and truly repentant. My mother, realizing that I'd already learned my lesson did what some might justifiably disagree with: she told me that she'd keep the secret and spare me the humiliation. And so, with a churning stomach, I claimed the prize for the poem, a silly little rhyme about swinging high in the sky, and counted myself lucky for having the mother I did.
All of this is to say that, as mothers, sometimes we indulge our children even when we know it's not quite the proper thing to do. We do it for all kinds of reasons: in my mother's case, it was to spare me terrible embarrassment and possible punishment. We all have our secret "thing" that we're usually too embarrassed to admit to others, and it's almost always based in love, though perhaps at times a complicated version of it.
Here's mine. I still lie in bed with my 8-year-old daughter until she falls asleep every night - just as I've been doing ever since she was an infant who required rocking and singing. Most kids transition to falling asleep on their own at around age three, so you get how far behind I am. Why have I postponed this milestone toward sleep independence? The answer is, well, complicated, but it starts with--surprise surprise--guilt. For starters, I didn't breastfeed. The reasons why are the stuff of another story, but suffice to say I was depressed and filled with shame to not be feeding my child at my breast. I'm also a working mom who headed back to a full-time publishing job in New York immediately after my 3-month maternity leave, and hired a nanny to watch my daughter each day. Yup, just like plenty of other working women do, and yet...
It started out, like many things, with good intentions. When my daughter was a baby, I cherished those quiet moments in the dark, rocking her to sleep as I sung her "The Long and Winding Road," the one song guaranteed to always knock her out. Through the years, the routine changed up in subtle ways, but always began with the bath. For many years, it segued from there to reading her board books, amusing and lyrical little treats that both delighted and soothed her to sleep. At some point in the trajectory, probably around the 4-year-old mark, books were traded in for invented stories by me; usually featuring some favorite character (like Dora) and my daughter off on some inspired adventure. Also around that same time, my husband and I separated. Any previous guilt that I'd managed to keep at bay was now completely overwhelmed by this greatest loss of all: the breaking up of my daughter's family unit. Though our marriage's end was an amicable one, it was no solace when my daughter cried as I walked her to or from her dad's nearby apartment, that internal something (the heart?) tightening like a baby's curled fists inside me.
On the nights that she stayed with me, it was simply unthinkable not to lay next to her confused little body as she sought comfort from our physical closeness. Her father, I know, did the same on his nights. By now, the rational was foolproof. The emotional distress our break up had caused her demanded as much coddling and consolation as my own sad, tired body could give. So on nights when work required my attention, or when I'd desperately craved just a half hour to watch TV or read a book - some necessary time to myself - I'd instead stay stalwart at my daughter's side, despite raging stress headaches and even at times, an almost explosive rage at having to stay inert for sometimes as long as an hour before she slipped into slumber. The worst was when, certain she'd fallen asleep, I'd quietly - painstakingly - tiptoe out of her room only to hear her cry out: "Mama!" I'd shut off the TV and trudge back to her room, quietly cursing.
At that point, I knew I'd passed the reasonable mark on this whole affair. Friends I told tried not to be judgmental, but it was hard for them to hide their surprise when they found out, especially parents who'd been putting their kids to bed with a quick kiss and a story for years. I also knew I wasn't doing my daughter any favor by prolonging this routine, by infantilizing her and keeping her from developing a healthy bedtime independence. Plus, I was "losing" nearly two hours each night from bath time to the final nodding off. Whenever I broached the subject with my daughter, though, I was met with tears and sometimes terrible breakdowns. She still needed me I concluded. I just can't do this to her yet. But part of my reluctance was about me, not just her. It was a co-dependence we'd developed, and as is the case with such dysfunction, both parties gain something they deem essential. For me, there was the cessation of guilt at work, of course, but there was more to it than just that.
As my daughter turned the corner from 5 to 6 and then to 7 and 8, her personality was shaping itself in myriad ways; like many children at this age, she had become smarter, more attuned to others. She'd developed a terrific sense of humor and had entered a somewhat sassy phase that meant she'd be furious with me for some perceived infraction one moment ("You threw away that drawing [read: scribble] I did when I was 3. You're a terrible mom!"), docile and loving the next ("You're the best mom ever!"). I rode the ups and downs as best I could, trying to stay calm and even-keeled, but in my worst moments I'd erupt over a battle about brushing her hair or not eating that last piece of broccoli. She was experimenting with boundaries, with pushing my buttons. I, more often than not, was failing miserably, often aggravated, but trying my best to hang on with both hands.
But here's the thing: no matter what epic battle we'd waged that day, and whomever won or lost, all bets were off come bedtime. After laughs and silliness in the bath, we'd settle into her bed, snuggled up in the dark, the top of our heads touching, her still-tiny hand locked on mine, and any previous altercation would float beyond our reach, like a dream you try to capture in the morning that ultimately alludes you. I realize now that I cherish this time with an aching intensity because, without it, here's what I'd lose.
I'd miss the chance to school her in what makes good music; singing to her, as I do, Beatles tunes, Stevie Nicks ballads, and other classics that expand her tastes beyond Taylor Swift and Ariane Grande. It didn't come easily, but now she asks specifically for, of late, "Strawberry Fields" and "Landslide." More than often, we sing them together, our equally off-key voices co-mingling against the backdrop of the humming fish tank. "Poor Sean," she'll say, when we get to 'I can hardly wait to see you come of age' in John Lennon's ode to his son, 'Beautiful Boy.' "His dad didn't get to watch him grow up." I'd told her, my voice quavering, on one of those countless nights in bed, how Lennon had been killed on my dad's birthday, and that it'd been the first time I'd ever seen my father cry. She'd known, it seemed, not to ask any other questions, but nodded somberly in what felt like an overture of compassion--a very adult response which oddly served to both amplify the immaturity of our routine and draw value from it.
How else, I might add, would I pass along to her the legacy of our family, sharing memories of my beloved aunt, who's passed, and whom Nina now feels to be a part of her own history, of the countless childhood stories involving my cousin, like a sister to me, who my daughter has met and adores. She never tires of hearing about our escapades, begging me for just one more story about "You and J.J." Sharing them is pleasing to us both; she gets a vicarious thrill imagining her mom as a child, while I time travel to a happy place where life was simple and full of play, with trees to climb and roads to bike. But perhaps most significant, I'd lose the incredible opportunity of gazing at another human being, without their knowing, for more than a moment; of taking in the unique shape of a face, of the soft outline of an eyebrow, of their particular rhythm of breathing--another human being who, magically, amazingly, evolved from my own body.
And then there's the release of self-consciousness that the dark affords: the quiet night air interrupted only by the occasional bark of a dog, she'll offer up small but significant bits of her day, like furtive bites of candy, relaying to me a situation at school that upset her, a friend who's been difficult, a seemingly small anxiety that's weighing on her constantly evolving mind and morals. When that happens, because we are both calm and neutralized by the night, I respond carefully, quietly, with a heart that's unencumbered by anything else besides my unconditional love for her. I feed her gentle words about my own life that mirror her own circumstances, opening up about my own fears and failures as a child--and as an adult.
We talk, too, about all those things that gave me guilt: I explain to her why it's important for me to work, to be a role model to her, so that she doesn't think I love her less because I'm not a stay-at-home mom like many of her friend's mothers. We even talk about breastfeeding and, recently, about how babies are made; though thoroughly freaked out, I gave her the unvarnished truth in simple but realistic words and exhaled deeply (but silently) when she took it in, seemingly nonplussed. Sometimes we talk about me and her dad; that's still the hardest part, at least for me. But I think she gets it, or at the very least welcomes some kind of understanding about why her life is the one it is, which is to say a good one...a complicated one. I rub her sore knees, she kisses me repeatedly and showers me with affectionate words of praise and, for those 30 minutes, we are each others world, entwined physically by our interlaced fingers, oblivious to the day's prickly moments and to the ones that will inevitably come tomorrow morning ("Mom, we're going to be late! STOP brushing your hair!") as if the previous night's intimacy had all been a dream.
A few weeks ago, we babysat our three-year-old neighbor. She goes to sleep on her own, after just one story and a song. It was a significant moment for my daughter; the witnessing of this seemingly simple bedtime for a girl five years younger than she. The discrepancy between their routines needed no pointing out. After that night, I simply told her that we'd start with baby steps to wean her off my enduring presence at night. She wasn't happy, but she nodded her acquiescence. We've had some successes; I read to her then tell her I'm going to shower and will come back afterward to check on her; often, she's asleep by the time I do. But we've also had nights where she cries hysterically when I leave; on those nights I'll stay sometimes and tell her tomorrow night will be different, or I'll leave and see if she works it out on her own. On the nights that I do stay, I gaze at her face as if I'm trying to imprint it in my memory forever (which I am), I stroke her soft palm as her grip loosens from mine the sleepier she gets, I bury my nose in her scalp and breathe in the singular smell of her soft, inky dark hair. When she finally fades off, I don't jump up like I used to and dash off to check my phone or catch an episode of Jane the Virgin, reveling in the capture of some "fleeting" time to myself. Instead, I stay an extra couple minutes beside her, because now I know, it's those minutes that I can't get back.
In a few more weeks, I'm fairly certain my daughter will be regularly going to sleep on her own. I'm happy for her and I know it's the right thing. Waiting as long as I did was, perhaps, not. But, just like my mom protecting me from ridicule over a first grade poetry contest, I did what made sense to me at the time. Sometimes, as a parent, that's the best you can do.