I lie next to my four-year-old son in his full-sized bed. He's facing away from me, and my arm drapes over his shoulder. If he were bigger, I'd say we're spooning, but his legs are still far too short for him to be the little spoon yet. He fidgets for a while, occasionally saying "Mommy?" to see if I am still awake. I am. Mostly. I haven't craned my neck to see the clock, because I don't want to interfere with him falling asleep, so I have no idea how long I've been lying there. And to my great surprise, I don't care. Finally, after I have no idea how long, his breathing becomes slow and regular and deep. And still, I don't move. It's not until I feel a little involuntary jerk in one of his limbs that I'm sure he's drifted off. I climb gently out of his bed and tiptoe out the door, shutting it behind me.
Staying with him until he falls asleep breaks one of my oldest rules of good child sleep habits. When all of my kids were babies, I co-slept with them and nursed them to sleep, but as soon as I found tolerable methods of getting them to fall asleep on their own, I stepped away and let them do it. With each one, this came at a different time. With both girls, the oldest and the youngest, it was well before they reached their first birthdays, but Jackson was different. Deep into his second year, he refused to fall asleep without his dad or me lying down on the floor next to his low crib. I remember many, many nights lying there in the pitch black wondering how long it would be before I could get out of there and back to work.
Once he started falling asleep on his own, I made sure we never regressed. I'm always the last one in his room at night. His dad puts him to bed while I put his little sister to bed, and as soon as I'm finished in her room, I go into his room for a final snuggle. But even after he graduated from the crib to a toddler bed and later to a full-sized bed, I insisted on leaving the room and letting him put himself to sleep. I knew he was a kid who, if I let my guard down once, would demand that I stay every night thereafter. Plus, he's excitable enough and loves our company enough that I was convinced he'd never fall asleep as long as I was in the bed with him, so I didn't want to waste the time for no reason at all. And after the insanity of the pre- and post-dinner hours, I was usually desperate to get out of there so that I could nurse a glass of wine and enjoy some much-needed silence.
But one night last week, we were both tired enough that as we lay there in the bed, my arm draped over him and my head tucked into the space just under his neck, we both fell asleep. When I woke up twenty minutes later, I was amazed he'd fallen asleep and immensely grateful for the extended snuggle time.
And every night since then, save one, I've stayed in the bed with him until he was out. It's taken as few as ten minutes and as long as forty, and I haven't begrudged him a single second.
Why the change of heart, you ask?
The answer is easy. This past year of parenting him has been so challenging for me. We had no terrible twos -- two was delightful. But three and four have been insanely hard, and some days, I feel like we might never be close again, that we might never even like one another, that we'll never get to have the relationship of mutual trust, respect, and love that I've been trying so hard to lay the groundwork for. So this chance, every night, to simply be with him, in the quiet, with no expectations or demands from him or me other than that, has felt like an incredible gift.
I recently read a Facebook post about how lengthy hugs help release oxytocin, the same hormone that bonds babies and mothers together immediately after childbirth. As I lie there with my son enveloped in my arms for ten minutes, twenty minutes, forty minutes, listening to him breathe, I picture these invisible bonds wrapping us together and holding us tight, and I hope against everything that they will be enough to get us through the next twenty-four hours until this moment comes again.
And somehow, at least so far, it's working.
Mandy Hitchcock is a writer, bereaved mother, cancer survivor, and recovering lawyer. Her essays also appear in The Washington Post, The Huffington Post, Brain, Child, Modern Loss, and elsewhere, as well as in the forthcoming HerStories anthology So Glad They Told Me. She lives with her family in Carrboro, North Carolina. You can find her at mandyhitchcock.com, on Facebook, and on Twitter.
This post originally appeared on Mandy's website.