“You’re going to stay in your own bed all night tonight, right?”
“Your breath smells like coffee,” my four-year-old replied.
The two were not unrelated. My children were terrible sleepers as babies, and they are terrible sleepers now. The oldest complains he can’t sleep until 11 pm, and the youngest turns into a defence lawyer, objecting to every word I say.
On the flip side, I am an extreme introvert. I don’t just like having time to myself at night, I actively need it for my mental health. I can’t function properly without it. By bedtime, I am done being touched, being asked questions, even being cuddled. Even if my kids are being perfectly behaved (the one time that happened,) I am parented out by 9 pm.
In a perfect world, we would do a lovely bedtime routine that fostered bonding, my kids would hop into bed and fall right to sleep, I’d have a coffee and watch TV, maybe get some work done, and we would greet each other in the morning happy to see each other after our break.
In reality, I tell them to go get ready for bed, repeat it six times before any attempt is made, break up the inevitable fights, thwart the Lego playing, and listen to the constant whining and talking back.
At bedtime, dial up the rudeness to 11. They make me angry with their lack of respect for me and for what I am asking them to do. They turn the simple tasks of putting on pajamas and brushing their teeth into a 40-minute Gladiator match.
I inevitably snap at them. There is yelling, from all of us. Frequently, I say something I don’t mean in frustration, like, “I don’t care!” when they give me their 37th reason why they don’t want to go to bed. I start each evening with compassion for things like a spider in their room or being unable to find PJ bottoms, but eventually, I hit a wall, and all I want to do is get them into bed and walk away from them. I haven’t done it, but the temptation to just close their door and let them do whatever they want all night as long as they don’t bother me is there. I just need to not be in their presence at that moment.
By now, they are overtired and cranky, I am fending off an anxiety attack, and we are making each other worse. Eventually, we find some kind of compromise, they fall asleep, and I collapse on my bed with raised blood pressure and tears in my eyes.
This should mark the time that I finally get to relax and regenerate, that time I so desperately need, but it doesn’t. That’s when the guilt starts picking at me like a gnat in my ear.
“I yelled at them again. They start and end their day being yelled at. A good mother would have a bedtime routine that worked. A good mother would be able to hold her ground without losing her patience. She’d never tell them she didn’t care.” I immediately regret everything I have just said and done to get them into bed.
I peek in at them, check their breathing and touch their heads as I have done every night since they were born. They are perfect, and I yelled at them. Again.
I try to reason with myself that I was having a bad night, and it will be better tomorrow, but it isn’t. They push the same buttons, I have the same anxiety-influenced reaction, and the same guilt chaser.
But every night, before I leave the room, no matter how rough the lead up was, I tell them I love them and that we’ll see each other tomorrow. They still come to me for bedtime hugs. During the day and with clearer heads, we talk about the frustrations we have at night. We each know why the other snaps. We hate that it happens, but we get it.
I love them with all my heart and soul, even when I’m yelling. I tell them that, and they acknowledge it. It’s okay to not be perfect all the time. It’s how they know they don’t need to be either.
I sincerely hope we get this bedtime thing down. I still cling to that sitcom vision of finishing the story, kissing their heads, hitting the lights, and going back for them in the morning, where no one is freaked out by spiders, and no one tells me that they need a new sheet at the last second. Where it’s just I love you’s and drifting gently off to sleep.
But for now, I acknowledge that my strong-willed children get it from their mother, and though we all have some work to do, we love as fiercely as we fight.