There was a time, several years ago, when I had only one child, Nikki (her pseudonym of choice). I thus had the luxury of spending exorbitant amounts of time trying to get her to sleep. It was the early days of parenting, when I actually sat down and read baby books to her and enrolled in Mommy-and-Me sign-language, yoga, aerobics, singing, cooking, and arts and crafts. By the time subsequent children were born, there was no opportunity for those things, because there were too many other people in the picture. Those children needed to learn to put themselves to sleep very quickly, and on their own, at a young age—preferably, as soon as they were home from the hospital.
My other three children accomplished this with a pacifier, thumb, and fingers. They each self-soothed and had no trouble going to bed at night. My days of endless rocking and off-key singing had come to a close. But with Nikki, as a toddler, the hour between six and seven in the evening felt congested. We would start with the bedtime routine: the bath, pajama, brushing teeth. A bottle of milk in my shrinking lap (I was pregnant at the time), while we rocked on the chair. The bottle would be drained, tossed overboard, and then I’d sit and sing every song I could think of from all my years of attending Oneg Shabbats at sleep-away camp. Then I’d move on to popular radio songs, and finally a round or two of “Old McDonald,” even throwing in a few animals that don’t make real noises. Maybe it was my poor song choice, or my even poorer singing voice, but 45 minutes of this didn’t seem to exhaust my daughter. I was drifting off to sleep, but she would just lie still in my arms and wait for more, occasionally blinking, while I’d imagine the blinks to be slow and lethargic, a precursor to sleep, though mostly they were just to wet her eyes.
And then the inevitable would occur. The front door would swing open and my husband would arrive home from work, excited to see us, to unwind, to share a conversation over dinner. I could feel the mellow muscles of Nikki’s body suddenly stiffen as she’d shoot upright in my lap, pushing off its slippery incline, and head out of the room to the top of the stairs, a jolt of refurbished energy coursing through her body. My hour was just wasted. “Daddy!” she’d scream, and he’d hug her and kiss her, and I knew they had both been waiting to see each other all day, to share a moment of affection, while a large part of me just wanted to take that all away.
“From now on,” I threatened, after a particularly grueling nighttime routine that was almost productive, but then, interrupted, “Tiptoe into the house, oil the door, and do not say a word unless there is a fire or a burglar. You have to hide.” In retrospect, it was mean. But I explained that it was as if he was getting ready to close up the office, turning out the lights, locking up the doors, and then another patient walks in and asks to be seen. There is a feeling of excitement at winding down for the day, at completing our jobs, and then a letdown when that task is reopened. We are all rushing to finish our responsibilities, to shift from a state of mental and physical obligation into a state of loose freedom. I wanted that too.
When my son was born a few months later, I no longer had the ability to spend those long evenings with Nikki, and she soon learned to put herself to sleep. Actually, I think she is still on that learning curve seven years later, but I definitely don’t need to sing songs out of the back of the NCSY bencher.
My current baby just gets tossed in the crib with a blanket, and he is quiet the second he hits the mattress. It is so noisy in the house at his bedtime that he doesn’t notice the creaking door hinges, the heavy footsteps of my husband’s return, and the shrill cries of “Daddy!!” that ensue as the other three clamber for their father’s audience and attention.
Sometimes they are already asleep when he returns, and sometimes they are not. Sometimes they call to him from their beds, their lights already dim, their blankets tucked in. And sometimes they sneak out for a quick or a long-drawn hug, and lurk around the table as we sit and eat, and attempt an adult conversation. But I’ve learned that the ability to see a father at night, to share a few uplifting moments together, is not mine to take away. Not mine, at all. Even though it irks me that my job is running overtime, this is the gift of family, and I try to smile, to wait my turn, and then collectively herd everyone into bed.
Sarah Abenaim is a freelance writer living with her husband and four children in Teaneck. She is working on her first book. More of her essays can be read at www.writersblackout.wordpress.com.
By Sarah Abenaim