By Lauren Apfel
I never co-slept with my kids when they were little. I was against the idea on principle. Not for safety reasons, mind you, but because I love my sleep and I love my space. One of the guiding lights of early motherhood for me was to encourage in my babies a similar reverence for the beauty of slumbering alone. They were all sleep-trained as a result. They were all placed in their cribs, with that magical mixture of “drowsy but awake,” so they could learn the secret of drifting off on their own. Without my breast. Without my breath. Without my heartbeat.
Fast forward eight years and I wake with a start into darkness, my son Oliver’s thin leg criss-crossed over mine. I am in his single bed, pushed up against the wall. I don’t know what time it is, but I can tell from the fuzziness in my head that I have been here a while. We are on a sleepover night. The irony doesn’t escape me.
One night a week I climb the rungs to Oliver’s top bunk and I don’t climb down again until he is asleep or on the brink. It started a few months ago, this ritual, when something changed in him. He has always needed a lot of rest, he was that baby. The one who could nod off anywhere, anytime. The toddler who took the three-hour nap and then still went down at 7:30 p.m. Even as a seven year old, Oliver’s last kiss goodnight was hovering on the inside of eight o’clock.
Not anymore. Some nights I hear his footsteps on the stairs and it is touching distance to my bedtime. He has finished reading; he has switched off the light. No such luck with his mind. I know the feeling. So when his head appears in the living room window, bobbing up and down like an apple, I smile and wave him in. He approaches me with caution, I don’t blame him: after-hour surfacings have not been met in the past with such warm welcome. But it’s different now. I pause the TV or fold closed my book and we walk back up together.
I don’t resent these interruptions, not really. Maybe because it hasn’t been going on for that long. Or maybe because there is a part of me that feels like I owe him. I am convinced that Oliver’s natural-born gift for sleep colored my first experience of motherhood in the rosiest shade of rose. He slept like the baby of proverb and, in doing so, he allowed me to enjoy him unambiguously, to loose myself from the grip of the newborn period with no scars other than the one across my abdomen. For that I will be forever grateful.
But I also feel like I owe him for the present. I might not be basking in time to myself these days, but that doesn’t mean my kids are swimming in my time either. There are too many of them for that. I read once that you are “supposed” to spend an hour a day with each of your small children: to ensure bonding and proper emotional development, to obviate the cries, literal and metaphorical, for attention. That’s all well and good when you have one kid or two. But four hours a day of tÃªte-Ã -tÃªte? Even if it were desirable, it’s usually impossible.
Here we all are in the kitchen, a line of dominoes, one need pinging off the next. The first twin is telling me, for the fifteenth time in a row, that his “snail is sleeping, shhhh,” which on the surface wouldn’t seem to necessitate a response, but at two and a half years old clearly does, each and every time he says it. The second twin is asking me an unending chain of questions, from the potty, some of which involve the very existence of the snail itself. Meanwhile, the five year old is weaving in and out, singing “Hava Nagila” at the top of his lungs or throwing a temper tantrum or angling for food even though dinner is half an hour away.
And then there is Oliver. He is the one who can wait, so he waits. He is the one who can sense the chaos, so he retreats. “It’s quite hard for you, Mom,” he says, patting me on the shoulder, his face poised somewhere between concern and curiosity. As the oldest and the most self-sufficient, his need for me is not as immediate as the others’. But that’s not to say it doesn’t still exist.
Does Oliver stay up later now because he isn’t as tired or because he likes being awake when the rest of the house has gone quiet and it is only him and it is only me? Probably a bit of both. Most nights, especially school nights, I return him to bed, with a quick tuck in and tussle of his hair. But on sleepover night, there is no end-time for my attention. There is no “wait five minutes.” There is no “it’s not your turn.”
I lie with him for as long as it takes and, on this night, he knows I am not rushing off to do the next thing. To sop up the milk, to blow the nose, to tie the laces, to answer the email. And I know that if he drifts off to the warmth of my body, it isn’t going to translate into a habit of unwanted wakings the way it might if he were younger.
Often on these nights I fall asleep myself and Oliver is out cold by the time I leave. Sometimes, though, he dozes first. I sing him the round of songs I have been singing since he was a baby and after the last line of “Somewhere Over The Rainbow,” when his limbs start to jerk, I edge my way out of the bed. He stirs enough to whisper “I love you,” drowsy but ever so slightly awake, and I creep out of the room, just like I used to.