In our house, we had a problem with a fear of the dark.
Not our young boys’ fear — if they’re afraid of the dark, they don’t talk about it much — but mine.
When I climbed into bed and turned out the light, I dreaded it happening. It was a matter of when not if. Because it would happen.
At some point, usually just after I passed across that invisible line into deep sleep, I would be yanked awake, as if given an electric shock, by a noise, next to me, coming from a small white speaker. Through a hiss of white noise, a human sound. A cross between a groan and a musical note, alto but male, the sound of discomfort, an achy sound, mixed with a kind of muffled scratching or swishing, as of the rubbing together of cloth, or, specifically, pajamas, blankets and sheets.
Sawyer was awake.
In our house, this was a particular emergency. Sawyer, our 2-year-old, shares a room with his 5-year-old brother, Quinn. If Sawyer were left alone, the groan would become a whimper, the whimper a cry, the cry a scream. And, eventually, the scream would become The Armageddon, agonized wails so full of despair they seem like they bubbled up from hell’s depths and cannot be stopped with any degree of pleading or comfort or bribe. And he would wake up Quinn, and we would end up having two other human beings in our bed for the rest of the night, rather than just one.
I was the one assigned, at the first hint of these alto groans, with the task of retrieval, practically running from our bedroom through the family room, through the kitchen, through the dining room and then stopping at Sawyer and Quinn’s bedroom door, carefully turning the knob and easing the door open, and picking up Sawyer — good God, don’t forget his blanket and pacifier! — and bringing him into our bed without Quinn also waking up. So certain was it that this scamper through the dark would take place that before going to bed I’d scan the floor for errant small toys that might lie in this path, knowing that the next time I would be using this path, it would be in the dark, while in a sleepy fog, during a desperate sprint to preserve some semblance of nighttime peace.
Do not do this: Do not, for two years, bring your toddler/pre-schooler into bed with you when he wakes up. We did this, paralyzed into parental impotence by fear of The Armageddon, were we to try to get Sawyer back to sleep in his crib. This habit, obviously, rewards a toddler’s nighttime awakenings with the trophy of being placed into his mother’s warm, caring arms, guaranteeing beyond all doubt that such a nighttime awakening would occur again the following night.
Instead of doing this, try, frequently, to do whatever you can to get your toddler to go back to sleep in his crib, even if that means waking up an older sibling. You will fail frequently before you succeed, but eventually you will succeed, and it will change your life.
But we did not do this, for two long years.
So, my fear of the dark at bedtime.
The baby monitor, in our room, is kept on my nightstand. We have a noise machine in the boys’ room, set to ‘Rain,’ and this can be clearly heard through the monitor. It’s mostly the steady soothing sound of a rain shower, but for some reason — I suppose for authenticity — mixed in are the sounds of individual drips, as if water is falling into a puddle on the ground from an overhang above. There’s a flourish of drip sounds that comes every 15 seconds or so, and I have it nearly memorized: It’s basically, ‘plop-drip-plop-plop-drip-plop-(pause)-drip-plop.’
If there is ever any deviation from the script, I would suspect the worst: Sawyer was stirring and would soon be awake.
I would psychologically plan to be asleep only a segment of the night before being tugged awake. My ‘night’ would last until 2 am, maybe 1 am, or, if lucky, maybe 3 am, but almost never past that. Then I’d have to start over.
I had it easy. It was Jen who was saddled with getting Sawyer back to sleep every time he woke up thereafter, which, once in our bed, happened two to three times more. And the only way he would fall asleep again was to be on top of her, her body his pillow, or even his bed. This led to oh-so-careful whispers in the middle of the night of ‘Tom, let’s move him,’ followed by a one-motion lift-and-move maneuver, like paramedics lifting a victim with possible spinal injuries onto a gurney.
Thus arose our obsession with sleep. It became the be-all-end-all of existence. The very mention of the phrase ‘good night’s sleep’ aroused excitement . That’s what the unattainable usually does. The notion of a full night of sleep, of uninterrupted sleep from, say, 11 pm to 7 am, was the stuff of fantasy, of lust, of hopelessly deluded dream-seekers.
It’s a weird paradox of being a parent who has not mastered the nighttime routine: You can love your kids so much that you’re certain you’d die for them, but always want nothing more than to have them be asleep, and to stay asleep for a very long time.
Unless, of course, they are sleeping at a time that might delay bedtime later, e.g. an unforeseen 5 pm nap. In that case, it becomes urgent to wake your child up as soon as possible. Or maybe they’re so tired that they might just stay asleep for the rest of the night? If we just put him in bed, now, at 6 pm? (This has never been successfully executed.)
I’ve read a fair amount about parenting, but nothing speaks to me more than this ‘lullaby’ read by Samuel L. Jackson.
We’ve since conquered this problem, pretty much. Eventually, I resolved not to put Sawyer back in his crib after a middle-of-the-night awakening. Summoning this resolve was not unlike other tasks in my life that have required courage, like riding a two-wheeler knowing I could fall, and public speaking. I picked him up and held him, sat with him in a chair and let him cry. Finally, he would calm down and drift back to sleep. To my surprise and immense relief, he got the message quickly. After only two or three days, he stopped waking up in the middle of the night. He now sleeps till 6 or 7 am.
But like many fears, echoes of this one linger. When Sawyer is put to bed and that little white speaker is turned up, still with its sounds of plops and drips, I’m still conditioned to brace for the worst. Was that the start of an alto groan? Was that the swishing around of an uncomfortable leg?
But usually — almost always, in fact, now — it’s just the sound of sleep.