On Parenting: Learning to Love Bedtime

Last night our ten-month-old baby cried for an hour after I put her down. She never does that. Usually it’s ten minutes and she conks out and I don’t see her again until she howls around 2:30 a.m.

But last night, as I was reading to our five-year-old daughter, Jessie, I heard the baby screaming upstairs. Jessie had just coerced me into pinkie promising something I didn’t understand. The pinkie promise is a new concept in our house — something she learned in preschool. (Don’t get me started on what girls are learning in preschool these days. Let’s just say we didn’t have any of these problems with our son. OK, you can get me started, but I’ll save it for a future blog post.)

It wasn’t so much that I didn’t understand the pinkie promise as I was distracted. I’d just gotten news of a friend’s cancer diagnosis and I was worried for her and her family. Then the baby started wailing upstairs, and I bellowed down the hall to my husband, Michael, to go check on her. As he clomped up the stairs, I began my painstaking extraction from Jessie’s room, hoping she wouldn’t beg me to sleep with her.

Increasingly, as my workload picks up and I adjust to life with three kids, I find myself running from rooms a lot — trying to flee the raw, messy intensity of my children’s needs. I keep thinking that “real” life lies somewhere beyond the place I’m standing, in some tranquil garden with a babbling brook just down the hall. I keep wanting to get there. I feel this most intensely during the hours-long nighttime ritual of getting our kids fed, bathed, and into bed. But, last night, I was viewing the usual slog with fresh eyes — as a gift to be thankful for.

By now, Jessie’s brown eyes had grown big, then wet with tears. Her mouth stretched into a wide O, and she wailed, “You broke your PINKIE PROMISE!!!!!!!!!!!!!”

I stood at the threshold of her door not sure what to do — reward the outburst with a hug or force her to man up. Meanwhile, Michael had galumphed back down the stairs to report that the baby was fine even though I could still hear her screaming.

“Thanks, dear,” I said as I stood frozen at Jessie’s doorway, trying to calmly explain that I hadn’t understood the whole pinkie promise thing and didn’t intend to break ours, and if she’d just explain what I’d done wrong, I’d try to make it right.

That’s when William, our eight-year-old with the penchant for NBA stats and Lego-created Armageddon, asked if he could use the electric pencil sharpener on my desk. Gripped in one hand were about twenty unsharpened pencils and in the other was a big, blue flashlight. I asked him what he was doing.

“I’m filling up my backpack with supplies,” he said, adding ominously, “because you never know.”

That’s right, I wanted to say. You. Never. Know. And if you start to think you do, life will find a way to teach you otherwise. Packing some well-sharpened pencils seems as good an idea as any. And a big flashlight. Maybe find a partner who will galumph up and down stairs as needed. Try not to run from rooms — from the raw, messy chaos of your life. It is all you really have. Get comfortable with the notion that both hangs over us like the sword of Damocles and enlivens every blessed moment — that it could all be gone tomorrow.