By Elizabeth Beller
Evangeline is five years old. Like any five-year-old worth her salt, she fights bedtime like a well trained Navy Seal.
“Why do I have to go to sleep before everyone?!” she says.
“Mom, when I’m hungry I eat, right? Well, if I was tired I’d go to bed!!”
“You stay up, and you always say you’re tired!!!”
Sometimes she is philosophical:
“It’s not that I mind going to bed. It’s the nights are just too long. What, like, 5 hours?!? That’s forever!!!!”
I didn’t sleep-train Evangeline. She was my first, and I just didn’t have the wherewithal to get her on a sleeping schedule. We would dabble for a night in one method or another. They blended into one another like our bleary, addled brains during that first year. Sears: Co-Sleep. Pantley: No Cry. Ferber: Check and console. Weissbluth: Vanilla CIO. I have a new one for you. Beller: My ass.
When she was an infant, then a baby, Evangeline stayed up late. She participated with us. Somehow our previous schedule, which had drifted into a nearly Spanish rhythm, continued after she was born, and so she was up with us for 11 p.m. dinners for the first year.
At six months, when many parents are vying for a sleep schedule, we flew her to Europe for a stay in France before heading to Latvia and Estonia, staying in hotels that formerly housed Communist interrogation quarters, sampling the Baltic Sea.
We took her to cocktail parties. She handled it well. Rather than cry, she would delightedly blather on in nonsense words; she was as coherent many people in the room. Once, invited to a Vogue and Vanity Fair party at the Waverly Inn, we hesitated. But we were living around the corner then, and had no sitter, and it would just be a quick hit. We put her in a dress. Tom had written for Anna Wintour, and we mumbled embarrassedly to her about bringing Evangeline. Contrary to her ice-queen reputation, she sweetly said, “Oh, but I love babies.”
Clearly we were nuts. And we’re paying for it now, as evidenced by our daughter’s penchant for midnight rambling.
Yet I can’t fault us too much. Sleep training is an oxymoron. And the hugest, dirtiest, secret of it all: The adults are no more comfortable about going to bed than the children. According to the American Sleep Association, as many as 30-40% of adults suffer from insomnia. Tom often falls asleep on the couch, as though doing anything possible to avoid the actual gesture of going to bed. Many people do.
Why should we expect little children, who instinctively or explicitly know they need an adult for physical survival, to comfort themselves to sleep?
I still can’t do it. Sometimes it’s stress. Sometimes excitement. With two energetic children, a fledgling work life, commuting between New York and New Orleans, and a husband who does things like this, it’s not often I drift off without a hitch. I don’t think I’ve gone to sleep without something to read in my hands since the age of 17.
Think about all the things adults do to lull (or club) themselves to sleep: Number one must be booze. How many describe that glass of wine with dinner as “taking the edge off?” Number two is definitely pills. I stare longingly at my bottle of Ativan, which I will jump into the moment I wean our son. There’s always the wonderful narcotic effect of sex. Many adults can’t doze off without the TV. A book. Talking to my husband until one of us passes out.
Well, ok, until he falls asleep while I jabber. The point is, most of us employ one or another of these crutches. But with children, we are supposed to read them a story, and then while they’re wide awake, we turn out the light and chirpily walk out the door? It doesn’t seem fair. Kids are people, too!
Notwithstanding the fact that I’m starting to sound like my daughter, and at times wish as an adult I could use some of her sleep crutches (being told a long, slightly incoherent, impromptu story by my husband, or keeping the light on, with an enormous stuffed caterpillar to wrap around my entire frame), I think we’re hypocritical in terms of children’s sleep. Humans have always held an uneasy association between sleep and death. The ancient Greek poet Hesiod put it best: “And there the children of the dark Night have their dwellings, Sleep and Death, awful Gods.”
The whole business of falling asleep is terrifying. For those of us who want life partners, I believe a large part of the impetus is not sleeping alone. Why do we force it on our kids?
Full Disclosure: I sleep trained our son at six months. I was just too freaking tired.
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