“Mommy, I need you,” he calls from his darkened room. I know he’s made a space next to him in his narrow twin-sized bed — a space I’ve been filling since it was an impossibly tiny toddler bed and, to some degree, even a crib. I know what he needs; he needs to feel the weight of my arm draped over him, just as he used to need to smell my scent, or clutch my finger, as I bent over the crib railing and waited, waited, waited for his heavy eyes to flutter closed.
He needs me. And so I make my way to the familiar bed, to my familiar spot, and cuddle my boy until he’s drifted away.
But he should be able to fall asleep on his own!
Kids need to know how to self-soothe!
The damage you’re doing to that poor child!
A former version of myself might have chalked this up to a big fat failure, too. He’s turning 6 years old in a few weeks, and I still sleep next to him?! I had the sleep-training books, I read the warnings and guidelines. The pressure! The paranoia! I endured the ear-bleeding, gut-twisting cries as I sat across the hall, head pressed against my knees, waiting for the “right” amount of minutes to check in on him. I couldn’t do it for too long, and because he only needed me to fall asleep (rather than to stay asleep), I eventually stopped caring so much.
And thank goodness I did.
As it turns out, our intimate sleep-time moments — just him and I, alone in the dark — have become some of our most tender. If I simply sent him off to bed with a kiss and a sip of water, allowing him to soothe himself to sleep, there’s so much I’d miss.
I’d miss the dreamy, sleep-drunk questions that pierce the quiet darkness. Questions like, “Why are we HERE? What’s the point?”
If I wasn’t there to catch that question, it would have just floated into the void, heard only inside his head. He doesn’t voice those existential questions to anyone else, at any other time, and so if I wasn’t there to witness his depth, would I know it was there?
I’d miss the juicier stories from school, the small moments from his day, as he settles into the stillness and attempts to avoid sleeping. That time of night — that brief transition from awake to asleep — is when the good stuff spills out. That’s when I learn about his friends, his feelings, his fears. That’s when he can be his most vulnerable, saying things like, “Sometimes I don’t feel important in this family.” Maybe those thoughts are easier to voice in the dark, in the comfort of our cuddle. I’m glad I get to hear them. I’m glad he gets to hear my responses.
If I wasn’t there, who would whisper into his ear as he’s softening into sleep? Who would give him one last “I love you,” one last opportunity to feel a smile spread across his face? Who would be there to remind him that the shadows on his walls and in his mind are imaginary? That despite the paranoia and fear that creeps in the dark, he’s safe. Who would be there to whisper, “You’re okay” when he isn’t sure that he is?
Six years deep, and I’ve been through enough phases — enough beginnings and ends — to know that this, too, will end. He simply doesn’t need me in all the ways he used to, which is good and right and, in many ways, relieving. One day he won’t want me in his bed, either. He’ll want his space, his privacy. I won’t be invited to hear his deep before-bed musings, I won’t be privy to his raw vulnerability before slipping away to dream.
So for as long as he’ll have me, I’ll lay down in that familiar space. I’ll stroke his hair and stare at his eyelashes, feeling his steady breaths in and out and in and out. I’ll feel that same calmness that I felt when his tiny head settled on my shoulder, breathing deeply into my skin. Tonight I’ll be needed in the most basic of ways, and I’ll show up.
I know what the experts say and I hear the fear-based “should’s” from all corners, but in our corner — our darkened space, just him and I — it feels like anything but a failure. In fact, it feels like pure love.