Sleepy train

“Night night, Avery! It’s 8 p.m. and *yawn* I’m tired!” Please don’t keep me awake.”

“Okay, mama.” She tucks me in, patters off to her room, and then the bamming begins.

Avery’s bedtime has always been a nightmare. Last December I let go of my investment in her going to bed now for the sake of her going to bed at all. She stayed up for hours but at least I didn’t have to.

I struggle to bring up hard topics while they are still painfully unsolved but I hope this sleep issue is on it’s way to becoming past tense. There have been many chapters.

My husband commutes for days at a time; so when he is home I get to explain our bedtime routine, whatever the latest idea might be. “What is she doing in there?” he asked. “Rearranging furniture?”

Me: “Building furniture?”

My daughter and I have different priorities. Which is why the water in the half-bath adjacent to her room is turned off; and toilet paper, toothpaste, hand soap, scissors, and crayons are kept in locked cabinets. That’s right, those child safety locks are not only for cleaning products.

The next day, I asked: “Avery, what do you do during quiet time?”

“Just… nothing,” she said.

“I hear bamming. What are you doing in there?”

“I toss my baby in the air,” she said. “Sometimes I catch her; sometimes I don’t.”

*

I have invested thousands of hours in getting Avery to sleep. As a baby she would wake every 45 minutes unless we were touching. As soon as I got off the mattress her eyes snapped open; so I went to bed with her every night at seven.

Nothing improved as she got older. When she was two she started silly love, an infuriating boondoggle to any adult agenda. As I tried to tuck her in, she would put her head down and pike her bottom into the air; or roll over and over so the blanket wouldn’t stay in place. It never ended well.

Over the next year we tried everything: bedtime routines, charts, rewards, consequences, and punishments. Nothing worked. I figured she couldn’t act out without an audience; so I would leave. She freaked out and freaked out some more. Every failed bedtime left me asking: Harder? Or softer?

For a while I resorted to locking her in her room, which she naturally hated. Twice she managed to lock me in there, and I resolved never to do it again. Instead, I got her to stay by threatening to take the next day’s episode. That tactic worked; but it often ended with her standing in the doorway and screaming.

What to do? Beyond the purpose of getting my child to sleep, I want bedtime to be straight-forward, peaceful, and dare I say enjoyable. It happens every day, for God’s sake. At the very least it shouldn’t be traumatic.

*

Though I tried to pass the buck, Avery has never had a security blanket, favorite stuffy, or a pacifier to sleep with. She had me. I loved cosleeping for the first year. Now I would love to sleep together and hold her little foot sometimes, but I also dream of an evening hour to drink wine with my girlfriends.

Sound sleep is vital to a family’s health. Why does it have to be so hard? On one hand, a new parent is so tired and has little choice but to do whatever makes sense in the moment: Scoop that kid up, use the boobs, pull her into your bed. On the other hand, the big picture hand, you must find a way to ask more of your child. Hold the vision of her sleeping alone. Start leaning in that direction on day one.

If your baby falls asleep on the nipple, rock her to sleep in your arms instead. Work this idea until you can lay her down. Get that little bottom into a crib while still cradling her head in your hands. Perfect this dance while she is still small. If she insists on sleeping in full contact with your body, fine. But side-lie and inch her farther and farther away in those moments before she is asleep until she is only touching your pinky finger. Don’t do what I did and let her wrap herself around your neck and stay there. Once you give your child your body in sleep, she will never it let go.

*

When Avery turned two I started getting four-hour stretches of sleep in a row, and right away I was talking crazy about a second baby. Then I got twins.

I spent the summer of 2020 with my parents in Anchorage waiting to give birth to a pair of baby boys and teaching big sister to sleep by herself. My mom did the lion’s share of the work, and before our due date Avery was falling asleep in her own little room.

When we got back home to our Southeast Alaska town things got hard again, but a big shift happened when I changed from thinking Avery is being deliberately disobedient to supposing that this lousy excuse for sanity is the best she can do.

One night, as she spun out in the living room for the umpteenth time, I picked her up to carry her to bed as she wailed, “I am the baby! I am only a baby!”

Ahhh. Maybe the ‘be a big girl’ messaging wasn’t what she needed. I finally realized that the bedtime power struggle is designed to keep mama on lock down. It’s a fancy form of separation anxiety. I feel so foolish not to have understood earlier. Sometimes a three-and-a-half year old needs to know she is still little.

Our cosleeping is a result of separation anxiety, and the separation anxiety is a result of our cosleeping. This new light called for a change in tactic. I started to wonder: What if, instead of separating at night, we could all be headed to the same place? Like riding through our dreams on a sleepy train…

*

“Are you ready to ride?” I ask as we finish our books. “Where should we go tonight?”

“Antarctica!” she says. “Let’s visit the penguins!” Other popular destinations include under the ocean, outer space, California, and up north where the polar bears live.

“Sounds good. I’ll hop into my bed and meet you at the Imagination Station. Do you want to get on first and save us seats? Or should I do it?” I’m feeling encouraged. This is the first sleep solution that has worked longer than three nights.

“I’ll do it, mama. I’m sooo tired.”

We love working out the details of these train rides: Will dad already be riding when we get on? Friends from school? Grandma and Grandpa? The brothers? We think it’s funny if the babies get on first and save us seats. When this happens they have to crawl up an imaginary ramp all by themselves to get on the train, carrying tickets in their diapers.

“I don’t want to be late,” I say. “Here comes that shiny black engine number 58. It’s pulling all those passenger cars and a red caboose. It’s putting on the brakes to stop for us! See the sparks fly along the rails?”

I give her the colors , sounds, and smells of a train yard – an image of us all together – and she forgets to be afraid of our separation. “What will they serve for snacks tonight?” I ask.

“Milkshakes!” she says. “Strawberry, vanilla, or chocolate.”

“Chocolate for me, please. Put in the order and I’ll meet you at the station in a minute. I’ll be wearing a red parka.”

Before I go she touches my heart’s center with all five fingers. “Click click,” she says, and she twists her hand back and forth to connect our invisible strings.

“Thanks,” I say, doing the same thing to her. “That will help us find each other easily. Click click.” We got this idea from a childrens book: People who love each other have invisible strings running between their hearts; so no one is ever really alone.

“Can you feel my love?” I ask.

“Yes!” she says.

“What color is it?” I ask.

“Pink!” she says, snuggling down into the covers. She turns onto her left side and takes a few deep lion breath’s, and I know she is ready. I sing my way out of the room:

Here comes the train!

Chugaluging down the track;

Going, Chugaluga! Chugaluga!

Chugaluga! Chugaluga!

Chugaluga! Chugaluga!

Chooo! Chooo! Chooo!

*

What we pay attention to grows

Give me back my sock!

Give that sock back! Give it back nooooooeeeewwwwww! She is laughing, running around the bedroom, tossing this purple and black striped sock into the air. Is this why mama it’s always the last one dressed and out of the house?

Um, yes.

Chase, laugh, repeat. Just days ago I would’ve grabbed said sock and made sure we moved on in a timely fashion. But I have a new goal: Make Avery giggle every day and keep it going.

The figurative Puritan farm wife in me has never allowed for enough joy but my new goal is helping. Also this week: Airplane rides. Grandpa walks. Special Time and the The Don’t Do It game. I discover that I know a surprising number of silly songs about horses. Tickle chase in a grassy field substitutes for the workout I never seem to get.

Why would I ever shut this down?

*

Last week was rough. “Don’t wake the brothers,” I said as Avery climbed into the car after school.

Avery and I have been in a terrible cycle. She’s been aggressive towards the babies, seeking attention through negative behaviors, and generally wound up for months. If you say, One more time and I’ll... she’ll get right on that.

Ruptures within our family are never about one incident. Major conflicts fall on top of years of broken sleep and “normal” household chaos (this morning I found play dough smashed into the rug and half-eaten tomatoes in my daughter’s bed). Even if I maintain through offenses A, B, and C, there is no way I will make it through to X, Y, and Z. I have been mad, yelling, slinging consequences, and even spanking.

Already we suffered a string of conflicts this morning. If the babies stay asleep then Avery and I will get some desperately needed one-on-one time before her nap; but I am hoping for the impossible…

“Hi Eirik!” She yells into his face. Two little blue eyes blink open.

With three car seats across the back of my SUV, car time offers Avery unsupervised access to the babies that I find impossible to avoid. Eirik gets the worst of it. At times she has pressed a thumb into his fontanelle until he cried or finger-popped the side of his mouth and made him bleed.

“Hi Eirik!” she yells again, this time poking at his mouth. As she reaches for him now, I go ballistic.

*

I am a good parent; meaning I am committed to the process. Communicate well. Lead by example. Each of us takes responsibility for our role in a conflict. Focus on the beauty. I hold this vision for the long road and offer myself forgiveness in all the moments.

Every now and then I stumble upon a hard topic to write, which also means that I have to do it. This is that topic. Conflict within our family. My child’s overwhelming behavior. Trying to be on the same page as my spouse. The role I play in all of this. It might take a few posts.

At times, Avery’s love for the brothers recalls the curly-haired Animaniacs character Elmyra who gathers the animals into her arms, saying, “I will kiss you and love you and squeeze you all up!”

Parenting is insane and whoever says it gets easier is a filthy rotten liar. The twins get a lot of press, but what makes our family functional or fraught is Avery’s behavior. I wont divulge too much lest I shut down reproduction for the human race, but this list is a pretty good summary:

Avery isn’t a toddler anymore; but Preschooler = Toddler with more brain and muscle. Since I’m the one who’s talking people worry about me but that’s not the point. Please, pray for us all.

*

It’s sad what a big kid loses when she gains a sibling (or two). She had mama entirely to herself for three years and must now compete for my attention (aka take turns).

I remind myself that I am the guardian of Avery’s sense of security, and she expects me to model what reasonable interactions look like. I want to harness her “creatiful” energy for the greater good and find a way forward where I am not mad all the time.

Avery demanded the full hippie swim-up bar until she was two-and-a-half. Watching two babies tethered to my boobs is too much for her to take. If I don’t want a baby at each breast and a jealous kid wrapped around my neck then I nurse in my bedroom.

While I hide behind a locked door, Avery finds outlets for her angst: Sewing needles scattered across the floor. A stick of butter nibbled at the corners. A spool of thread woven through the house like a mad spider’s web. Furniture covered in maxi pads. Wet washcloths wrapped in toilet paper and carefully placed in the freezer. Framed art askew. Electrical fixtures swinging.

Isolating her from her family isn’t what I want to do. It’s bad enough that the other four of us, plus the dog, sleep together in one bedroom while she sleeps alone. (We tried rooming the dog in with her but he couldn’t take the pressure.)

I have an idea. Next time I nurse on the couch and ask, “Want to play hide and seek?” Without waiting for me to finish, she runs away to hide. I count long and slowly then I go find my girl.

My sense of safety is renewed but it’s a bit like tossing a steak for a troublesome dog. There must be a better way.

Time to use a lifeline. My friend E has the same constellation of children only she is a year ahead. She recently spent a long weekend with friends who have preschool-aged only-children and was amazed at how much attention those kids got. “We have to remember our daughters are still really little,” she says.

Knowing what not to do does not help a parent to know what to do. Thankfully, my desperate late-night Google searches yield new ideas at ahaparenting.com.

The blog is written by Laura Markham, author of Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids. She talks about fresh ways to be in relationship with children that shift parenting away from consequences and towards fun. In all the margins, I see my daughter.

She writes: Laughter relieves stress as much as a tantrum, and it’s so much more enjoyable for everyone. Laughing not only reduces fear and anxiety; it also releases bonding hormones like oxytocin so every time you laugh with your child, you’re building trust and connection.

Peaceful Parenting has three parts:

1. The parent commits to regulating his or her own emotions.

2. The parent prioritizes strength in the parent-child connection, the relationship, which is the reason children cooperate.

3. The parent loves the child unconditionally. No withdrawal of love around undesirable behaviors. No rewards or consequences to manipulate the child into doing your will. Only loving guidance and opportunity for everyone to learn how to manage big emotions together.

All of this takes a lot of effort. But as one playful dad, V, once told me: “I find I have to put in the effort one way or another.”

*

Kids (and grown-ups) act out when they have big feelings they can’t put into words and don’t know how to express. When our needs for attention and power (two big needs behind undesirable behaviors) go unmet we get whiny, controlling, aggressive, and territorial.

At first I couldn’t imagine a world without consequences. Do the crime, do the time, right? But then I realized that punishment doesn’t really accomplish anything helpful. Remember the last time someone yelled at you. Did it increase your respect? Bolster your relationship? Make you want to please them? Improve your behavior in the future? Nope. Me neither.

From a kid’s perspective, there is no need for discipline; only for connection, listening, and stress relief. Kids need insightful adults who imagine what’s going on inside of them. They need us to understand their intentions, believe in them, forgive them, expect the best from them. That’s the adult I want to be.

*

For the first time in a long while, I see positive change in my child’s behavior and it isn’t because I found some magic wand to wave over her. I started with the only behavior I can change: Mine.

In doing away with consequences, I committed to figuring out what my daughter is trying to tell me. The message was obvious: Avery needs to know she hasn’t lost me.

I’ve been slow to understand all the forms separation anxiety takes. That’s why we’ve struggled so much at bedtime. That’s why time outs make her behavior worse. Avery has a case of the mamas and she’s willing to drag a brother around by his arm if it means I’ll come running. She wants to be with me, glued to me, no matter my mood. This is also why she continues to think I hung the moon and stars even on my yelling days.

*

I am having fewer yelling days. I’ve been reading, thinking, talking about my intentions, screwing up, apologizing, seeking accountability in my friends and support in my husband, doing it all again.

Photo by H. Landers

After several months of hard work, I rarely use punishment and consequences anymore. When I am proactive; when I cuddle my daughter and make sure not to leave her on the back burner, the behaviors disappear (okay not completely) on their own. When they surface, at least I know where they are coming from.

What fills the void? Singing of show tunes and whispering of silly things in each others ears. Saying yes when other adults make excuses. Rip-roaring, out-of-control, rolling-on-the-floor giggle fits that allow me to see more of my daughter’s beautiful spirit and my own.

What we pay attention to grows.

***