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.”

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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.

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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.

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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…

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“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!

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Real things

I’ve been reflecting on a conversation I had 15 years ago, with my friend E, when we lived at the edge of the Arctic Circle. Neither of us had partners or children yet, and we shared great conversation and sourdough waffles every Saturday morning.

“What do you want your life to be about?” I asked.

“I think a lot about real things,” she said.

This woman, in her early 20s at the time, earned a perfect score on her SATs and opted to major in home economics. She was a flawless baker, sewer, knitter, teacher, and cafe owner. She once taught me to properly fold a fitted sheet (sorry E; I continue to wad it up into a ball).

For me, blinky-flashy things like phones are the opposite of real. Everything in there is virtual. I held out on getting my first cell phone until a day in 2006 when I needed a payphone, and I couldn’t find one. In 2011 I finally sent a message to all my contacts that said, “I text now.” I pushed the 7 key four times to get the letter T.

Today I have an outdated iPhone that I use (yes, writing on it now), but also sort of resent. I resent the $160 a month we pay for a service I value at half the price. I resent the way music, which used to play continuously, is now interrupted. I resent the way my husband texts while I am speaking to him and calls it “multi-tasking.” We’ve been together ten years and still don’t recognize each other’s hand writing.

Technology, fine. But what of relationships? I prefer that people use their phones in private (gasp!) because a phone used in shared space quickly shifts we energy into me energy. In gaining all of this personal choice, we’ve lost a lot of comradery.

Photo by R. Evanson

In my home, I am the ultimate real thing. My children are forever climbing on, playing with, and eating me. I rarely use a phone in front of my kids because I can’t. It’s impossible. My husband is exempt from all this and I am very, very jealous.

I also save phone use for nap time because Avery models herself after what I do, and not what I tell her to do. I carefully call this thing a phone and our phone instead of my phone, and I let Avery use it whenever she has a reasonable purpose. I hope she won’t decide she needs one anytime soon because I will never hear the end of it. #littlebull #strongwilledchild #taurus

There is nothing wrong with phones as tools. Photograph. Call. Look up. Pay. Deposit. Text. Social. Read. Listen. But be conscious of how you distract yourself from life. On days when I am over it, I sneak one earbud in and use an audiobook to tune out my children while I parent. I will die the day Avery does this to me.

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Little kids love real things. Avery employs what we call the object of the week: Life jacket. Ice pack. A few yards of magenta ribbon. Hand soap. First aid supplies. Two breast milk saver bags. Some long blades of dry rye grass. A broken strand of faux pearls. She plays until the object’s uses are exhausted and then moves on to the next real thing.

She is also fascinated by the blinky flashy.

Well-meaning adults are always trying to connect with Avery through their screens. The first time baby Avery met her grandpa he handed her a phone to chew on. When I objected, he was confused. “Because it’s dirty?” He asked.

Once I had to work on a Saturday and my daughter stayed with dad. When I came home, I found two-year-old Avery plugged in and watching the movie Frozen for the second time that day. I will never forgive him this.

Childhood is short and every minute of screen time makes it shorter. To everyone else: I am with them for 100 waking hours a week. You have them for a minute. Couldn’t you do something else?

Adult priorities are clear: All a child has to do is follow your gaze. Yes, getting things done with kids around is impossible. But whenever you can, engage. Swings. Books. Blocks. Paint. Soccer balls. Monkey bars. Bikes. Dirt. Animals. Plants. Music. Food. Love manifests as time and attention.

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Avery and I have a friend who comes from the last generation of real things. She and her husband have lived in a cabin without running hot water for decades. They turn compost, prepare root vegetables for lunch, ride bicycles as often as they drive cars, and repair their own shoes. This woman reads poems to Avery about kids splashing in creeks and taught her to make little boats out of alder leaves. For all the outside influences my kid is exposed to, she is the one I’m most grateful for.

I want my kids to grow up rooted in real. I sometimes pick up maps, cameras, and novels instead of using a phone for everything just so they learn to use these objects. I want to start buying CDs again so Avery can thumb through them to discover music. I’m sure all of this is mostly futile but maybe not completely.

Childhood is about exploring places and objects, building skills, following curiosity, and discovering the power of creativity. I thought summer vacation would be a time of dandelion crowns, sand castles, and tadpoles. And it is. It is also an endless opportunity for a child to beg for sugar and episodes.

Screen time is a serious crux of parenting. On one hand, a child in front of a screen is doing almost nothing of value. On the other hand, the thought please go away and leave me alone so I can do something is never far from my mind.

I aim to keep our family’s screen time just under the brain rot line. I don’t care if my kids are plugged in for 45 minutes at a time if the show won’t inspire nightmares or teach bad language; and as long as kids do something involving brain, muscle, cooperation, or coping skills before and after watching.

I deal with Avery’s constant requests by making screen time predictable and available for a price. She earns daily episodes by napping or playing alone for 30-45 minutes. Between the earning and the episode, I’m able to make dinner.

That’s the theory. But I’m struggling a little this summer with sneaky screen time: We both like it when Avery is plugged in; so I keep finding excuses to allow her more.

Like, she watches something while I do her hair and continues while I put the brothers down for their morning nap. I justify this screen time by requiring it to be in Spanish.

But she actually watches twice each day.

Then there are storm days, which are long; especially when we are up at 5 AM. When a blizzard or torrential rain keeps us inside, and I am tired, the thought please go away and leave me alone so I can do something is very, very loud. So Avery watches a movie while I listen to classical music, drink black tea, and write for an uninterrupted couple of hours the way I did before I had children, and I feel very, very happy.

And screen time happens a third way.

This morning, Avery showed her dad a video game on her little camera. It’s been fun for her to change the screen and hear the bubbly electronic music; but thus far she has not known how to play the game. Within a few clicks of his thumb, however, my husband has her disappearing bricks from a candy-colored wall. And now I shall be in constant conversation with Avery about when she’s allowed to play this game, and for how long, and why she’s not allowed to play it more.

Because I don’t want a fourth reason.

*

My friend E and I have each moved a few times since those languid, chatty Saturday mornings. We each married and birthed a couple of kids. Our interactions are usually limited to an exchange of holiday cards but I got in touch while working on this post.

“Remember, the real things?” I ask. “What does that look like for you these days?”

For her, as for me, real things are defined as much by what they are not as by what they are. Her family confines laptops, printers, scanners, speakers, and phones to a technology room (Did I mention she taught technology?). The rest of the home gets to stay real.

She also recognizes the importance of real food. She prioritizes cooking farm-fresh meals and canning salsa with her daughter while the baby sleeps. “My kitchen is a disaster 100% of the time,” she says.

E prepares fresh veggies and homemade pasta, but her daughter’s request for lunch will always be… you guessed it. “I have no idea what the allure is with boxed Mac and cheese,” she says. “There must be a spell on it or something.”

Kids get hijacked into virtual worlds and virtual foods at least as easily as adults are. Certainly we have less control over what content and calories they consume as they grow. But for the millionth time, caring for others is an inroad to caring for ourselves. At least E and her husband are eating homemade pasta. At least her daughter understands this as a possibility.

Buttressing family life with real things feels like a sort of protection from the spell of the blinky flashy guaranteed to show up in our childrens’ lives. “As long as their days are filled with curiosity and adventure,” says E, “I don’t think a few shows will hurt anyone. At least that’s my hope.”

Photo by R. Evanson

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Explorations

I allow A a lot of liberties. It’s been a warm summer, and I always let her swim at the beach. This will become a problem when the weather turns and she has no experience bypassing a perfectly good body of freezing cold water.

Maybe I’m a pushover. But also, one of my mom jobs is making life fun. I desperately want our family to do stuff. I hate showing up in a beautiful place, seeing limitless fun potential, and saying, “Maybe we’ll do that next time.” I’m also a firm believer that you never regret jumping in.

A has already learned to ask dad for certain things (sugar and screens) and mom for others (anything wet, muddy, or messy). One morning we are on a walk with my daughter’s good friend baby H and his mama E. The kids find a giant puddle turned mud pit that the WWF should be interested in.

Indoors this turns into water play in the sink, which she wants to do morning noon and night. I mostly let her, because I think it’s the right kind of creative-messiness and because if I don’t let her she clings to my leg and bellows.

When A and I play outside together, I love to show her the things I know: crab molts, urchins, humpback whales, glaciers, and blueberry blossoms. I also love to explore with her what I do not know: We use recordings to identify sparrows by call and watch cartoons in Spanish, and learn all the things I never learned but meant to. For her sake, I am getting a very little bit better at basketball.

There is nothing like a child to remind us that we are all children; that it’s never too late to start something new; that learning never ends.

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