I think every parent must know the feeling of being desperate for their child's nap or bedtime to arrive. It’s not that you don’t love you child or children; on the contrary, the very fact that you love them so much and are pouring yourself out when you’re with them is the reason you are so desperate for a little bit of time to just breathe and think.
I'd wager that most parents find themselves counting the minutes until bedtime most frequently during their kids' first five years. There is a constant intensity with younger children; you are always “on” as long as they are awake and you are the responsible adult. The hours after 8 pm, when the children are all peacefully sleeping in their beds, their needs fully met, and -- barring the infrequent nighttime awakening -- settled for 10-12 hours, are golden. They bring a euphoric feeling of a great responsibility being temporarily but completely lifted; “always on” being switched off just long enough so that you can remember who you are when you’re not parenting. It can feel like a celebration, an opportunity to bask in the satisfaction of completing another day’s labor of love, wrapped up sweetly with cuddles and picture books, prayers and kisses. Whether the day was a perfectly smooth, by-the-book day of parenting or a chaotic, confidence-crushing day which you felt like you barely survived, you’ve tied it up nicely, at least, and will have a fresh start the next day.
There is a point as children get older when they cease to need as much sleep. Their bedtime starts to creep dangerously close to your own. However, by this point, they are usually old enough that they might reliably put themselves to bed. Or, if not quite that independent, perhaps just some reminders and tucking in will do. You may not have the same golden silence during your evening hours that you did previously, but the intensity of moment-by-moment responsibility throughout the day is lessened. You have some time to think and breathe even while they are awake.
There is something I have learned, though, as a parent of children who are rarely average or easy. They can reach the age where they stay up as late or later than you can handle, but still require nearly as much input and supervision as when they were younger - especially during the last couple of hours before bed, when you most want to disengage and relax. These days, weeks, months… they can be really hard. In the midst of them now, we are so discouraged. We are starting to have PTSD when it comes to bedtime. We’ve lost most of our hope for any solution. To say it is wearing on us is an understatement. Although I try to be the primary one to stay up late with them, Heath is having great difficulty getting enough sleep to concentrate and do his job during the day.
It doesn’t do any good to curse our fate and rant about how they “should” be able to go to sleep. The fact is, this is what we’ve been handed. We are doing everything we can. We’ve tried all the recommendations of doctors, psychologists, and websites. We’ve tried behavioral strategies, natural sleep enhancers, and various modifications to their pill regimens, including withdrawing all meds. The fact is, they don’t go to sleep well, possibly due to their medications, but possibly just due to the unique persons they are. They are jittery at bedtime, even with a cool, quiet room, relaxing music, bedtime stories and prayers and anything else you can think to try. Every anxiety or obsessive tendency they have ever had comes to the surface in that quiet, dimly lit room.
We’ve had many nights over the last few weeks that have been particularly bad. We’ve sat by their door to try to make them feel safe. I’ve laid next to them in bed and stroked their hair or backs or faces. We’ve tried various musical albums, an audiobook, white noise. Still, I’ve been up past midnight with them a handful of times in these last few weeks. Heath wakes them when he gets up or when he leaves for work, somewhere between 7:30 - 8:30. You would think they’d eventually get on schedule to fall asleep by 10 pm at the latest, if they are woken at 8 am. Kids their age supposedly need at least 10 hours, most 11 or more. However, we feel pretty lucky on any night when they fall asleep before 10 pm. Yet the 10 pm victories are shadowed by the knowledge that we aren’t really making any progress, and that the next night could be another 1 am-er; that the pattern overall isn’t changing. A few 9 pm nights in a row — now that would encourage us.
You can’t ignore a scared, awake child when your own bedtime rolls around. One of them shook me awake over and over one of the nights when I was up with him and literally couldn’t keep my eyes open. He was anxious enough that he couldn’t just fall asleep while I did or lie next to me while I slept. He had to shake me awake as long as he was awake. It isn’t enough to share a bed or room with each other, either. Only a parent will do.
This is where we are. This is what we’re walking through. We’ll survive. There are times we feel like we won’t; like we can’t possibly handle another night like this. But somehow we do. I wish we would discover a miracle cure, but I’m starting to think that only short-term solutions are possible. We may find a strategy that works for a while. Then they will hit some new stage of development, or some unforeseen situation will throw off the routine, and we’ll be back to square one. Even though I know we’ll survive, and that bemoaning it won’t make anything different, I still want to tell someone else about it. I need to describe the struggle for some reason. So, here I am. Thanks for listening.