Faith Gong: Pajama game
Now that we have a new baby in the house, one of the first questions I get asked (on rare occasions when I appear in public) is: “How are you sleeping?”
The implication is that, because babies are known for waking multiple times in the night to eat, my husband and I must not be getting a full night’s sleep. This is true, but it’s nothing new: My husband and I haven’t gotten a full night’s sleep in almost thirteen years.
To be fair, due to our rather rapid reproduction rate, we had an infant in the house for the first six of those thirteen years. But even after our first four children were no longer waking to eat and had moved into their “big kid beds,” uninterrupted nights were hard to come by. Here’s what nobody told us:
—Some children continue to wet the bed intermittently for a decade. This often involves middle-of-the-night laundry and bed reassignments.
—When children come down with a stomach bug, it almost ALWAYS happens in the middle of the night. (Ditto the middle-of-the-night laundry and bed reassignments.)
—Almost as soon as children stop wanting food in the middle of the night, they start being afraid. These fears seem to be hardwired into their systems. Because we knew that our children had overactive imaginations, we tried our best to shield them from scary content during early childhood. Didn’t make any difference: Monsters, witches, and robbers are apparently part of our DNA. And, in our house at least, these fears don’t go away with age. I can never predict what will bring a child downstairs with an, “I can’t sleep – I’m scared.” Sometimes it’s Voldemort, sometimes it’s Duct Tape (really.)
—Younger children treat every morning like it’s Christmas: They are up, ready to play, before the sun. (This is especially true if you’ve planned a morning of pre-dawn meditation, reading, prayer, baking – anything, really. Or if it’s a weekend.) At some point, in the later elementary years, you realize that the script has flipped: Now your children’s bedtime has begun edging closer to your own, making it impossible for you to read, do chores, answer emails, or watch a full episode of “Downton Abbey” without staying up into the wee hours. (And then you’ll have to pry your children out of bed with a forklift for school in the morning.)
Due to all of these reasons, for the next six years of our parenthood, we almost always had a least one child sleeping on our floor in a sleeping bag by the time the sun rose. We arrived at this sleeping bag compromise when our fourth daughter was a newborn and our third daughter – a lifelong night owl – was two. Given the choice between having a thrashing, snoring toddler in our bed, or spending hours walking that toddler back into her own room as she popped out of bed every five minutes, we chose the middle way: If she was having trouble sleeping, she could come into our room, pull her sleeping bag out from under our bed, and everyone would be happy. (This method was endorsed by my college roommate, now a pediatrician, who takes a “whatever gets you through the night” approach to sleep issues.)
The sleeping bag compromise caught on with all of our daughters and proved an elegant solution – until the arrival of Baby #5, who has taken up residence next to our bed in a Pack ‘n Play for the duration of his infancy. All of a sudden, there wasn’t room for multiple sleeping bags on our floor, and my husband and I weren’t keen on a sleepless baby waking our other children – or vice versa.
So our daughters did the logical thing, and started playing musical rooms. Now, if someone is scared, instead of coming to our room she sets up a sleeping bag on a sister’s floor. If this sounds simple – it’s not. Since we don’t have enough bedrooms for each child to have their own room, our current configuration is:
—Daughter #1 has her own room, because she’s the oldest and the neatest. But she doesn’t always like to sleep alone and often recruits a sister to sleep on her floor if she’s feeling nervous.
—Daughter #2 used to bunk with Daughter #1, and when her sister moved out she was excited to have her own room. She just couldn’t ever sleep in her own room, so spent several months on the floors of various sisters until she got tired of sleeping on floors. She then launched a successful campaign to recruit Daughter #3 to share a room.
—Daughter #3 – our night owl – was the first to want her own room and was originally given the room now occupied by Daughter #1. When her fear of sleeping alone coincided with Daughter #1’s desire for her own space, Daughter #3 moved in with Daughter #4, and now shares a room with Daughter #2.
—Daughter #4 is the soundest sleeper. She used to share a room with Daughter #3 but is now in her own room – until Baby #5 moves out of our room and in with her.
Did you follow all of that? It should give you an idea why, when we ask after dinner, “Who’s sleeping where tonight?” the resulting negotiations resemble a complex football play.
Once the girls are finally settled in their chosen spots for the night, the popping up begins: Someone comes down for a glass of water, someone has a stomach ache and needs the heating pad, someone is scared, someone needs just one more goodnight kiss, someone wants to discuss their deepest hopes and fears. And there are still nights when someone ends up on our floor. (Just last night, in fact, Daughter #3 awoke in the middle of the night, terrified by a memorial dedication on a seat in the Middlebury College hockey arena; the plaque apparently proclaimed that the deceased hockey fan was “Always Watching….” See what I’m up against?)
The traffic up and down the stairs stops around 10 PM. And then it’s time to feed the baby.
So no, we’re not sleeping much these days. But there’s hope: At some point, it will be just my husband and me, alone in a quiet house – with only our aging bladders to keep us awake all night.
Faith Gong has worked as an elementary school teacher, a freelance photographer, and a nonprofit director. She lives in Middlebury with her husband, five children, assorted chickens and ducks, one feisty cat, and one anxiety-prone labradoodle. In her "free time," she writes for her blog, The Pickle Patch.