We are the family your pro-sleep-training pediatricians warn you about.
When our firstborn turned 2 and started screaming in the crib, we moved her to a mattress on the floor, and lay with her until she fell asleep — sometimes for two hours. We let her sleep in our bed. We put the mattress in our room, and let her sleep on our floor. Every iteration, because she — because we — needed sleep.
During the day, she was social and smiley and sweet. Her little body had ropy muscles, and she could bounce so high: Tigger, with more soul.
But at night: tantrums, anxiety, wake-ups, hours to fall asleep.
We consulted the doctor when she was almost 3. Make a book with pictures of the bedtime routine, she said. Try Sleepytime tea.
And: Lock her in her room.
Isn’t that child abuse, we asked. The doctor said she’d done the same thing with her own daughter, and it took only two hours. It was over in one night.
But we couldn’t bring ourselves to do it.
The next year, we paid $500 to a sleep specialist. She stroked her chin, like a caricature of a therapist. It was an advanced case, she said. Get a huge stuffed animal, one that will feel like a body. Use this CD of classical music that simulates heartbeats.
And: Lock her in her room.
The locksmith, an energetic guy with a heavy Staten Island accent, put in a brass deadbolt, and gave me two shiny keys, not asking why the lock was on the outside of the door.
Still, we couldn’t do it.
Last year, old enough to notice the injustice, her little sister, then 2½, asked why she had to sleep alone when the rest of us slept in the same room. It was a compelling argument.
I am a light sleeper — the lightest. My husband slept but I woke at their every moan or rustle, all night. For years. My child couldn’t fall or stay asleep on her own, but tending to her sleep took so much energy and time, and we had so little energy or time. I love my children with my whole body, but they are enervation machines.
The doctors — my doctor, her doctor — warned that if she didn’t learn to sleep on her own, she’d have lifelong problems: anxiety, depression, reduced executive function. (She would be like me, I thought to myself.)
We took her to a behavioral specialist. They said make a chart, with what needs doing before bed. Say nighttime is only for sleeping, not for tantrums or waking Mama.
And: Lock her in her room.
Maybe if I didn’t live in the over-parenting capital of Brooklyn, surrounded by families that seemed so competent and secure, I wouldn’t have minded. When I went to bed at night, there were my girls, nestled on the futon next to my bed, twins in organic cotton utero. They filled me with gratitude, almost an ache of it. Maybe this was what was right for our family, but with all the noise from the other families and doctors, I couldn’t tell.
Finally, in February of last year, we bought them a bunk bed, as a bribe. They could have videos and sugar — they could have anything, really — if they would stay in it.
They did. Bedtime was still a nightmare, but my older daughter stayed in her room until morning. She slept. I slept. Everyone in the house slept, for five months. It was a beautiful thing. And then it stopped.
She appears at the side of the bed, a living ghost, clutching her monkey lovey and staring with a haunted look on her face. She is 6, a month away from 7. For a week she has been waking up at the end of every sleep cycle. Forty-five minutes. Sometimes an hour.
At first I was confused. What are you doing up? Go back to bed.
Then annoyed. There is no waking Mama up at night.
Then angry. Hour after hour, she wakes me. My husband sleeps through it, except when I raise my voice. This is how they torture terrorists.
I don’t want to be alone.
Your sister is with you.
I need a grown-up.
No you don’t, sweetie. You can do it. You’re strong.
As the experts advise, I return her, wordlessly, to her bed, but it’s too many times, it’s too much.
I call the doctor. Make a little book with pictures of the bedtime routine, she says. Explain that nighttime is only for sleeping.
That’s what you said five years ago, I say.
She doesn’t have new advice.
Only this old advice: Lock her in her room.
I am so tired. She is so tired. She will not sleep.
I explain it to her: if you leave the room, I will have to lock it until 7 a.m. I use the script the doctor has provided me with. It’ll take two hours, she’d said, and the next night it won’t happen again.
She leaves her room. I bring her inside, and the lock hisses shut. She pounds on the door. After two hours, there has been no change in the screaming, except once, when she says, Is anybody there? Did you all leave?
I would never leave you, I tell her through the closed door, going off script. Never. I love you. I just want you to sleep. This is what the doctor said to do.
She screams the entire night. She writes “I’m sorry” on scraps of paper and slips them under the door. My body feels poisoned. Could every professional be wrong? My instincts say yes, but I’ve never really been on speaking terms with my instincts.
The door stays shut until 7 a.m. Neither of us has slept for more than an hour. She can’t go to summer camp. I can’t go to work. We spend the day together, playing cards and drawing. We don’t talk about it.
I call the doctor. It wasn’t two hours. And she didn’t sleep. And the notes, the I’m sorry notes — too much. How is it not child abuse?
Hm, she says. I can almost hear her stroking her chin. Try it for two more nights. Take a sleeping pill. Put earplugs in.
My instincts are saying no, no, no, but I do what the doctor, the expert, says.
All night. Screaming. She pounds on the door so hard that the vibrations reach through my Ambien walls of sleep.
Whatever lesson she is supposed to learn remains unlearned. Am I crying more than she is crying? There’s no way to know. I can’t see her.
After the third night, I call the doctor, in tears. We are desperately tired, scarred and scared.
Finally she says, She’s a very advanced case.
I think you can stop it now, she says. I don’t think it’s going to work.
All the experts were wrong. There is no sleep silver bullet, just the tarnished brass of a deadbolt. Now I understand: I have been parenting the child I want her to be, and not the child she is.
My daughter doesn’t want to talk about why she needs a grown-up, or why she wakes every hour, or the locking. I say, That wasn’t really working for our family, so we’re going to try something else. She makes a small nod.
I put a yoga mat on our floor. If you need to come in, lie down on this mat, and don’t wake me.
At night, after stories and turning out lights, both girls and I lie in bed, listening to the fan whir. There is no greater joy than this, the puzzle pieces of those two bodies fitting perfectly into mine. Maybe tonight they will stay here, all night, and accept the beautiful medicine of sleep. This is parenting, then: trying and failing and reaching and missing and sometimes getting it right, and always loving.
There is only one thing I know for certain: I will not lock the door. I will never lock the door.