Our Inadvertent Family Bed:
A Real-Life Parenting Lesson
by Sarah Buttenwieser
Would that I had known how much time I'd be spending on my middle son's mattress, I'd have bought the top of the line model. As it was, when I called the mattress store to purchase a mattress for the just turned three-year old, who slept soundly in his crib every night all night long, I opted for the middle-tier mattress. We'd had a small box built and painted cornflower blue. Proud to be a big kid, he loved his little blue bed not far off the ground.
How did it so happen then that his blue bed became less his and more mine than I'd ever dreamed of? How did it so happen that my bed became more his and less mine than I'd ever planned? Denial has erased certain details, but the gist of it goes something like this: he wanted someone to lie down with him on the bed while he fell asleep. This desire more or less coincided with my pregnancy, which left me so nauseated that lying down with him while he fell asleep represented a large proportion of my parenting abilities. After a few months in his bed, he realized that he could leave said bed much more easily than he could escape the crib, and so he began to wander—sleepwalk, actually—into our bed in the middle of the night. Dreading lack of sleep in our future—once the baby arrived—my husband and I perfected the art of co-sleeping with our son at a rather late date because it seemed easier than trying to dispatch him back to his bed. We figured that we'd deal with his invasion of our privacy after we lost it still more—along with sleep—upon the baby's arrival.
If asked before having children, or even before Lucien turned three whether we'd ever consider creation of a family bed, the answer would have been a resounding "no." One of us still lies down with the now five-year old while he goes to sleep, and Lucien continues to stumble to our bed in a somnolent stupor every single night.
During the newborn weeks, we made valiant attempts to extricate the shell-shocked middle kid from our bed. His papa lay down with him and he and his baby brother lay down a dual soundtrack of their own: the raspy newborn hunger cries never quite harmonized with the wails of the displaced four-year old. That cacophony was suitably ear and nerve shattering to convince us to move our middle son back into our bedroom. We fixed a spot on the floor for him, piled with blankets, and favored snuggly friends. Then I heaved my exhausted, achy, bloated body from the comfortable bed and slept with him there, but he wasn't placated by those efforts. In the morning, he would climb onto the bed while I nursed the baby and tell me, "The worst-est part of my night was sleeping on that cozy nest." He spat out the word 'cozy' with venom. Hey, I wanted to snap back, it was the worst part of my pretty much sleepless night, too. We never decided to make a family bed, and we did not map out a successful route to unmake that family bed, either. It took many discussions, more experimentation, and many months to realize that we actually felt a commitment to lying beside him at bedtime. We gave up on the nest and the constant carrying of the kid back and forth between our bed and his and simply abandoned hopes of our son's slumbering in the blue bed past midnight. Most nights, he did not so much as stir during the baby's feeds although there have been more five a.m. wake-ups over this past year than I care to admit.
With a baby in the mix, the logistics of lying down with Lucien until he falls asleep became much more complicated for us. In order for me to lie beside him, I have to make sure this block of time isn't in conflict with the baby's nursing schedule. We need two adults available at bedtime every night: one for the baby, one for the middle brother. After reading stories, the energy shifts, to something confidential, even romantic. We snuggle up close, tell a story, or talk about the solstice or the moon or a thing that happened during the day. And then, we get quiet. To hear the telltale yawn followed by his actual fall to sleep is a sweet thing. His breaths deepen, become more regular. More nights than not, this time is cozy, satisfying. Yet, I've experienced plenty of frustration: there have been nights when Lucien just cannot fall asleep, and the spot beside him might as well be a prison bunk. My heart pounds with trapped fury: I haven't eaten dinner, taken a shower, fed the babe a last time, read to the oldest kid. I start to second-guess this whole lying down with him process; shouldn't he just go to sleep on his own like other kids do? On rare occasion, I've edged close to hurting Lucien—go to sleep, or else! Nine-thirty in the evening has never seemed so late in all my life as on those wound-up, hysterical late nights. I toyed with turning myself into the authorities once or twice.
Those harrowing five in the morning days and remarkable purgatory-length evenings aside, it became clear to my husband and myself that this particular three turning four and now five-year old craves our physical proximity more than some other kids do, at least more than our other kids do. He's a cuddly, yummy, emotional boy, with a big belly laugh and a big belly growl; part of how he's coping with his middle status is to spend some portion of each twenty-four-hour period literally in the middle, between his papa and me. On a cold night, his puffy feet act like heaters. He feels—he is—special when one of us makes the priority helping him get to sleep. Some nights, the last thing I want to do is to lie down beside him; some nights, I yearn for an empty bed, and yet I see that this kid is happy and confident and is venturing forth into the world increasingly comfortable in his independence. Eventually, he will fall asleep on his own and eventually, he'll remain in his own bed all night long. It's taken some time to realize that we, his parents, believe he's benefiting from this particular form of closeness. And in parenting, there are very few objective truths, so our subjective truth is probably the closest we'll come to knowing if we've made a good choice.
When I come clean to friends about our stumbling upon this inadvertent family bed (which sometimes includes the eight-year old son, as well) I generally get one of two responses: the "when are you going to change this?" query or the "we have musical beds at our house, too" confession. How many dirty little secrets we parents harbor! Think about how differently our family lives look than we might have envisioned, either before our kids arrived or when they were tiny, shiny, and new.
For the most part, I'm thrilled with every detail of my kids' lives. They aren't perfect (nor are their parents) So, perfection is the wrong track here: it remains true that my kids' hair is too shaggy. The toilet seat seems to be always—infuriatingly so—up. The kids leave their shoes (and usually jackets, too) strewn across the mud room floor, and they do not say 'please' or 'thank you' often enough, most especially to their mother cum chef and waiter. Sometimes, I wonder why I can't or haven't insisted (cajoled, ordered) that these nagging deficits transform into more pleasant habits. When I start to discuss these or any other issues with other parents—insert your fallen ideal here; maybe it's television or vegetables or toy guns or Barbie—I find that I'm not alone in having unwittingly enrolled in the Cosmic Parental Flexibility Crash Course. Of course, so much has turned out—is turning out—differently than expected. It's laughable even that I thought it would be any particular way at all. In so thinking, I pretty much missed the point of the entire endeavor. Learning on your feet, respecting, and working with your particular child or children represent the humbling art of parenting. And all intimate relationships are ultimately humbling, right? Every family begs that question from the teaser for MTV's reality show, the Real World: "What happens when people stop acting and start being real?" (Parental fatigue at day's end has rendered television more central to my life than I'd ever previously envisioned.)
I guess the unexpected is the most challenging, heartening, humbling, and the most interesting. Raising children is all much more compelling—save for everything that is tedious about it, like mountainous laundry and a large portion of hours logged at playgrounds on blustery days—than I'd ever imagined. Lurking around every laundry pile, there seems to be something new to discover. While I often regard my children with delighted awe, if I was honest about one of the major bonuses to parenthood, it would not exactly be about them. I find myself grateful to the demanding nature of their presence, of their needs and wants, because very often I am reminded that it is me I'm most aware of as the one who is growing and changing. I am seriously taking that course about flexibility—Zen, perhaps, I'm unsure—not auditing it. I do the laundry, wake up early, share my bed and my breasts and my heart. I mind all of this and I don't mind it at all. I do these things for the small people I love, but actually, I am doing these things for myself. Deep down, I wanted to learn more about how to love and be loved. Ultimately, raising children feels exactly the way I wanted it to even though I had no idea how it was going to feel.
Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser is a freelance writer, community activist, and mother of three (ages 10, 7 & 3) in Northampton, Massachusetts. Her work has appeared in a wide range of publications from Hip Mama to USA Today.
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