I can clearly remember what it felt like to wake up feeling scared in the middle of the night when I was a child. My nightlight wasn’t bright enough to dispel the shadows lurking in the corners of the room, which always seemed so sinister in the middle of the night. Sometimes I had trouble falling asleep initially, and sometimes I would wake up in the early hours of the morning after having a nightmare. But something about running to my parents’ room and waking them up felt like reaching home base in a game of tag. There was a comfort and a sort of safety in snuggling up in their bed or even making a little nest of blankets on the floor next to their bed. Even though their room was just as dark (or darker) than mine, their presence in the room chased away my fear.
Now that I’m older and I’m a mother to two little boys, I’ve found myself on the other side of the fence.
My boys have dealt with many sleep issues on and off over the years. There were those early months of parenthood when I struggled to help my infant sleep through the night. There was a period of several months during which my three-year-old begged to sleep in my bed every night at bedtime. Even now, my nine-year-old has been struggling with nighttime anxiety and ends up waking me at 4am and crawling into my bed when he has a nightmare or he’s struggling to fall back asleep.
I caught myself one night warning him at bedtime to try to stay in his own bed and avoid coming into my room as his first course of action. “Let’s not make a habit out of this,” I admonished him. I woke up hours later to the sound of a little boy crying softly, apologizing that he tried to fall back asleep on his own without waking me up, but he just couldn’t do it. I tried all sorts of alternate remedies over the next few weeks: lavender, melatonin, a weighted blanket, music playing softly, extra bright night lights, extra dim night lights, sitting near his bed waiting for him to fall back asleep, etc. That last one ended with me falling asleep on his bedroom rug and waking up with bags under my eyes and an aching back the next day.
Eventually, I just gave up and let him come sleep in my bed when he needed to. He seemed to sleep better, and I definitely slept better (only waking for a second to register his presence and then falling back asleep). But I was still dealing with the nagging sense of guilt that I was being lazy about my solution to this issue or that a better parent would figure out a way to get him to sleep in his own bed every night like he should.
Every time a sleep issue arises (or any parenting issue really), I have fallen victim to the same trend: I have this weird preoccupation with making sure that I’m doing “the right thing.” I consult parenting books, magazines, psychological articles, Facebook parenting groups, and my children’s pediatrician. I end up discussing the topic with random people that I bump into at the grocery store. I gather all sorts of conflicting advice from a variety of sources, and I work really hard to generate even more anxiety about the issue at hand.
The problem is that I’m always in pursuit of the correct way of parenting.
I’m assuming that there’s one single, very narrow lane that I should be walking in if I want to get this parenting thing right, and when non-medical gray areas of parenting pop up, I start to worry that I’ll step out of my lane. What about my neighbor who lives three doors down and homeschools five kids? She looks like she’s doing it right. Maybe I’ll ask her!
But my neighbor three doors down doesn’t have my kids. Her methods are working well for her kids, but even her best ideas might not work for mine. I am the best expert on my own kids. Why don’t I trust my gut more?
And why do I feel like the best solution to my problem (namely, letting my nine-year-old crawl into my bed at night when he feels scared) is not the “right” solution? Am I truly worried that my son will never outgrow this? That he will be 16-years-old and not want to sleep in his own bed at night? This is a temporary phase; it’s not forever.