"Can we have a sleepover tonight?" my youngest son asks. "It's my favorite night of the week!" he exclaims. Most would assume this is a request for a group of rowdy boys with sleeping bags to take over the floor of our family room with little shut-eye for the night. But in our home, a sleepover means something different. It is a family tradition stumbled upon in desperation, but now revered with great affection.
It means that all four of our children climb into our bed in the early evening and forgo the usual bedtime expectations. What we do from there varies on any given night. Sometimes we watch "American Idol" or "Wipeout" episodes, with each of us picking a favorite to cheer on. We often take turns reading a few chapters from Harry Potter or other literary favorites. We study for tomorrow's test on the life stages of the frog, Jeopardy-style.
During thunderstorms, they bring flashlights and make shadow puppets on the ceiling. Some evenings, the boys bring their Matchbox cars and turn my curled-up snoozing body into a mountain with my legs fashioned as treacherous mountaintop roadways. My daughter brushes my hair and applies glittery make-up to my closing eyelids. We spend the last hours of the day together in this five-by-five cozy tangle of blankets and pillows until we all fall asleep intertwined in each other.
You may be assuming that I am some attachment parenting maven who created this family bed tradition in order to foster a safe haven for open communication. That could not be farther from the truth. It comes from this, pure and simple: I am exhausted and entirely too worn out to put my children to bed properly.
Years ago, when my children were younger, the evening hours after a crazy work shift felt like the worst kind of motherhood punishment. I would sit in a haze on the couch with little ones racing around me dreading the formal bedtime routine I knew any decent mother should be embarking on. Each child should be bathed and placed in fresh pajamas. Teeth should be flossed and brushed according to hygienist specifications. I should spend fifteen minutes reading or practicing sight words or math facts and then reviewing their prayers before sleep. (I did, after all, check off on their CCD homework that they had said the "Our Father" every night. The afterlife ramifications of fudging your child's prayer schedule can't be good.) Then each child would need to be tucked one by one into individual beds while I cleaned up the toy clutter underfoot. I would shut off the lights and melodically call, "Goodnight, my loves."
But of course, that would not be goodnight. There would be calls for more water and other endless requests.
"Mom, Nolan is sniffing, and it's bothering me."
"Moooommmmm, do spiders sleep or crawl around your room all night?"
"Mom, my left ankle is itchy!"
"Mom, can you just lie down with me for five more minutes?"
The thought of the entire production was entirely too overwhelming some days.
So, one night in a moment of motherly exhaustion, I announced at seven o'clock, "Everyone into the Mommy bed!" They all piled in with great excitement, and we were able to spend quality time together while I was able to remain horizontal. With this, the family sleepover in the grown-up bed commenced.
And so it is. If I have had an extra difficult of work, am coming down with a cold, or let's be honest, am just plain wiped out, a family sleepover is in order. When Daddy comes home from work and we are still awake, he joins in the fun. If we have all drifted into slumber, he carries each sleeping child to his or her own berth.
I've read all the parenting books. A consistent bedtime routine is essential to instilling proper sleep habits in a child. I should be bathing all the germs of the outside world off my child every evening. My children should be tidying their rooms before bed and reading independently each evening before sleep. Most nights they do. I used to feel guilty on the nights I caved and let everyone pile into our bedroom. Some had brushed their teeth; some hadn't. Some are in pajamas while others remain in gym shorts and t-shirts. What's the difference really? As the years have gone by, my guilt over these unstructured evenings has lessened.
Maybe it is because my oldest is now a teenager and is not so much into the family bed. My next in line is nearing the same distaste for any event that starts with the word "family." When you are in the thick of the childhood years, the daily grind seems endless. Now it seems they are slipping away and out of my arms and cozy bed far too soon.
Maybe it is because now that I am a mother of a little girl, I'm actually proud to teach her that doing it all perfectly every day is a dangerous aspiration. On any given day, the modern mother has to let something go or she will surely be broken by the weight of all she carries. Some days that can be extra work you had expected to accomplish, other days it is letting go of parenting as perfectly as you think you should.
Most importantly, I've realized that although structure and discipline are paramount in child rearing, the switch-ups, surprises and spontaneous surrenders are where the magic happens. Striving for perfection and by the book parenting often leaves little room for life -- especially all the beautiful bits and pieces.
Like the time we had all had a horrible day and as I stared into our refrigerator blankly in search of dinner inspiration, I decided to give up. "Forget dinner," I announced. "Everybody into the car. Who wants ice cream?" There has been no greater enthusiasm heard on earth. Or the summer Sunday which had held plans of yard work and housecleaning, but we all piled into the minivan and headed to the beach instead with the sun warming our faces and our hearts. The times when a work project needed my attention, but a little girl needed me more, so I put the laptop down and took my seat amongst her furry friends at her teddy bear tea. Or the many spoken of nights that because I was too exhausted to do the proper bedtime drill, my children instead ended up falling asleep in the crook of my arm whispering their secrets to me and sharing silly stories with each other. So horrible? No. Some of the most treasured moments of our lives.
I hope that from our parenting our children learn the value of hard work and the importance of personal responsibility. But I also hope they learn how to seize opportunities for joys both big and small in their everyday living. It's what makes life's journey a wondrous and magical adventure.
I can't wait for our family sleepover tonight. I'm so very tired and can't wait to lie down. But mostly, I'm looking forward to the moment when we finish reading the book we've been working on, The Wizard of Oz, and we all fall asleep together to the words "There's no place like home."