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In Praise of the Sleepover

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When my son Sam turned 12 this past weekend, he told us he didn't want a big, elaborate birthday party. In fact, he said, he didn't even want to leave the house. What he wanted was a sleepover.

"Are you sure?" my worried husband asked, picturing our house completely destroyed by rampaging tween boys. "Because we might be a few months behind on our home insurance payments and I'm not sure if FEMA covers slumber parties."

"Yep, I'm sure," Sam answered. "Just relax, buy us some Doritos and stay downstairs, dad. You got this."

Ah, if only it were that simple. You see, this wasn't Sam's first sleepover party, so we knew exactly what happens when a group of kids spends the night without their own parents around to supervise them. There's the yelling and shouting and laughing. The running, tackling, cupcake fights and chasing. Then there's the 10-second lull before even more yelling and endless screams of "Dude!" and that noise lasts until midnight when I'm finally forced to stomp upstairs and lay down the law to a chorus of muffled giggles. And then after mere hours of sleep, the fun starts all over again at the crack of dawn when they all wake up delighted to see each other. It's a lot.

But even knowing all of that and knowing that I'd lose sleep and have a huge mess to clean up the next day (which, one year, even included repainting), I told Sam "yes" to the party. And the simple reason why is this: I spent at least 50 percent of my childhood snuggled in a sleeping bag on someone else's rumpus room floor.

Maybe it was because I lived in a small town and there wasn't much else to do, but it seems like I went to a sleepover party almost every weekend during junior high. Sometimes the parties were for a birthday, sometimes they were just for fun and sometimes they were at my house. And the pack of girls was always the same -- Kristi, Yvette, Amy, Beth, Jodie and about five others whose names I can no longer remember, but whose sleeping bags I can still describe to a T. Probably because my own sleeping bag was a mortifying dark brown with a red duck hunter motif lining and I was always coveting the others. (My dad: "Why would you want a pink sleeping bag? That makes no sense.")

We all loved sleepovers because it was our chance to spend time together outside of the confines of school. It was our chance to be like sisters instead of just friends. And what strikes me the most when I think about those parties is how innocent and non-mean-girl we were back then. True, there was a bit of the "let's gossip about who didn't get invited" stuff, but it wasn't ever malicious. You'd say something silly about someone and that was it. Maybe it'd get back to that person the next Monday at school, maybe not. But there was no Instagram or Facebook or any other way to make it public and permanent and scarring. There was no proof that I once pretended to be Tammy Jackson kissing a pillow Mr. T., "I pity da fool who doesn't French me in da mouf!" Sure, someone could have taken pictures, but then it'd be at least three to five days before they were developed at the drug store and who cared at that point?

I'm not saying that we were 100 percent sweet girls, because we most definitely were not. We put each other's bras in the freezer. We stuck sleeping hands in bowls of warm water. We spent hours doing "light as a feather, stiff as a board" seances. I once gave a friend a perfume bottle that was actually filled with pickle juice. And one year we terrorized our town with a rash of prank phone calls -- usually made on an avocado green wall phone in someone's linoleum-floored kitchen. Sometimes we'd call boys we liked and hang up, but most of the time we were a little more creative. Like this favorite gag:

"Hello, Speech and Hearing Clinic."

"Whats?"

"I said, hello, Speech and Hearing Clinic."

"Whats?"

"THIS IS THE SPEECH AND HEARING CLINIC."

"Whats?"

I hope that poor receptionist eventually filed for worker's comp, because she certainly had it coming.

Another year, we started sneaking outside after the lights went off. It terrifies me now to think of a pack of 13-year-old girls running around the streets in the dark, but back then we had absolutely no fear. None. Mostly because we felt the invincibility of our age, but also because we were in North Dakota. Our biggest danger was getting trapped by a snow bank, not a white slavery ring. And it's not like we needed a GPS to find our way back in a town that had more tractor dealerships than stop lights.

It was at these sleepovers that I started seeing the world outside of my own house. It was how I learned about other families. Some parents smoked and had ashtrays everywhere. Some were nice and some were creepy. Some were so cool that they blasted the Rolling Stones on the stereo and oh, my God, why couldn't my parents listen to the Rolling Stones instead of Helen Reddy? Helen is so majorly lame. And it was at my friends' houses that I discovered siblings are always annoying, whether it's your two younger sisters trying to hang out with the party or someone's older brothers attacking everyone with pee-filled water balloons. (Which was horrible, for sure, but the brothers are juniors and kind of cute and they play hockey and drive and do you think they noticed me?!)

But besides the friendships and the independence and the fun times, those sleepovers gave me something even better: They gave me homesickness. And that's a wonderful gift for a preteen girl to get, no matter who she is.

I was never gone at these sleepovers for very long, but even in my short time away, I would always start to miss my mom and my dad and my sisters. I missed my room and my bed. I missed the way we cooked our hamburgers at our house because Laura's dad put onions on theirs and who does that, anyway, gross. Being away at that age made me appreciate what I had at home and for that reason, it's something I've never forgotten and will always think of fondly.

So, that's why when my boys ask to have friends sleep over or beg to go to a slumber party, I will always say "yes." Go. Grab your sleeping bag and your pajamas and have fun. And then when you come back the next day, tired, cranky and wearing someone else's socks and you walk into our house, give me a big, strong hug, kid. And be glad that you're home.

Just don't make any phone calls when you're away.

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