He’s 7 ½, and it’s the summer before second grade. And I still lie with him until he falls asleep.
I sometimes call him a live wire. He’s always thinking, lost in thought. His body, too, moving along with his mind. He isn’t the most physically affectionate child. He’ll let you cuddle him plenty, but he won’t always cuddle back. He is stiff in your arms, doesn’t melt like my younger son does. And has never, ever fallen asleep easily—not as a baby, a toddler or a young child. It takes a lot for him to unwind. And he needs help—always has and still does.
And he needs me to put him to sleep. His dad will do sometimes, but I’m the favored one, and I end up doing it almost every night. Why only me? Is it because I’m the mom, and there’s just something extra cuddly about mothers? Is it because we’ve nestled together like this for hundreds of nights? Is it because he’s just used it? Yep. Probably all those things. And also—despite how long it sometimes takes and how tired I often am—I love it too.
As soon as he turns the lights out, he unwinds. Sometimes his voice starts to crack as he tells me something that has been worrying him. Sometimes it’s something from weeks ago that has been living inside of him and is now ready to come out. Sometimes he just wants to tell me all about Minecraft or whatever video game or TV show he’s currently obsessed with (he is easily obsessed). Whatever it is feels important, sacred, hushed—to both of us.
We moved this summer, so there has been some extra worry. What used to take 20 minutes has sometimes been taking much more time. He’ll say, his voice choking, “I can’t fall asleep.” And I’ll say, “I know you will. Your body needs sleep, so it will come.” In the past, I would be able to get away if it was taking that long. I would tell him I needed to go get a snack, and his dad would come and take my place. But that alternative has been rejected lately.
Recently, it was taking a very long time, and I was starting to get restless and annoyed. I was trying not to show it, but it was just one of those long days with the kids, it was almost 10 p.m., and I was done. I was starting to resent that I was the only one who could put him to sleep and that my day of being “on” as a parent was that much longer than my husband’s.
Finally, I heard a muffled sleep sigh, and I sneaked out of the room. A minute later, my son came into the kitchen, squinting in the bright light. “I just really need you to stay,” he said, his voice breaking up, a few tears coming. All the frustration and anger I had been feeling welled up in my throat and turned to regret. “I’m sorry, baby,” I said, folding him up into my arms. I wasn’t sure if he had picked up on my frustration or not, but I felt genuinely sorry.
And I was so incredibly moved in that moment, to see how simply and honestly he could tell me what he needed. My boy is super intelligent and articulate, but like most kids—and maybe especially very “brainy” kids—it isn’t always easy for him to tell me his needs in a clear, non-whiny, simply earnest way.
I know for many our setup is unrealistic, and I don’t think all parents have to continue to put their big kids to sleep. But it works for us, and I do believe it will be outgrown in due time. I hope that somehow, in these many hours I have spent—first cuddling his baby body at my breast, then in my arms, and now, mostly just with my presence and my listening ear—I have taught him that his needs and feelings are important, and that there are places in this world safe enough to share them.