It was a little after 10 p.m. and I was lying down next to my 9-year-old daughter. I’d gotten home from work about 30 minutes earlier. I noticed she was up, so I went into her room to tell her goodnight. She was sitting cross-legged on her bed holding a flashlight, wearing pink My Little Pony print pajamas. She looked up at me with big frightened blue eyes and said, “I’m scared.”
Naturally I talked to her for a bit. I asked her what she was afraid of, and she said she didn’t know. Then she asked me to lie down next to her.
I had options. I could’ve told her to toughen up. I could have told her that she had nothing to be afraid of. I could have mentioned that I hadn’t eaten yet, and that I still needed to take a shower, so I could get to bed and get up and do it all over again. I could have told her she was too big to be afraid in the night, and it was time to get over that sort of thing.
These are the sorts of things that my parents often told me when I asked them to lay in my bed. But instead, I took a breath, and crawled in bed next to my daughter. A few weeks ago, when I came home late and my 11-year-old son told me that he was frightened, I did the same thing. And my youngest, when she comes wandering into my room in the middle of the night, scared of who knows what, I lay down with her, too.
I don’t fight it. I just snuggle up next to them, and give them a little comfort.
Now I know there are going to be some folks who think the coddling of children, especially the older ones, is what’s wrong with the youth of today. They will make predictions about how my children will never fully become independent, and someday they will be on a Dr. Phil-type talk show discussing how they’d probably have a job and move out of my basement if I hadn’t been next to them when they got scared at night. But honestly, I highly doubt all that will happen.
At least, it’s not keeping me up at night.
What I can say with 100% certainty is this, however: I don’t lie down next to my children when they are scared entirely for their benefit. I do it for much more selfish reasons too. I work two jobs. I get up before my kids go to sleep, and sometimes I come home long after they are in bed. There are days when the only chance I get to see my children, spend time with them, do something for them as a father is at night. Sometimes the only chance I get to snuggle with my kids is when they get scared after we tuck them in.
And you know what? When I do get time with my children, it’s usually with all three of them, watching a movie, or driving them from one place to another. But when they are scared at night, I get this wonderful one-on-one time with my little ones. It seems like the moment I crawl in bed with my son, he finally tells me about his day. He finally talks about that kid in the class he doesn’t get along with, and I’m able to give him some advice. Or he decides to tell me a funny story, or simply open up. He never does it when I ask, but for some reason, when he needs me in the night, he decides to talk until he falls asleep. That connection with him is so meaningful, and I’m going to hold onto it for as long as he will allow.
My middle daughter is the same way. When she feels like she needs me at bedtime, she’s way more likely to open up and discuss her feelings in ways that she doesn’t do in the car, or at the dinner table. It’s worth the lost sleep and the occasional hunger pangs.
I’m still not sure what my 4-year-old talks about when I’m next to her, but I must say, it’s adorable. She’s growing up so fast, and she’s our last, so I take what I can get and cherish it.
As a busy father, I wouldn’t give those moments up for anything. And I know a number of busy mothers wouldn’t either. Sure, stay-at-home parents spend all day with their children, but there’s something so sweet and wonderful about comforting your frightened child, and finally having a distraction-free moment to listen to them talk.
And that’s exactly what happened that night. I laid down next to Norah, my 9-year-old. I was on my back, and she snuggled up next to me. She breathed into my ribs, just below my left arm. She held me tight at first because she was scared of the dark, but my presence slowly made her relax. After a few moments, she started talking. She told me about her teacher, and something funny she said in class. Then she told me about some game her and her friends invented for recess. Then she got quiet. I looked down, and she was fast asleep. I crawled out from under her arm, and as I went downstairs to finally get something to eat, I felt like it was the perfect ending to a very long day.
I need this connection as much, if not more, than my kids do.