My heart aches. I have just come downstairs from putting my twin 2.5 year (32 month) olds to bed and my heart hurts. They aren’t screaming or crying or calling my name. No, my beautiful children are lying in bed falling asleep silently. While I feel a tremendous sense of pride that –considering everything we have been through in the past couple of months – they are falling asleep in their beds on their own, I am sad.
This is my favorite part of the day and yet it is over too quickly. Just when my children are their most delicious I find myself having to leave them. A part of me doesn’t want to walk out the door, a part of me misses my boy crying that he doesn’t want me to leave, misses my girl needing me to calm her down, misses hearing that they want to lie down with me to fall asleep.
My 2.5 year old boy-girl twins – particularly my son – had been having a lot of trouble sleeping at night lately, ever since we went away on vacation, in fact. This meant, of course, that my wife and I also had been having trouble sleeping at night. In the incredibly exhausting struggle to help them fall asleep on their own, my relationship with my children – especially my boy, Elijah, reached a new level of closeness that feels wonderful to all of us, that makes me sort of miss the sleepless nights of crying and screaming. Sort of.
In order to help them get back into the rhythm of sleeping through the night, my wife and I decided that I would put them to bed every night. The first night I put them to bed by myself they were sleeping on the floor or the couch in their room – anywhere but their beds. They also were taking a very long time to fall asleep – even though we had been staying in the room with them. Then, of course, Elijah was waking up several times during the night. As you can imagine, with putting them to sleep and waking up every time they woke up to go to their room and help them back to sleep, I was sleep deprived within a couple of days. That only added to my desperation and determination to get them back to sleeping regularly.
The first two weeks after our vacation went like this; when Elijah would wake up in the middle of the night and call out for me, I would go up right away, hoping he wouldn’t wake up my wife or his sister.
“What’s wrong, Elijah?” I would whisper as I creeped into the room trying not to wake up Jordyn.
“I’m ascared,” he said making sure I knew he was both afraid and scared. “I’m ascared, Daddy.”
“Did you have a bad dream?”
“Yeah,” he sighed.
“It’s okay, Elijah. Why don’t we just lie down and try to go back to sleep.”
“I don’t want to leave, Daddy. I don’t want to leave.”
“Okay, Elijah, I won’t leave until you fall asleep.”
“I don’t want to leave, Daddy,” he whispered as he put his head back down and tried to fall back to sleep hoping he wouldn’t be frightened by what he saw. I hoped for exactly the same thing. In the first few days his falling back asleep could easily take an hour.
After a few nights, these interactions really seemed to help him feel better and soon he was only waking up once a night. I think part of what made us closer was the sense that when he called out for me, I came to him. He could depend on me at night even though I wasn’t around during the day for him. While being woken up at night was truly exhausting, there was something so special about hearing him call out “Daddy,” hearing him call out for me to help and being able to provide comfort and safety for him.
What was most worrisome about Elijah was that he truly seemed terrified at the notion of going to sleep. What could be haunting my little boy so badly? Neither of us had an answer and we felt helpless. While he felt better when I was in the room with him, it only seemed to reinforce that he was too scared to try it by himself. One night as I was putting them to sleep, I told him I used to be scared to go to sleep.
“Yeah,” he replied.
“Yeah, really. When I was a kid I used to be scared to go to sleep,” I whispered into his ear.
It was dark, but I could see him looking at me very intently. As if asking with his eyes, “Could it really be possible for Daddy to be scared?”
“You know what I used to do to help me fall asleep at night when I was scared?”
“Yeah.” He always says “yeah” when I ask him if he knows something. I think he thinks I’m asking if he wants to know.
“I used to lie in my bed and imagine I was playing a game of baseball.”
“Yeah,” he breathed.
“Yeah…and it always helped me fall asleep. That was my happy thought. What is your happy thought, Elijah? What is one thing or person that makes you happy?”
“Tia,” he replied, meaning his Tia Maria, his Aunt, my wife’s sister. I had no idea that this innocent exchange would be the basis for both of my children, and my wife and me, to sleep through the night once again.
At the time I had no idea I had accidentally stumbled onto one of the things that really made a difference for him. Fortunately, I am quick to pick up on something when it is working. Soon I was asking him about his happy thought before he went to sleep every night.
“What’s your Happy Thought, Elijah?”
“It’s Tia, isn’t it? You have so much fun with Tia, right?”
Then I was asking him about his happy place (going to Friendly’s to have ice cream and get balloons – he really is my boy).
For several more nights before he went to sleep and when he woke up in the middle of the night, I would just ask him about his all of his happy things.
“I’m ascared, Daddy.”
“I know. What do you do when you’re scared, Elijah?”
“Happy thought!” he would reply immediately.
“Yeah, Elijah! Your happy thought! What else?”
I don’t know whether it was the distraction, him actually thinking about these happy thoughts or just our exchange, but it helped to calm him down and when he was calm it was much easier for him to go back to sleep.
Before I knew it, I was asking Elijah about his bag of magic tricks every night before he went to sleep. This bag of magic tricks was the things he could think about whenever he got upset or scared. They included his Happy Thought, his Happy Place, his Happy Song, his Happy Book, his Happy Family, Happy People (he came up with that one on his own) and every other happy thing that had happened in the past day or two or that was going to happen in the next day or so. For the first time in his life, Elijah was developing the tools to feel like he had some control over whether or not he stayed scared or upset. And when I asked him about his bag of magic tricks every night his face would glow. Not only did the contents of his bag of magic tricks make him feel better, but it became, I think, a reminder of our special relationship. Daddy and son together creating our own magic trick, our own Happy Thought, our own special connection.
Within another week of this process Elijah was sleeping through the night more nights than not. And he was going to sleep much quicker and easier every night. I can remember the moment when after having tucked both of my children in and talking about their bags of magic tricks and how much I love them, that I turned off the light, walked out the door and held my breath.
But I didn’t move. I didn’t let out my breathe either. I waited for another word from the other side of the door, but it was quiet. I quietly walked downstairs and found my wife. She turned on the monitor and there was nothing but the comforting hum of the air conditioner. It was over. Our children were sleeping well once again. Even though the process of helping them to sleep well once again was extraordinarily challenging, I’m not sure if Elijah and I would’ve bonded like this in a different situation.
Tonight, just before he fell asleep, I knelt down by the side of his bed, as I do every night now, and I looked at him. And smiled. Lying down on his back with his head turned so he could see me, he smiled back. He knew what was coming and he couldn’t wait.
“What’s in your bag of magic tricks tonight, Elijah?”
“Mommy and Daddy,” he would reply with a smile.
While he responded I understood that the idea of Happy Thoughts and other Happy things definitely helped, but there was more to it than that. What he and I did, the closeness we’ve developed, this nightly tradition, was what really made a difference. He was still scared to go to sleep, but finally he also had some very positive associations with it as well. And because of that, so did I.
I walked out of their room thinking about how the bag of magic tricks seemed to arm him against his fears of the darkness, of sleep, of the dreams that seem to haunt him as they have haunted me since I was his age. I went down the stairs as quietly as I could feeling so proud of him and even of myself for the role I had played in helping him sleep well again. But as I went down to the basement to see my wife, I felt a pain in my chest. A pain that was not physical, but emotional. A pain, an ache, like a dark cloud that refused to be burned off by the hot sun. This ache came from the realization that it was my closeness with my son that now allowed him to sleep through the night, that allowed him to not need me anymore in that way. The ache was made worse by the fact that this was only the beginning of nights when I would realize my little boy needs me less and less. But for now, I decided, I was going to bask in the glory of what we did have, of what we created together and of what couldn’t be taken from us. Soon it would be time for me to get ready for work tomorrow, to get ready for sleep.
What was in my bag of magic tricks? What was my happy thought?
My special connection with my children.
Jeremy Schneider is a fatherhood expert, syndicated columnist, and therapist specializing in parenting, relationships, and helping people overcome depression. Learn more about Jeremy at jgs.net.