The child misses you, her constant companion. One of you is always there. Close in physical touch, near at hand for a fall or a fear or to laugh at a fart. Night comes (sweet one, for us all, sooner than we wish, but prepare thyself for it to take everyone and everything you love; you before them if not them before you. Death comes for us all, oh tiny love, remember that and dance!) and it is dark. So dark. Dark because “dark helps me sleep”, we say, for in truth light regulates the circadian, and oh my sweet thou needst it bright in the morning and dark in the evening. These environmental cues, these rhythms to the day, this is what life is made of. To wake, to see the light, to play and run and fight and scream, to watch the sun descend, to clear the table and prep to eat. To sit with family, to cherish thirty minutes of dedicated togetherness before, yes, before we brush our teeth and hair and go to bed.
But surely we are not just to stay abed, are we? I simply cannot! And you cannot make me!
Yes sweet one, we are to stay abed. Canst thou not lie quietly and go to sleep? This is our mandate from heaven; or at the very least your mandate from me: go the fuck to sleep.
I know, I know. Should I chastise thee? No, anger is no tone on which to bed down sweetly. Entering the dark of the night, from which we cannot know that we are who we were before we closed our eyes, is not something that anyone should ask anyone else to do with heightened emotions. How are we to square this circle? Sweet one, full unknowing of the joys of uninterrupted sleep, why should you sleep? Why should you stay abed? Why not pile out full of sunbeams and comical utterances, demanding more of the love and attention that otherwise defines every moment of your life?
Because we all must sleep, beloved. We all must build a practice for ourselves (I for you, as with so many things) of winding down to a mood where sleep comes quickly, and where rest carries us deeply through the night. I must sleep. And before I can sleep, you must sleep (motherfucker). Cleaving you from me, and I from you is pain and sorrow. A distance unbearable for flesh of my flesh. I killed alternate selves and sunk ghost ships of my own life to be here for you, in the interstices of other obligations. And to part? To sleep? Intolerable, I know.
How about this, child of mine, love unparalleled: you lie in your bed for a bare thirty seconds, and I’ll come back. I always come back. Watch! I’ll be back in a mere half minute.
Oh dear, you emerged. “Didn’t make it”, did you? It’s fine, expected. In what world, and at what cruel hand would we ever willingly spend time apart? (I tell you, you know it not now, but even our love, tiny one, does not extend to your intruding upon my personal time after you go the fuck to sleep). Come, let me carry you back to bed, tuck you in again. I love you so much! May I kiss your cheek? Hum the refrain to your bedtime song again? Darling, I’ll return oh so soon. Five seconds this time. Something achievable, something you can do. An easy victory, all I ever want for you (at least when we’re working on hard things together…).
Good night my love! I’ll check on you again in, shall we say, seven seconds? Seven arduous, agonizing seconds? Agonizing for you, fraction enormous of your life. No sense of time, it must weigh upon you like a blanket of eternity itself. When will he return? Will he? I hope he does. Will he? Will…he?
Of course I do. See? Goodnight, little one. I love you more than the moon and the stars, more powerfully than the thermocline and the jetstream. I’ll come back and check in on you in thirty seconds this time, do you think you can make it?
And so it goes. Greater gaps every time. If someone has trouble staying in their bed, reduce the gap until you find what they can handle. Sometimes check-ins happen at 5 second intervals while you build trust with the little one that you will return to check in on them.
The gaps naturally extend. They want to build these muscles. As much of a trap as it is, they want to please you (they also want to please themselves, and salve their own anxiety, so love them when they pop out to say hello before your timer goes off). You will get to the point where that first check-in after the door closes is 2 minutes, then 3, then 5, and then ultimately the door closes and they go to sleep on their own.
No tears, no fear, no anger, no yelling, no shame. Just love and sympathy and caring. We always come back, don’t we? It’s a foundational message, and trust never comes for free but is earned through sweat and always following through.