We have three children ranging in age from 3 to 7. The bedtime routine in our house is simple.
First, my wife takes the youngest upstairs while I stay downstairs to get the older two into pajamas and ready for bed. On her way upstairs with the little one, my wife pauses at the top to say good night and wave to the two older children below. If you’re having trouble picturing this, think of the classic party scene from The Sound of Music when the Von Trapp children sing their good night song and wave good night from the upstairs balcony and the adoring party-goers shuffle to one side in mass to sing good night back. It’s exactly like that, but slightly more choreographed.
Sometimes, while the youngest’s bedtime routine is in progress, I try to get a jump on things by taking the older two upstairs. We gather in one of their bedrooms and sprawl out on the bed or floor like house cats. Then, when the youngest is asleep and my wife finally escapes from her bedroom, I take the younger of the other two and my wife stays with the oldest. I’m not totally sure what happens in the older child’s room, but my wife is typically missing for at least 30 minutes.
Meanwhile, the 5-year-old and I rock in the rocking chair for a few minutes and then we migrate to his race car bed. My son arranges three to six stuffed animals and a blanket that he brings to bed with him so we both have equal cuddling access. Then I lay down on the Black Panther pillow on the edge of the bed and he lays down ostensibly on the regular pillow, but mostly on top of me. After he talks about crustacean facts or lists the middle names of children in his preschool class for a few minutes, he usually drifts off. I then extricate myself by removing his arm from the back of my head and barrel rolling out of the bed. Simple.
To be clear, this routine only holds when both parents are home at bedtime. I could explain how bedtime works on solo parenting nights, but I would need more note cards, push pins, and yarn than a detective trying to hunt down a serial killer. And possibly a beer to wash away some traumatic memories. Possibly a whole six pack.
I was talking with a friend recently who has a daughter the same age as my middle child and he asked me about our bedtime routine. “Do you just put the kids in bed and leave them to fall asleep?” he asked. After I laughed hysterically for several minutes, I replied, “No, we kind of stay in there sometimes until they fall asleep. No big deal.”
We discussed logistics some more and from the sounds of it, our routines are similar. I mean, I’m sure his isn’t as circus-like as ours — he does only have one child — but the basic outline is the same. He asked me if we still used the same method for my older son who is 7 and I told him we did. He seemed relieved.
We agreed that our kids are only young once and we were happy to spend the extra time with them while we could. And the funny thing is, I wasn’t just saying that because it sounded good. I really meant it. And while my wife has the longer end of the bedtime routine now because our youngest insists on mommy putting her to bed, the burden shifts from time to time and we have to stay ready for anything. Tomorrow I could be on the hook for all three children’s bedtimes and it could stay that way for months. But still, I wouldn’t mind.
Because, despite how difficult and frustrating our bedtime routine can be, particularly after a long day of parenting, I know this stage is not going to last forever. Like many things in life and parenting, you never know when the last time is going to be until it’s already happened. One day, they won’t want us to lie in their beds or on the floor in their room. They’ll go in their bedrooms, close the door, and that will be it. We’ll be left alone to watch TV or read or do whatever it is people do at nights. And while I’m sure in some ways I’ll be relieved to have the nightly burden in our rear-view mirror, there will be a part of me that will miss it.
And that’s why I’m not rushing change. I’m willing to sit (or lie down) and wait. And revel in the extra minutes of connectedness while I can. With a small arm draped over my head and the plastic railing of a race car bed digging into my side. Because once this period of our lives is over, it’s over. And there will be no going back.