The carpeted stairs are a faded cream color. Despite the sporadic professional cleaning, even a few years wear is giving the steps a lived-in look. It’s around 3am and my ass is planted on one of those steps; I’m scratching behind my dog’s ears. Tonight’s bath washed away his oily coat and musty smell so I like him more than usual. I remove the earbuds from my ear to quiet the umpteenth re-listen of the latest violent aggression release. Just as I thought: Nathan’s crying and this is the third or fourth time I’ve heard him tonight.
Maybe he’s not really crying, doesn’t matter, I’m already walking up the stairs. I leave the door to my son’s room slightly ajar to allow a small beam of light through. Once Nathan, sitting on his bed, sees me, he lies back down; he’s ready for sleep. I think: Why can’t you just fall asleep yourself? I don’t say anything the entire time, just re-cover him in blankets and gently play with his hair. Head massages are so nice. sometimes while watching television, Janine will play with my hair and it puts me right to sleep.
It’s three in the morning and I don’t sleep very well most days. That is, I am awake late into the night. Sometimes it’s fun but sometimes it sucks monkey chum. Before I heard Nate crying I was contemplating bottling some beer I have sitting in a carboy downstairs. I thought: well, I might be done by 5am, should I? Ugh, that would make it so late. I think I’d almost decided to just go to bed.
Nathan’s lying in his bed while I sit beside it, rubbing his hair. I’ve recently changed his bedtime routine to actually take place in bed instead of sitting in the rocking chair to have his milk, story and song. (The chair had to move to the room being prepared for our new baby. I didn’t want the baby’s arrival and the disappearance of his chair to happen at the same time). So instead of Nathan nestled into my arms as we sit in the rocking chair, his head now lays in my lap and I give him a head rub and play with his hair while singing a bedtime song. Routines help kids (and adults) know what to do. Repeating the head rub part of the routine sends Nathan’s elastic kid brain the “go to sleep” message. We swaddled him as a baby and I’ve been singing “The Rainbow Connection” to him since we brought him home from the hospital. That kid’s going to fall asleep if he ever watches the Muppet Movie. Ha! That would be funny.
Janine’s mother gave her back-scratches as a baby and to this day she likes it if I scratch her back a little before bedtime. As I coax Nathan back to sleep I wonder if my mother played with my hair as a baby. I wonder if that’s why I always end up asleep on the couch when Janine plays with my hair. Which can be annoying (“oh, it’s 9pm and I’m asleep. Well shit, I’d expected to get a few more things done!”). Then I wonder if I’m normally up until 3am because my mom addicted me to hair rubs and that’s the only way I can fall asleep now. And I’m doing the same thing to Nathan!
Oh my god, I’m a horrible parent! Nathan is going to have the same bad sleeping habits because of me. I quickly stop playing with his hair and rub his back. Well that won’t work, now he’ll just need someone to rub his back. I rub his cheek. No! Hair rub. Shit, have I woken him up with my confused parenting?
I resolve that, starting tomorrow, I’ll change his nap routine to a different one. I begin running through scenarios like rubbing his hands with my hands, because he could learn to do that himself. But how annoying would that be to a future spouse “Nathan, would you stop fidgeting I’m trying to sleep!” Maybe I could teach him to rub his feet together to fall asleep. No wait, that doesn’t even make any sense. I suppose he could just play with his own hair to fall asleep. But a boy playing with his hair is a little effeminate, maybe I shouldn’t think that way but is that really the kind of man I want to raise. One that plays with his hair?
Well clearly the only good routine is one where I don’t touch him at all, then he’ll learn to sleep all by himself. Except wait, that won’t be very fun. Cuddling with your children is one of the perks of being a parent. To forgo that? Nope, doesn’t matter, I have to be strong willed, for the good of my child’s sleeping habits. If I never get to cuddle with him at bed time, it will be a small price to pay.
Then I realize giving him a bottle of milk, reading a story and singing to him are also going to have to disappear, or else he will have to find a very accommodating spouse. Then I realize I’m an idiot, because of course routines do change over time, we used to swaddle him and now we don’t. All the babies of all the other parents all had bed time routines that changed over time. Yet at some point, one’s bedtime routines become fixed, or less flexible. Janine loves backscratches and they drive me up the wall. But Nathan’s only two. I breathe a deep sign of relief as I realize it’s not too late, I haven’t permanently damaged Nathan. I can still fix my mistake!
I begin mapping out an imaginary timeline in my head and imagine dots sliding back and forth along it. Each dot representing a different transition in bedtime routine. The ending of head rubs, the removal of the milk bottle (perhaps with an intermediary stage the bottle being replaced with warm milk drunk downstairs in the kitchen, once he can handle non-sippy cups), maybe even the removal of songs. I slide each dot back and forth on this imaginary scale. Is head rubs at four years acceptable? It seems a bit close to five and I worry I may need to terminate the behaviour sooner. Better too soon than ruining Nathan’s future sleep. My gut tells me stories naturally last a lot longer, plus, reading is good, but when do I stop reading to him? I’ll think about that one later I guess, it’s a long way off. Songs probably need to end sooner, because after a while, it’s kinda gay, isn’t it? I mean I wouldn’t sing to a ten year old, would I? The worrisome one is definitely the head rub as that imaginary dot is closest to his current age.
I pause. Then again, I may just be overthinking this a little. I look down at Nathan. That dude is asleep. I wonder how much time has elapsed.
I rise from kneeling on the floor beside his bed, tip toeing out of his room back into the brightly lit hallway. The dog is staring at me with eyes that expound how appreciative more ear scratches would make him. The mental fog of analytical overdrive begins to fade away and I think: Yup, overthought that just a bit.
Only: I’m going to think more about it. And the best way to set good hygiene habits, and the pros and cons of ad-hoc versus scheduled baths, and the best way to brush his teeth, and the best kind of child toilet seat to get, and how I can change this, and that. The mind keeps churning and churning and churning.