Thursday, January 21, 2010


All the experts recommend that a nightly ritual will ease your little ones off to sleep. The elements may include a bath, a story, getting dressed for bed, dimmed lights, music, a cuddle, or nursing in permutations too numerous to describe.

Our evening ritual starts with dinner at six. After dinner we start the journey toward sleep by collecting our evening supplies: pajamas, the "bye-toe" (a wearable blanket), and socks. We then move through house and start the ascent toward the bedrooms with a litany of goodbyes to various toys and household landmarks. It is often at this point that Izabella remembers that we also need to bring along the monkey, dolly, owl, or the hairbrush.

Tata escorts Izabella and I bring up the rear with Leo. Once upstairs I leave Leo in the master bedroom to squirm on the floor. Tata is busy with Iza, who needs to be undressed (checked for poops) and then led into the tub. I charge around to dim lights, fill the vaporizers, adjust pillows and blankets, and check to be sure my iPhone is handy in Leo's room (in case I need to stay with him for an extended nursing session). Then I return to the master bedroom, undress Leo, and plunk him in the tub with Iza for his chance to splash madly. I exit the bathroom and Tata takes over. I wait outside the door with Leo's towel while Tata deftly removes him and distracts Iza with more water. (She recently started to get upset when we left.)

I then whisk Leo away to his room. I dress him: diaper, pajamas, bye-toe. I am usually singing his lullaby as he vigorously complains. We nurse in bed. If that doesn't work, we bounce on the ball and nurse. Eventually (hopefully) sleep overcomes him. If I can exit his room in time, I can then nurse Iza and put her to sleep. Lately her father has been able to put her to sleep without me, which is a huge relief as Leo has become more difficult to tip over into his dreams.

While I am tending to Leo, there is a drama playing out in the master bedroom. Iza sings her "clean-up" song and gathers her bath toys. She likes to have her stories read while she is in the buff. She leans against the pillows and snuggles under the covers. After the stories (Tata reads one Hungarian story, maybe two), she is dressed for bed: diaper, pajamas, socks, bye-toe. She is then carried across to her room where either mama waits to nurse her or tata puts her down with a final caress. (This room has been prepared with dim lights, music, and vaporizer.)


I know this is not fascinating stuff.

But what fascinates me is the drama of it all. The stagecraft. The nightly ritual is a habit that normally plays out without too much thought. Some nights I cling to it as if it were a magic formula that will culminate in every tired parent's favorite trick: sleeping babies (at least for a few hours) and a chance to breathe without little ones needing you.

My inner thespian geek gets a rush in the offing of it. As if the role I play is more than just stagecraft. It is art. It is transformational. This is the only audience that you want to fall asleep. And making it happen creates the actor's rush of transcendence, when it works. When it doesn't work, despair. The fourth wall crumbles when you are too tired to maintain the scene. Your makeup runs. Your costume constricts. You see your pitiful self attempting to play the role of Mother and coming up short.

I have to laugh at myself when I see my evening ritual as theater. Surely babies all over the world go to sleep with nary an ounce of such emotional/physical fanfare. Why the emphasis on ritual in our neighborhood?

I suspect that it sells products: THE perfect cuddly toy, THE music soundtrack, THE white noise machine, THE ETC. THAT YOU MUST HAVE IF YOU WANT YOUR BABY TO SLEEP (AND BE SUCCESSFUL IN LIFE).

I guess it is also a byproduct of a society that must guard its sleeping hours carefully in order to maintain its rigorous work schedules.

And tired parents everywhere will indulge a bit of drama if it buys more sleep for the entire family.

Not to mention the human craving for ritual for ritual's sake.

Of course you can train your babies to fall asleep with fewer elements to their evening ritual. But not many fewer, frankly. Maybe the babies would sleep without any of it. Maybe the ritual is partly (mostly?) for me too. It gives me a (false?) sense of control over the events of the evening. It allows me to feel like I am parenting.

In time my babies won't need me to direct their evening dramas. They will have their own private rituals, such as reading under the covers or texting best friends. For now I am the show's producer, director, and supporting actor. The kiddoes have center stage. All I can do is hope I've set the scene.


István Albert said...

I think cavemen had to put on a show for their cavebabies as well. It's just that they never wanted to remember it - thus didn't care for having this etched onto the cavewalls.

Great read!

DJ said...

"cavebabies." awesome.

S.E.Minegar said...

Fascinatingly put! You should write a book. Seriously. Your munchkins will love reading this when they are older.