Ever since the beginning of September, Jack has been having a rough time falling asleep. At first we just thought it was some funky stage he was going through of trying to be extra difficult for the sake of tormenting his parents and robbing them of their evenings.
After this parent torture strategy kept up for longer than a few days, Tim and I tried to dissect the situation a little more than we had done previously. Something had to be going on. At the same time, school had just started so we thought maybe he was having trouble in class or at recess. According to him, this was not the case. He adored his teacher and sat next to his best buddy in class. The two of them happily played “Fly Up” at recess with all their other cohorts.
Finally the light bulb flew on. It wasn’t what was going on with him, it was what wasn’t. Ever since day one of his life, he’s fallen asleep with someone else around. In the first five houses he lived in, he shared a room with Luke. They always chatted a while before slowly dropping off into dreamland. Luke is like me and can fall asleep in seconds. Sometimes Jack would still want to discuss their latest obsession (i.e. dinosaurs, Transformers, Legos, Pokemon) but Luke would already be out. It took Jack a while to fall asleep, it still does. Even when Luke was unconscious, Jack took comfort in knowing he was not alone. Safe, with his brother by his side, he relaxed and calmly fell asleep.
When we finally moved to a house that had more than two bedrooms, we gave the boys the option of having their own space. They gave this great thought and decided the usual Boys’ Room would split into Luke’s Room and Jack’s Room. Now, even though though they had their own rooms, every single night they would decide who’s room to sleep in. When Tim and I peeled ourselves off the couch after binge watching our latest show, we would peek in and find them both happily sprawled out, sleeping peacefully side by side. I remember thinking so many times how much I loved that they slept together. I knew it wouldn’t last forever and I would mourn the tradition when it stopped.
When we moved into this house, both boys still wanted their own rooms. Jack with his queen bed and Luke with the bunk bed. But in the setting up of Luke’s bed, some tired bolts finally gave out. Only half of the bunk was set up that first night and he decided he actually liked his room with just the one bed, so we kept it that way.
For most of last year and into this one, the boys continued their nightly routine of sleeping together. And then in September, Tim went on his scheduled business travel. He was home on the weekends, but essentially, he was out of town for five weeks. Whenever he travels, the boys sleep with me. I actually hate this practice, because all of the thrashing, stealing covers and little body heaters, but I can’t ever tell them because they love it so much. They have doubled in size since we started doing this so now, every night they switch off. One sleeps in the bed with me and the other sleeps in the sweet recliners we have set up in our room.
After Tim’s forever long travels came to an end, it was time for the boys to go back to their own rooms. At this point Luke had decided that he wanted to sleep in his own bed, without Jack. Without. Jack. I don’t know why it took me so long to figure it out but Jack has essentially never slept by himself, like ever. It broke Jack’s heart, and mine, that this night time routine was changing. Luke was growing up, becoming more independent, and we couldn’t make him sleep with his brother. He needed his own space and I am so proud of him for realizing it and saying it, rather than resenting his brother and continuing the standard bedtime practice.
Luke was ready for a little separation, but Jack assuredly was not on board. This night isolation was essentially forced on him and he did not appreciate it one bit. Of course, I don’t know why it took me so long to figure this out. And of course, even after I figured it out, I had no idea how to help him transition to this new way of doing things. Genius parenting going on here, I tell you.
One night, when we were all still scrutinizing the dilemma, Jack completely freaked out and broke down. There were tears and body shakes. We told him it was time for bed, Luke wanted to sleep alone and he could not sleep in our recliner. When he stood in our doorway and looked down the hall, 10 feet away to his dark room, the fear and anxiety flowed out of his pores. Panic set in and he could not make his body move to get into his dark, cold bed. Luke, being the compassionate kid he is, came out and said Jack could sleep in his room. We vetoed that solution because we knew he really didn’t want his little brother sleeping with him anymore. It might have fixed the problem on this specific night, but tomorrow we would be in the same exact predicament.
Tim and I were tired. Tired of dealing with this issue, tired of not having our precious alone time in the evenings. We agonized as we watched Jack go through these stress and anxiety attacks. Exhaustion had set in for all parties. Neither parents nor kid thought clearly, but we all knew something needed to change.
Tim is much better in these situations than I am. Selfishly, I first see all the amenities this little phase is taking away from me personally. When Jack drags out bedtime, Tim and I don’t get our much needed time together. We miss out on watching four episodes of our quality shows like, The Bastard Executioner and Game of Thrones. Tim understands Jack’s anxiety. Don’t get me wrong, he still gets frustrated, but he doesn’t show it to Jack. His patience takes over any selfishness. I love watching him in action; I glean so much. He gets what it’s like to be a little brother who can’t sleep in the same room as his best friend anymore. He understands how lonely it is to fearfully fall asleep in a dark room. He knows how it feels when panic crawls into your thoughts. When angst creeps into your bed and lays down beside you, it’s really hard to relax enough to fall asleep.
As parents we always want to affirm what our boys are experiencing. The fear and panic are real for Jack. Saying, “Well, you shouldn’t feel this way Jack, we are right down the hall” will not help him. He already knows this, but still does not want to be in that room alone in the dark. We don’t want to downgrade his reality, but we do want to give him strategies and resources to help pull himself out of this paralyzing hole.
With this approach in mind, we calmed him down the night anxiety came to attack. Of course, an hour past bedtime was not the optimal time for this conversation, but here we were, our after-the-boys-are-in-bed time already dwindled down to mere minutes. We were frustrated, he was afraid, change was desperately required.
We reminded him that no amount of freak-out would earn him a ticket into either our bed or Luke’s. We told him that his fears were completely normal. We felt what he felt when we were kids, and sometimes adults. Normal, your fears do not make you weird. We are afraid sometimes too. We get it. Now that we had established that fact, we needed to come up with solutions. He suggested us coming and laying with him until he fell asleep. Nope, sorry. That was almost the same situation we were trying to get away from. We suggested reading with the lamp on until he felt drowsy enough to put the book down and close his eyes. He agreed, but said he wanted more than the lamp, he wanted his main room light on. Okay, that was doable. Tim told Jack how when he feels lonely in hotels, alone on business trips, he packs the pillows all around his body. Jack wanted to try this so I immediately went to the hall closet to scrounge around for some extra pillows. These strategies seemed viable. Hope began to wink her lovely eye. We may actually get out of this disheartening stage and live to tell the tale.
That night he fell asleep, alone in his bed with four extra pillows, the overhead light blaring and a book just slightly slipping out of his hand.
Panic revisited the next night, but it was drastically dialed down. Again, we set him up with book, pillows, light. The formula worked so we kept with it, night after night. Jack of course, still drug his feet when bedtime rolled around. The fear still there, but it was manageable. He had some weapons for combat.
A couple weeks into this new routine, I suggested turning on the little lamp beside his bed instead of having all of his room lights glaring. I told him it was good for his body to slowly get used to going to sleep in the dark. Distress shown in his eyes. He did not like having corners of his room covered in shadow. That night he tried it, but I noticed later as I walked down the hall, his bright overhead light had been turned on. He was calmly passed out with every possible light on.
For the next couple of days I pondered how I was going to wean him off this over-illuminated bedtime custom. And then my own lights came on. Why did it matter if he fell asleep that way? We had acknowledged his feelings, we came up with strategies together, why mess with the plan? Yes, most kids go to sleep in the dark or with a little night light, but Jack isn’t most kids. He’s our Jack and I wouldn’t trade him for any kid in the world, anxieties and freak-outs included. I’m sure this is a phase that will last a while, but that’s just what it is, a phase, a short snippet of time. He probably won’t be a teenager or adult who has to have the lights on when he falls asleep. And who cares if he is. There are many fights to pick and this one is not a worthy battle.
I am grateful he is a sensitive boy who feels all the feels. Yes, I hate to see panic cripple him, but how cool is it that we get to strategy plan with him together? Some of this angst may follow him into adulthood and that is okay. Remember, fears are normal. New ones may pop up here and there too. Others will fade away as the years compile and his height towers over me. He is an ordinary and unique kid. His worries are ordinary and unique, but so is his courage. He is a spunky and tenacious boy who is afraid sometimes. I hope he will end up being a man who is stronger because he knows that fear and anxiety are commonplace. I hope he will understand he doesn’t have to be paralyzed by them. There is no sense in ignoring or covering them up with the Machoism Lie. Yes, trepidation and apprehension are real, but so are bravery and confidence and courage. Sometimes fears cripple us and push us down, but that is not the end. Courage does not come in pretending anxiety does not exist, it comes when you still take another step in spite of it.
Knowing when and how to ask for help is heroic. Knowing when to unapologetically fall asleep with the lights on is brave. Life will throw ugly things at Jack, internally and externally. I hope he remembers to look for the light switches.