I give him the two-minute warning before we are to head upstairs for bedtime preparations. He always says, "OK, Mom" but when two minutes has elapsed, he dilly-dallies to the staircase. Nine times out of ten, I say, "Would you like to walk up the stairs yourself or should I pick you up and carry you?" before he will get to the bottom step. He then races to beat me upstairs.
We wrestle through bath time, and I try to contain the mess-making waves splashing from the tub as my son pretends to teach his toy dolphin how to swim. I chase him around the bedroom to wrangle him into his pajamas, brush his stuffed puppy's teeth and pretend the puppy has told me that it's his turn for teeth brushing now. Sometimes, my patience wears thin, and I snappishly tell him to stop messing around.
He is only 3, I remind myself. When he is testing me, I take a deep breath and refocus.
Once we climb into the oversized, overstuffed glider I insisted we needed before my son was born -- the same chair that my husband pretends to hate but secretly loves -- we read. We read three books or more, and bedtime stretches over an hour. First my husband, and then me. I love to watch them together, the daddy and the little boy, discussing the finer points of Clifford's antics or counting the firemen in a Little Golden book.
At lights out, we begin our nightly version of the fireside chat -- what my friend Rachel calls Talk Time -- with the two of us, my son and I, wedged tightly into that overstuffed chair. We discuss the movie Cars, often. We talk about what he did at school, and for what and whom he is thankful. We dream about visiting his grandparents, and his aunts and uncles and cousins and friends. He names his school friends, and makes up stories that meander and stroll through the ever-connecting synapses of his little-boy brain.
Sometimes, we take turns pretending to be the waiter and the customer, and we laugh at the silliest things I can make up. Or we talk to his lovey, Puppy, and pretend that the three of us are having a conversation. Tonight, my son wanted to talk about weddings; his sitter Rebecca was married several weeks ago, and he participated in the wedding as the ring bearer.
"Did you get married, Mama?" he asks.
"Yes, I married Daddy, before you were born."
"Puppy is the -- what do you call the person getting married?" he says.
"No; other one."
"Yes, Becca is the bride and I'm the groom. Puppy is the ring bearer."
Before I put him to bed, he drapes himself around me like a spider monkey and pulls his little hands through my hair. He kisses me and smiles right into my eyes, and it's at that second that I take a mental picture. Snap. Don't forget this moment. Snap.
It won't be long before we're discussing the birds and the bees and baseball scores and the kinds of cars he wants to drive. It won't be long before he will not squeeze next to me for these nightly talks.
I hope that the door will stay open for talking. I hope I will do a good enough job building the foundation that he will be comfortable enough to come to me with questions much more serious and consequential than the color of Lightnin' McQueen's new paint job. I want to be an askable adult. Someone he comes to with questions.
It will be up to me to keep talking, but more importantly, to keep listening. When the questions start sounding more subtle, I must listen for the undertones, and be there to answer them the best I can.
This is why our monthly date nights are during the AARP special hours from 5:00-8:00, so we can get home and put our son to bed. This is why we haven't taken a vacation away from our son yet. This is why I try not to overschedule our evenings and say no sometimes to plans that take place during bedtime.
He is growing before our eyes; he is changing every night and every bedtime is a little bit different. I understand that bedtime can be very challenging when you're juggling two or more kids with different bed times or different habits or preferences; bedtime with one child is easy. It has its moments of GET OVER HERE AND STOP DANCING ON YOUR DIRTY LAUNDRY and STOP SPLASHING ALL OF THE WATER OUT OF THE TUB but it also has a trajectory of relaxation. By the time we get to that big recliner for our chat every night, we're both wound down and sleepy, snuggled in close together.
After all of that, he will still wake me in the middle of the night, and he'll call me to come and get him and bring him to bed with us. I half-sleep, waiting for his voice, because I look forward to picking him up and carrying him to our room. He will snuggle in and we will all breathe the same night air as a family, until he doesn't want to join us anymore. Some parents have given me The Look and admonished me that it's a bad habit; I understand where they're coming from.
I never thought I wanted to have a squirmy child in bed with us, and we started it out of desperation to get some sleep. He would keep us awake all night anyway, taking up half the bed by creating the crossbar in an "H" between my husband and I. Over time, it became a "bad habit" I learned to love.
When I awake before him and see his long lashes brushing his cheeks in the morning light, or when he wakes before me, throws a little arm around my neck and says, "You're the greatest mama in the whole world," I wouldn't trade a second of it. Bad habits be damned.
I don't want to miss one day -- or one night -- of this.