Manny Poppins of the Night

When the kids were babies and I was three-quarters (okay, seven-eighths. Maybe nine-tenths) psychotic with sleep deprivation, I used to fantasize about hiring a sleep nanny, someone to come into the house in the early evening and do whatever it took to get them to sleep through the night in their own beds. And where would I be during this sleep training, you ask? Somewhere else: maybe in the basement, maybe ensconced in the spare room of some understanding friend, maybe, in a pinch, at a hotel. Anywhere except near the screaming and the dreadmiserypanic that engulfed me after being awakened constantly, relentlessly, night after night.

I don’t think there were any actual sleep nannies in Thunder Bay at the time (there was that nurse at the health unit who called me back, twice, to chastise me about even considering letting my baby “cry it out,” but I don’t think she counted), and I’m not sure that I would have been able to stomach coughing up several hundred dollars a night for the privilege of having one (although, really? In hindsight, it would have been worth every penny in terms of preserving my mental health and my shortening telomeres). But I fantasized about them, these Mary Poppinses of the night, fantasized about bunking down somewhere orderly and quiet while someone else instilled decent sleep patterns in my children.

Reader? Seven and a half years after becoming a parent, the fantasy has been fulfilled.

You may recall that Rachel and I took off for Copenhagen at the beginning of May, and that Rob stayed with the children. But I have neglected to mention until now that Rob — who shall henceforth be known as “He who trained the untrainable” — also spearheaded and saw out Isaac’s long-overdue move out of my room and back into his own.

Had I not mentioned recently that Isaac moved into our room in October of *cough* 2010? As in, for the past 18 months, a small child has slept, with varying degrees of soundness, in a little bed next to his mommies’ big bed. Mostly, his tenure of bunking with us has been marked by certain amount of relief, but mostly by grudging acceptance on my part, and often by sheer frustration. For several months, it seemed that he was there by the very skin of his teeth, especially during the weeks upon weeks of nights during which he still woke up multiple times to kvetch about the state of his pillows and the fact that we still would not let him cross the line from his mattress to ours.

(I did empathize with his frustration. I mean, he’d got so far, only to be thwarted at the last great divide: out of his room and into ours, from a stingy air mattress on the floor to a foam bed, to the foam bed topped with the stingy air mattress. Onto which he piled pillows so that he would be at the same level as — if not just slightly higher than — us. Like a cat asserting its dominance. And then, he’d slowly, slowly sneak his head onto our mattress. From his vantage point, the logical next step was obvious: just roll over into the maternal bed and cuddle on up.

From our vantage point, he had to stay on his own bloody mattress so as to avoid scuffing our shins with the slip-proof bottoms of his footed pajamas.

At least, until after 6 AM, when nobody felt like arguing anymore.)

“He is so out of here,” I muttered pretty much daily. And Rachel would nod and look concerned and say, “I hear what you’re saying. You sound pretty frustrated.” Which is basically a line out of the Parenting 101 script that means, essentially, “I’m going to acknowledge your unhappiness in an attempt to satisfy your needs without actually changing anything.”

Her point was that at least she didn’t have to actually get out of bed in order to deal with the wake-ups. I countered — neglecting to acknowledge that it was my idea to bring him into our room in the first place — that we should force Isaac to sleep in his own damn bed, in his own damn room, all through the night, so that we wouldn’t have to get up in the middle of the night at all. Ever. Of course, I had no suggestions for how to actually make that happen, given that Isaac had successfully resisted all known forms of sleep training for the school of I’ll Do What I Damn Well Please, to the point where we started calling him “Isaac the Untrainable” (a moniker later adopted by our friends for their two-year-old daughter, who was Totally Not Down with spending the entire night in her toddler bed).

But by the time May rolled around, we were both fairly fed up with sharing our space with Isaac. By this point, it had become a habit rather than a necessity, but neither of us could actually stomach the thought of losing the several nights’ sleep that would inevitably accompany the switch.

Enter Rob. Whose basic condition for staying with the kids for nine days while we went to Europe was that he not have to sleep in the same room as Isaac. I’m not sure if this had anything to do with Rob’s own sleep preferences or if it was simply a way to get us to get the kid out, but it seemed like as good an opportunity as any to cut the cord. The clincher, though, was that Rob offered to be our sleep nanny (or should I say “manny”?): You girls go off to Europe, he said, and when you come back, the transition will be complete. Or something to that effect.

(This is usually the point in the conversation where all my female friends with husbands and children — you know who you are — start seriously re-contemplating their life choices and wondering if it’s too late to enlist a sperm donor retroactively.)

Not that I didn’t help. The day before we left, I dug out and hung up (using fun, fun power tools) the crazy bed canopy with glow-in-the-dark stars I had purchased online in a moment of hopefulness. And because the canopy looked a little too stark, I jazzed it up with some red and yellow ribbon accessories. I stuck glow-in-the-dark stars all over the ceiling. And I made up the bed with kid-friendly sheets. And then, Rob went out and bought not one but two crazy-ass nightlights, the four-year-old equivalent of a Zeppelin-inspired sound and light experience. I mean, what kid wouldn’t want to sleep in this?

That kid would be Isaac.

Oh, he liked his new bedroom. But he liked it as, he told us, as a place to visit, not a place to actually spend the night, alone. But we persisted, persisted right through the hours and hours of screaming and protesting through the wee hours of the night until we snuck out of the house, shattered, at 6 AM, to go to the airport. Never have I been so happy to get to an airport, to a plane that would take me far, far away from the children. Rob texted me from the airport at 6:30 AM: “Isaac awake. Says to tell you he slept in his bed the whole night so he gets a star.”

I texted back: “Tell him to go fuck himself.”

From there, however, things got better. I mean, Copenhagen. A basic tenet of life is that going to Copenhagen with your girlfriend is always better than listening to your nearly-five-year-old scream from 2 AM to 4 AM in Thunder Bay, Ontario. But each day, we received text updates from Rob on the progressively better quality of Isaac’s nights in The Room. And if Copenhagen was the cake, then the inch-thick frosting was the idea of coming home to a kid to not only (a) slept through the night in his own room, but (b) did so happily and (c) fell asleep on his own without needing or even agitating for someone to lie down next to him.

We’ve been working on the early mornings. Now, the deal is that he can’t come in until his alarm goes off (or, as he puts it, “My clock starts talking to me”). At 6:35 AM, mind you, but this is still an improvement. A few mornings ago, I woke up early to pee and found him lying on the floor outside our bedroom, sucking his thumb and cuddling his blanket. “How long have you been here?” I asked him. “Oh,” he said, “only about half the night.”

“Great,” I whispered. “Come get us when your alarm goes off.” And I went back to bed. In my own room. With my door closed and nobody but Rachel beside me.