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I Let My Toddler Sleep in Our Bed

Photograph by Getty Images

One of my most vivid memories from childhood is standing by my parents’ bed, too scared to wake up my mom, too scared to go back to my bed. It’s one of her most vivid memories too, mostly because I would scare the shit out of her.

She would wake up with a start, to little 3-year-old me, hovering over her, whispering about dreams and scary monsters.

So, it doesn’t surprise me that almost 30 years later, I find myself in almost exactly my mom’s situation: waking up to the hovering body of a frightened 3-year-old.

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Without fail and without question, I open up the covers and let her in. Sometimes, when she is asleep, I slip her back in her bed. But more often than not, I let her stay. I don’t get much sleep when she does, but I have a hard time sending her back. It’s selfishly motivated—I love the snuggles and I also understand her fears.

When I was 3 and demanding access to my parents’ bed, my parents already had three children and another on the way. Exhausted, my mom often sent me back to my room, or made me a pallet on the floor. In both places, I would lay awake imagining that the air conditioning was the sound of a lion prowling our halls, or that the swirling darkness above me was demons (we went to Evangelical churches, I came by that fear honestly). I remember how calming my mom’s breath on my hair was and how much I craved that in my midnight moments of fear.

Maybe I’m projecting, but when I see my daughter, hair glowing like a halo in the weak morning light, I become that little girl again—alone and afraid of both nothing and everything. But in the mornings, I’m my mom again, tired, short-tempered, in need of a good night sleep.

So often, the hardest parts of parenting is finding the line between my needs and my child’s. It’s this constant battle that begins the moment a woman becomes pregnant and control over her body is ceded, to whom? I’m not exactly sure. The baby? Maybe. Science? Kind of. Society? Probably more accurate.

The intersectionality of our bodies and our babies is an exhausting gray space. Where do we end? Where do our children begin?

Every woman battles with that line, to drink caffeine, to have a glass of wine, to have the epidural and beyond, to breastfeeding and sleeping. I remember agonizing over the choice to take Zoloft while breastfeeding. One the one hand, the effects on nursing babies hadn’t been fully analyze. On the other hand, I was going insane. In that case, I went without the Zoloft. I wish I hadn’t. I wish I had chosen to take it. But if I had to go back to myself in the doctor’s office, exhausted, in pain, overwhelmed, afraid, would I have done anything different? It’s hard to say.

The intersectionality of our bodies and our babies is an exhausting gray space. Where do we end? Where do our children begin? I thought I had this all sorted with my independent 3-year-old, but then the nightmares began and so did my own anxieties.

Was I projecting? I was probably projecting. But was she afraid? Yes. Did she need me? I don’t know. Maybe. Yes. Or perhaps the real question was: Did I need her? I was holding her like a little me—soothing me from all my fears and demons that hovered on the edge of my life. But in this case, should there be a separation? Is my empathy getting in the way of my parenting?

I have no answers. It’s hard to think clearly when you aren’t getting sleep.

Recently, I made my daughter a chart. I told her if she is ever afraid, she can come snuggle with me, but that I want her to be a big girl and learn to sleep in her own bed. So, we have a chart. Every night she sleeps in her bed, she gets a smiley face and a check mark (she insisted). One full week of sleep in her bed equals a prize of her choosing. We’ve made it two weeks so far, with only a small detour for the stomach flu. This chart works for my externally motivated oldest child. She’s so proud of herself, every morning, she marches down the stairs clad in princess jammies, and proclaims, “I slepted all night in my whole own bed!”

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I hug her and tell her I’m so proud. I know she knows she can come to me when she’s afraid, but I also need her to know she can navigate the night on her own too.

So, we are getting there. But when the baby (who believes my arms are his manifest destiny and responds to no human law, nor conforms to expectation) comes to this age, I have no clue what to do. But one child at a time. One breaking, one pulling, pushing, snuggling problem at a time.

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