We believe in 'family' time. And 'adult' time

Meghan Cox Gurdon

National Post

The National Post asked eight "seasoned" parents to write about an aspect of parenthood they'd wrestled with or felt strongly about, or something that just seemed to work for them. This is the second in our series, which will run Monday to Friday in this section over the next couple of weeks.

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I've lost track of the number of times fellow parents have remarked wryly, "Wow, four children under seven? I guess that means you haven't slept in a while. Like seven years."

It used to be that when people said that sort of thing, I told them the truth. But it had an awful dampening effect. The truth made their sympathy dry up, and spoiled the hail-haggard-parent-well-met camaraderie that is so pleasant and friendly. So now I just smile and say, "Something like that."

The fact is, during most nights over the last seven years I've slept like a baby. Not the sleep of Borscht Belt humour -- "I sleep like a baby. Every two hours, I wake up screaming!" -- but the sleep of any adult who has only her intemperance to blame if she feels lousy in the morning. I certainly can't blame the children. Once we put them to bed they almost never pester us in the evenings, and unless they're sick or terrified by nightmares they never wake us up. They don't come down repeatedly for glasses of water, they don't wander out of bed at 4 a.m. to climb into ours, and we never find them crouched on the landing, waiting for us to come upstairs.

They don't do these things because they themselves are too busy sleeping. Every night at 7:30, we tuck each baby and child into its own bed, give it a kiss, turn out the light, and go downstairs.

And that's it.

Believe me, before we had children, I wasn't sure this was even possible. I remember going to dinner parties and witnessing some variation of the following scenario: There would be wheedling and mewling from a distant room, as a new mother or father beseeched a child to get back into bed. Eventually, Ben or Max or Emily would come toddling out, holding the index finger of a smilingly apologetic parent. "Well, everyone, I guess we'll be nine for dinner!" Back then I had a childless person's natural fastidiousness, and found it amazing and distasteful that people would let their children intrude on adult pleasures like that. One time, four of us sat grimly at the table, our conversation dying, as, from upstairs, came a three-year-old's persistent, "Mummmmmy ... Mummmmmy ... Mummmmmy ..."

So forgive me if I sound smug. I shouldn't, because our attempt to impose domestic tranquility succeeded beyond our wildest expectations. Without any idea of how to run a proper nursery, and no experience of babies, my husband and I stumbled on a superior method of training children to sleep through the night with our very first. Our method, simply put, is to break the poppet's spirit before the child is old enough to remember things any other way.

This is how it happened: Five weeks after our first child was born, I remember feeling rather jaunty. I'd got the hang of nighttime feedings, and getting up a couple of times a night didn't seem such a disaster. Seven interminable nights later, I gazed blearily into the mirror and declared that I was tired as hell and I just couldn't take it any more.

Somewhere we'd heard that babies can sleep through the night once they weigh 10 pounds. Armed with this probably bogus factoid, and having noticed that our infant daughter was waking more frequently at night, and getting more fractious by day, we decided to act, blitzkrieg-like. My husband, who had spent six peaceful weeks in the guest bed, moved Molly's Moses basket into the sitting room (we were living in Japan at the time, so, in case of earthquakes, he put it in the centre of the room to protect her from falling pictures). Around nine o'clock that night, we kissed her, drew closed the two massive fire doors that separated our room from hers, got into bed, screwed our eyes shut, and held hands, waiting.

Far in the distance, she began to wail. We gripped each other's hand like drowning men. Poor Molly cried and cried. And cried. All through the night. We were in agony. The next night, she sobbed for three hours straight. The third night she wept for 45 minutes.

And that was it!

Six weeks and three days after Molly was born, the whole household was sleeping through the night. When Paris came along, a couple of years later, we had only a gloomy unfinished basement for him to gnash in at the age of six weeks. In due course, the same happened with Violet and Phoebe, who both learned to sleep in a pantry.

Brutal as this method may seem, I can't recommend it highly enough. What we hadn't realized until we actually did the deed is that babies love to sleep as much as adults do. It's no fun, those first few nights of wailing, but once babies are weaned of the two-to-three-hour late-night napping of early infancy, they become visibly happier, more settled, and more predictable in their daytime routines. Far from growing up fighting to keep themselves awake, and arguing with us about bedtimes, at 7:30 our children fall into their beds with the kind of soft-focus happy gratitude you usually see in mattress ads.

Usually. With the oldest child now seven, I'm getting uneasy intimations of a time when they may rage against the dying of the electric light -- or may, with teenage hormones, be physically unable to sleep until after midnight. Then we will presumably have them slouching about the household at all hours. There won't be such a satisfying demarcation between "family" time and "adult" time. Perhaps, when that day comes, my husband and I will be the ones sleeping in the basement, having our spirits broken.

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