The "Family Bed"

UnderparentingThe beeping came on as the backdrop to a predawn dream-beep-beep-beep-and then, mhmm, is that the alarm clock?-beep-beep-beep-but too faint, unless we’d dropped our alarm clock under the bed and then dropped a comforter over it-beep-beep-beep-so it was maybe the bus, outside, idling, somehow generating a high-frequency overtone to the rumbling-beep-beep-beep-beep-or was it hrmm just the pulse in my ears-tinnitus, the blood surge-beep-beep-beep-hmrff NO, it was definitely, somewhere, an ALARM CLOCK, but-

Oh.

The kid. I had given him a small clock, last month, for his birthday. A clock that did happen to have an alarm in it. Didn’t it. Beep-beep-beep-BEEP-BEEP-BEEP across the apartment, around the corner, and there the clock was, just inside the doorway, beeping until I squinted and fumbled my way to the off switch. 5:20 a.m. The kid was sprawled out in bed, immobile and unmoved.

Perhaps the clock was not such a good idea. I was proud of it when I got it. He had locked in on it during an earlier trip to the hardware store, parking himself on the aisle in front of it and not moving. So I went back and bought it later. I like it when he plays with regular stuff, like poker chips or calculators or rocks. It’s thrifty and educational. One week, he’s stuffing playing cards in the cracks in the hall-closet door, then, the next thing you know, he’s telling you “jack beats seven!”

Most of the found playthings are also quieter than the toys made for children. Not the clock, it turns out. But he loves clocks, and this one was little and pretty good-looking. It wasn’t till we unwrapped and opened it that I noticed it was a plug-in model, rather than a battery-powered one. That was what I thought the mistake was, that it wasn’t portable enough.

He must have set the alarm while playing with the clock after bedtime. The sleep thing has been worse lately. We farmed him out to his grandparents for a few weeks, while my wife was abroad and I was rewriting the book manuscript. They made great strides in civilizing him in many respects, but when he got back, he was not interested in returning to his old compliant bedtime routine.

The more fully human the child becomes, the more you remember that human beings are ornery things. I had always thought that “testing limits” was silly jargon, but by the eighth or tenth time he’d busted out of his room in one night, it was clear that he was doing exactly that: experimenting to see what would happen if he resisted the arbitrary concept of “bedtime.”

It was a tough test, too, on our end. It is hard to calmly and firmly reassert your authority, keeping things very dull so as to avoid the dread Positive Reinforcement, when you are choking back giggles. Three or four times, in a single bout of trying to brush my teeth, I would sense movement over my shoulder and see him standing serious-faced in the doorway, trailing his blanket behind. Put down the toothbrush, pick him up, carry him back across the apartment, put him in bed–and no sooner would I get back and raise the toothbrush than he would be staring from behind me again, Banquo’s Ghost by way of Linus Van Pelt. And again.

This is where someone might want to cave in, because he is so cute and so irritating, and let him sleep in the big bed with his parents. The breastfeed-till-age-five crowd maintains that the kid should be in that bed in the first place. A whole muddy, gory front in the baby culture wars has been dug in around the question of the “family bed,” and woe betide the researcher who suggests for instance that infants can get crushed or smothered that way. To say nothing of the insane, child-hating sadists who raise the possibility that piling all the family into one bed could interfere with marital relations among the senior members of the family unit.

In my own experience, the times we’ve put the kid in our bed for the night-when traveling, or when he’s sick-have been trauma. When he was little, these family-bed episodes would leave me in a state of actual post-traumatic stress disorder: for weeks afterward, I would lunge in my sleep to grab what I was certain was the baby, who was about to plunge to the floor. As he’s gotten older, the hypervigilance has been redirected toward protecting myself from being head-butted or kicked in the face.

I’m not all cruel wire-monkey-mother about it. If he shows up and wants to crawl into bed an hour before wake-up time, sure, snuggle down, little man. But the last time I was on solo-parent duty, he stiff-armed me in the jaw in my sleep, then burst into laughter when I involuntarily groaned something like, “Blaagh.” “Baah!” he yelled, bouncing up and down and socking me in the face some more. “Baah! Baah!”

So the kid sleeps in the kid’s room. Even if he doesn’t want to. Out he came, back he went. Eventually, I ended up sitting on guard in the living room, losing count of how many times we’d repeated the drill. Eleven? Fourteen? The intervals got longer. Finally, after 20 or 25 minutes without a disturbance, I peeked in on him. He was asleep, his slumbering innocence belied only by the headlights shining from his toy tractor-trailer cab where he’d been playing with it on the floor, not far from where I would eventually discover he had also been playing with the alarm clock. But for now he was sleeping. He would stay that way, peaceful and cooperative, through the next seven or eight hours, despite the beeping alarm and the shuffling feet of his father.

Then, about an hour after I’d crept back to bed, he would finally rouse himself, look around the room, and start banging the toy cymbals together.


Tom Scocca’s first book, Beijing Welcomes You, is in the hands of his editor at Riverhead Books. He also writes intermittently at Tom Scocca dot com and for newspapers and magazines. He would likely write for you, for money, if you have some. Ask him!

Previously: The Birthday Party and its Preparations