Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
(Mis)Adventures in (Non)Bedtime Reading


I am still amazed, these days, at the ease with which my children go to bed. Teeth, pajamas, song, a brief conversation about the day, another song, a kiss, and that's it: six nights out of seven, they're asleep within five minutes.

If this routine sounds routine to you, I am filled with envy, because it wasn't always this way. My children were the original bedtime nightmares, and I spent significantly more than a decade struggling, first with Mara, then with Eva, to end their days with a modicum of decorum, not to mention speed.
I believe that I Ferberized Mara for 18 months.* I know. I know. The good Dr. Ferber's method is supposed to take just a few weeks: leave the baby alone, even if she's crying; go into her room every few minutes, progressively lengthening the amount of time between visits; and she will learn to soothe herself and go right to sleep. Ha! Why did it take me so long to give up? I was desperate.

Then came threats, bribes, and many years of lying down next to a wriggling small body for what felt like -- and sometimes really was -- hours, gritting my teeth, counting silently to 100 over and over, praying to some non-denominational deity of parenthood for the child to enter Dreamland so I could do the million other things I needed to be doing -- and she could do the sleeping she needed to be doing.

Which brings us to Madeline. Somewhere -- presumably in some parenting magazine I picked up in a waiting room, in an article written by someone who had never actually battled a small child to sleep -- I read that routines were a crucial element of successful bedtimes. This seemed reasonable enough, and we were already a reasonably routinized family, so the idea that you should signal the imminence of sleep by reading the same book to your child every night, along with using the same toothpaste, snuggling the same stuffed animal, and singing the same song (I think we were allowed to change pajamas), made sufficient sense that we decided to try it.

I don't know why we picked Madeline. Perhaps because 18-month-old Mara already liked it, or perhaps because it ends with an entire roomful of little girls successfully falling sleep. You know: role models. Or perhaps literary peer pressure.

At any rate, I can still recite long passages of Madeline, from "In an old house in Paris that was covered with vines, lived twelve little girls in two straight lines," to "Miss Clavel turned on the light and said, 'Something is not right,'" to "And she turned out the light and closed the door, and that's all there is. There isn't any more." But Mara did not go to sleep. Instead, every night, we would read a book of her choosing, then bring out Madeline, and she would start to cry and plead: "No Madeline, Mommy! No Madeline!"

What did we do? I'm sure you can guess: we read Madeline every night, and then we put her to bed, and she did not go to sleep.

If one of the things you derive from this column is that I am stubborn, you are correct. If another thing you derive is that, as a new parent, I was stupid, and poor Mara was the guinea pig for my stupidity, you are also correct, but, hey, we all make mistakes; I'm just still stupid enough to share them with the world. Anyway, Mara survived, appears to have no longstanding animus toward Madeline, and eventually learned to fall asleep on her own, somewhere around second grade.

While Eva was similarly bedtime-challenged, she was spared both Ferber and Madeline: I did learn something from my mistakes. Interestingly enough, however, she was the one who ended up resisting bedtime reading altogether.

Despite the Madeline fiasco, we read aloud to Mara every night until she was nine or ten. When she was four, we moved on from picture books to the Little House books, and then made our way through an array of old and new chapter books, including a six-month virtuoso reading of Little Women (unabridged version) when she was seven (I wonder if that had anything to do with her learning to fall asleep on her own!).

Eva, on the other hand, told me just the other day that the only Little House book she has actually read is Little House in the Big Woods; she's read bits and pieces of the others, many times, but not the entire books. "How could that be?" I asked. We had read them all aloud to her! Um, nope. We read them all aloud to Mara. To Eva, we read picture books and occasional chapter books and the first Harry Potter and half the second, and then, at five or so, she decided she would rather read to herself at bedtime, which is what she has done ever since.

Until just a few weeks ago. Though, at nine, she now goes to sleep easily enough, Eva still doesn't like going to bed. Once we are upstairs, brushing the teeth, putting on the pajamas, and singing the song, we're usually fine, but getting to upstairs can involve procrastinating, whining, and even stomping and yelling, and I'm not just referring to Eva. So one night, as pre-bedtime tensions escalated, I had the sudden (desperate) inspiration to suggest that we read a book. Eva replied that we didn't have a book to read, thinking I meant a chapter book, as befitted her advanced age. "We don't have to read a chapter book," I said, desperately, "we can read a picture book, any one you want."

So we sat on the couch and snuggled and read The Chocolate Cat and Degas and the Little Dancer and had a delightfully peaceful bedtime. A few days later, as passions escalated, we did it again. Now it's become a renewed habit. Not every night, but whenever she is out of sorts, or we both could do with a shared calming activity, we read The Quiltmaker's Gift or Two Girls Can or Diary of a Wombat, or some other old favorite, cuddling on the couch, examining the pictures (did you know that every time the wolves escape the pig in The Three Little Wolves and the Big Bad Pig, they bring their teapot?), and uncovering new literary insights that a younger child would probably miss (check out the names of the storekeepers in The Chocolate Cat).

Though I may be stubborn, and occasionally stupid, and I'm still all about enforcing bedtime, if I've learned one thing, it's that though bedtime reading can't be enforced, it can always be embraced.

*Let me state, for the record, that my position on parenting ideologies, from attachment to authoritarian, is indifference: I believe that if parents are loving and consistent and meet their kids' basic needs, most kids turn out fine, and Mara survived her 18 months of wailing intact.

Rebecca Steinitz has written for The New Republic, The Utne Reader, Salon, The Boston Globe, The Rumpus, Hip Mama, Inside Higher Ed, Publisher’s Weekly, BookPage, and The Women’s Review of Books, among other places. She is a contributor to the anthologies It’s a Girl and Mama PhD and her book Time, Space, and Gender in the Nineteenth-Century British Diary will be published by Palgrave Macmillan later this year. In her previous life as an English professor, she taught nineteenth-century British literature, feminist theory, and writing. She now works as a writing coach in the Boston Public Schools. She lives in Massachusetts with her husband and two daughters.

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I loved this! So funny, wonderful details.
Sounds like you had a pretty easy time of it, to me. I became instant first-time mama to a 13 year old who spoke no English in 2004. I could remember the phrase for "Go to sleep" so I'd just bark "Spot!" and point to the bed, and she got the idea. ["spot" is Russian for "sleep"] but she had to have music, a nightlight, etc. With my 10 year old adopted son a few years later I had to rub his back and talk soothingly for maybe 15 minutes many nights at first, because he was terrified I would leave him in the night and he'd wake up cold and scared and alone, like his birthmom did to him. Lots of us adoptive parents battle the bedtime demons. I started reading the Harry Potter books to my son every night last year, and he sleeps great now, no issues.
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