Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
Musical Beds

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It's Friday night which means reading an extra chapter or two of our bedtime story, Redwall, the riveting tale of Martin, an ancient warrior mouse, and the young upstart mouse, Matthias, who is destined to carry on Martin's legacy--and who also happens to be a novice monk partial to oversized flip-flop sandals. After Taylor and Peyton's requests for yet another chapter are denied, it's time for prayers, brief backrubs, and then lights out. Before I head downstairs to clean up the kitchen--or collapse on the couch and think about cleaning up the kitchen--I kiss my girls, and lie down beside them in bed. My bed. In attachment parenting parlance, we have what is known as a "family bed." Of the four beds in our house, only the one in my room is slept in on a regular basis. The bunk beds in the girls' room are used for sleepovers, out-of-town guests, or as trampolines and human torpedo launching pads when the girls think I'm out of earshot.

The family bed was a given for us. Growing up, the girls' father, Mike, and I both slept with our mothers through kindergarten (I think I might have been eight before I stopped tip-toeing into my mother's room in the middle of the night and curling up behind her). Our rationale was that we turned out okay, so why not? Taylor, our first baby, slept soundly with us in our king-sized bed, and the proximity certainly made nighttime breastfeeding easy. That attachment parenting guru Dr. Sears gave the family bed his stamp of approval as a means of parent-child bonding, was gravy. A well-bonded child will eventually transition into her own bed, secure in the knowledge that her needs, including nighttime comfort, will be met.

Or so goes the theory. In our reality, we've had several such transitions, and "eventually" is less a moment in time than it is a series of moments interrupted by the changing cadence of life. Taylor first slept alone in her own room at age 3...and then we moved from the suburbs into a strange, new house in the city. Roughly a year later, she was back to sleeping alone...and then her baby sister, Peyton, arrived, and there were four in the bed. When Peyton was just under a year old, both girls began to sleep in the bottom bunk in their bedroom. Less than a year after that, their father and I separated...and then there were three in the bed, in two separate houses.

Two years and one divorce later, we still have a family bed--or rather, beds--a holdover from the early days of our separation when Mike and I wanted to make life as easy and comforting for the girls as possible. We have no precedent and no parenting guru to tell us when the family bed is no longer necessary for our kids. But history has shown that they will transition into their own room again...eventually. We're thinking summer is a good time to nudge them in that direction.

In the meantime, since the family bed no longer doubles as the marital bed, and there's no reason to sneak into the guest bedroom or other parts of the house to have sex, the family bed is less complicated to maintain.

Or so goes the theory. Factor in a long-distance relationship necessitating nighttime phone calls, and children with a built-in sensor to detect the absence of parental body heat, and what transpires instead is a game of musical beds.

Back to Friday night, post-Redwall reading. I only intend to lie with the girls for a few minutes (Taylor falls asleep almost instantly; Peyton...not so much)--but those minutes stretch into a couple hours. Then the phone rings... It's my significant other (known hereafter as Secret Agent Man, or Sam).

"Were you asleep?" he asks. I say that I was, but insist that I'm awake now--sort of. Sam's kids are finally in their beds ("asleep", is another story), so he can talk. I stumble downstairs with the phone to the guest bedroom (so much for cleaning the kitchen) and before I can settle in good, Peyton walks in.

"Wanna cuddle," she offers in the way of explanation, her eyes at half-mast.

So we cuddle. But it's fairly impossible to whisper sweet-everythings with a squirmy three-year-old in your arms, so I tell Sam that I'll call him back once she drifts off again. Problem is, Peyton and I both drift off again.

Ninety minutes later, I haul her back upstairs to my bed. I then go back downstairs to the guest bedroom and call Sam who has also drifted off, but insists he's awake now--sort of. But he has to keep his voice low...because since we last spoke, his youngest daughter has climbed into his bed and fallen asleep. We murmur for a few minutes before Sam starts chuckling, mid-sentence. Turns out that lump at the foot of his bed isn't a big blanket; it's his middle daughter.

This is the reality of joint custody and long-distance relationships and digital phone service with unlimited long distance.

It's Sam's turn to relocate. He bypasses the living room where his teenage daughter has fallen asleep on the couch, and heads down to the privacy and comfort of his carpeted basement floor where we can talk. Sort of. For all of this maneuvering, we really don't have any big news to share or earth-shattering revelations. We joke that we are like teenagers--talking all hours of the night about nothing in particular. Not surprisingly, sleep takes hold again, and then I awake to Sam snoring. I wake him up, but then, like the teenagers we are:

"You hang up."

"No, you hang up."

"Okay, on the count of three..."

After "three", I leave the guest bedroom because I know if I don't, the girls will join me before morning, and I'll end up with Taylor's knee in my kidney and Peyton's foot on my face. At least in the big bed, my bed, I will have room to escape, even if momentarily. In my own bed again, I'm asleep before my head hits the pillow.

My dreams are a hodgepodge of Matthias the mouse's flip-flops, Sam's laughter, and the oh-so-helpful words of Dr. Sears: "Wherever all family members sleep best is the right arrangement for your family."


Deesha Philyaw is a Pittsburgh-based writer and the co-author, with her ex-husband, of Co-Parenting 101: Helping Your Kids Thrive in Two Households After Divorce. Her fiction and nonfiction writing on race, gender, sex and culture has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Family Circle, Brevity, The Cheat River Review, The Baltimore Review, dead housekeeping, Bitch, Apogee Journal, Slush Pile and other publications. She’s a Fellow at the Kimbilio Center for African American Fiction and a native Floridian.


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Oh I love this, especially how it ends. Great job!
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