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I tried begging. I tried bribing. I tried calmly and consistently bringing him back to his room each time. Here’s what ended up doing the trick.
Earlier this year I switched my son from a crib to a toddler bed and enjoyed three solids months of him not realizing he could leave. He’s figured it out, now. Every night I go through the same bedtime routine: books, toothbrushing, potty and an original story I tell him as I sit or lay next to him in his little bed. Then, depending on whether he napped that day, he gets out of bed and runs into my room anywhere from one to ten times. He doesn’t protest when I carry him back, as long as I carry him back. I tuck him back in, return to my room and wait to hear the inevitable footsteps as he comes back, wordless, and climbs into bed next to me.
Last week, I tried something: I offered him ten pennies to stay in his bed all night. I went into my bedroom and waited. He called out for me a couple of times—to put his books away, to move something in his room. But he did stay.
The next morning, I counted out ten battered-looking pennies from my bedside drawer and he put them in his rapidly filling octopus bank. Then I asked him if he wanted to earn ten pennies again that night.
“No,” he said, without a second’s thought.
I was a bit taken aback; it had worked so well the night before. Why wouldn’t he want ten more pennies?
I puzzled over it as we spent the rest of the afternoon and early evening together. We went to the mall and rode the see-through elevator at the mall (“This is so cool!”). We shared a pretzel and I remembered four years earlier, walking the same mall hours before I would be induced, eating one final pretzel and buying a Stephen King book I would never end up finishing. At home, we snuggled on the couch and ate hot dogs, a food he’d been rejecting for months. We talked about his fourth birthday, which was the next day.
When I tucked him into bed that night, I told him the last story I would ever tell him as a three-year-old. It was a good one. Sometimes I phone it in, to be honest. An original story every night is a tough ask. He stared off into space, occasionally breaking into a smile if I added a silly sentence or two. I turned off the light, went to my room and waited.
But he stayed. Called out once, with a request for me to move a towel that was in the wrong place in his room. But that was it. And I’m thinking it’s because we spent all that time together.
Maybe he came to the unconscious conclusion that time with me is worth more than ten pennies. That access, the possibility of snuggling next to me for an extra minute, fingers poking all the places that are still soft a year after having his brother, is more valuable than anything that can be added to that rapidly filling wooden bank. I’d filled his cup with time instead of money.
I actually found myself a little sad to not see him that night. I knew that the next day, he’d be older. But of course, he’s older every day, not just when he’s turning four. When we’re mired in sleeplessness, toddler tantrums and the little difficulties that pop up like speed bumps in the day, it’s easy to forget the changes that happen, the growing that occurs. When time is wholly not our own, we can get bogged down in all that needs doing and forget that even small moments of meaningful contact can make all the difference to someone with a toddler’s sense of time. It took a birthday to zoom out from the day-to-day and see the bigger picture, the little person becoming the big person whose brain goes a mile a minute, who surprises and delights me (and yes, also frustrates me).
I’m glad he’s decided that I’m worth more than ten cents to him. The past four years, the best years, even with (gestures broadly) all this, have been life-changing. I was not a kid who always saw myself being a mother. But he is here, his brother is here, on the ever-weirdening journey that 21st-century life is and has been. I take pictures of them, try to capture their spirits, their presence, their eyes and the way they look at and through me. I come up short. I worry I will always come up short. But all they really want in those moments is me, my body to curl into and my responses to the third “School bus!” sighting as we commute together in the mornings, my preparation of the umpteenth cream cheese sandwich for school lunch. I can be here in the little ways, the moments instead of the years.
I didn’t feel so maudlin when my other son turned one last week. It almost snuck up on me. They are different kids, and I’m still figuring him out. But of course, they’re both mysteries. They have so much growing up to do. Even though it can feel hard, I am thankful to be in these baby and toddler days, when they want so much to be carried, to be held, to be close—even to be in my bed when they should be in theirs. I think I will miss that when it’s gone.
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