The Battle of Bedtime
On the perfect put-down, and the perspective of a child-free friend
“That’ll just take a few minutes, right?”
A laughably naive question from a child-free friend, as my wife offered to take the kids to bed as we settled in for the evening’s sobremesa. Nights out are great. But when you’re a parent, a night in becomes a more palatable prospect: ”Why not come around to ours? We’ll have dinner, the kids will go to bed, we won’t need to sort a babysitter.”
It’s an acceptable compromise. The savings made on a sitter can be mentally offset against a nice bottle of red. One friend offered to cook; all we had to do was host. But in bringing a group of child-free friends together, I was peppered with questions I hadn’t considered for a while—changes in routine that have become commonplace in the close-to-a-decade since becoming a parent, now observed with new eyes.
“It’ll take a while longer,” I replied. “Thirty minutes, easy. Forty-five, maybe. Thankfully, tonight didn’t seem like one of those one-hour-plus bedtimes.”
“You can’t just tuck them in, give them a kiss, and close the door?”
Again. A simple question. But I don’t think we could. Not now—after years of silently sneaking out of the room, only to step on a talking teddy on the way out and have to start all over again. Not after realising that a one-year-old baby could self-soothe herself only as I sat, head in hands, on the top stair outside her room, about to give up before realising the sweet sound of silence permeating the hallway. Bedtime can be the most horrific end to an already brutal day, as you return to the living room an echo of the man who took them upstairs, like the cliched movie solider returning, dead-eyed from a war zone:
“What happened up there?”
“You don’t want to know.”
Our children still observe British bedtimes—somewhere around 8 pm, to which their Spanish friends remain aghast. This isn’t too difficult to achieve in the middle of winter. When we’re closer to the height of summer, we have to roll down the impenetrable persiana blinds to fabricate the illusion of nighttime, otherwise they’ll be awake for all hours, as they question what’s going on with the local kids still playing outside (”What’s that noise, Papi?” “It’s someone watching the TV upstairs, I think. Don’t worry, go to sleep.”)
I’ve had my fair share of bad bedtimes. But good ones? We all know what the perfect putdown feels like. When the stars align and everything falls into place: a drama-free soak in the tub, easily out and dried; standing proud to have their teeth brushed, rather than squirming around like Houdini attempting to break free from chains; into their pyjamas and tucked in with the efficiency of an F1 pit-stop. Those times when your semi-honest yawns while reading their book are taken as intended, echoing contagiously from their mouths before sending them towards slumber, into which they fall and (hopefully) remain until the morning. Homer Simpson isn’t the greatest parenting role model—it was only a few months ago he publicly stated he’d stop choking his son—but we all dream of an evening like this, a moment that makes it feel like we might actually know what we’re doing.
As we get older, we watch our friendships evolve: some burn brightly before crumbling to ash, others slowly fizzle out over the years. If we’re lucky, some will reach new depths, dependent upon continual investment and ongoing openness. Friends without children may seem harder to connect with, feeling like your lives have moved in different directions, two lines that briefly intersected before heading towards opposing co-ordinates. Parents spend more time with other parents, others experiencing similar trials and tribulations, a problem shared becoming a problem halved. But it’s essential to have a broad spread of friends—because it becomes inevitable you’ll find yourself in proximity with folks who took a left when you took a right; who demurred a major life decision that you leant into; and who now find themselves at an altogether different place, from which they can offer the gift of a new perspective on your own.
A child-free friend may look askew at your decision to raise a family: sleepless nights not self-inflicted, equal strains on both your mental well-being and your wallet, having made the momentous decision to “decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body.” Having a friend ask why you don’t just drop them into bed and walk away, a parenting facsimile of “Cool Guys Don’t Look At Explosions,” invites us to ponder precisely what makes bedtimes great; to look at our situation in a new light. This, like so much of parenting—and life—comes down to mindset.
Because sometimes the best part of my day, and theirs too, arrives at the end. It’s a chance to recap the day, as a four-year-old will take the opportunity to regale you in a Dickensian level of detail about what happened since you dropped him off at school, after giving up diddly-squat on the way home when you enquired “How was your day?” A good bedtime offers a chance to peer into that brain they’re building and partake in processing the last 24 hours—the new things they’ve discovered about how the world works and the inevitable questions that arise.
It’s not the easiest part of the day. But it can be one of the most special.
May the odds be ever in your favour. Especially tonight.
3 things to read this week
“The World Needs Uncles Too” by Isaac Fitzgerald in Esquire. This essay from 2022, which felt pertinent today, looks at the role that a child-free friend can play in the lives of others and how the author “felt a new responsibility to show up as support to family members and friends with children.” One of my favourite parenting pieces from the last few years. If you enjoy this, check out Fitzgerald’s excellent newsletter Walk It Off.
“The Bizarre Tragedy of Children’s Movies” by Kelly Conaboy in The Atlantic. Ever wonder why so many Disney characters are orphans? Talking to child development experts, psychologists, and the director of The Lion King, Conaboy investigates why these decisions are made and how they affect our kids, netting out on the idea that “the question might not be whether these movies are too sad for kids. It might just be whether they’re too sad for adults.”
“How Dads Manage Conflict Has A Huge Impact On Their Kids” by Kristi Pahr in Fatherly. This week, in no shit, Sherlock—how we deal with interpersonal disagreements in front of our children has a significant effect on how they manage conflict in later life. But this time, it’s backed up with a study showing the impact this has on a child’s development may be larger than previously realised and that even in households with regular conflicts, issues can be dampened by how we behave after the argument. "Children with fathers who reported frequent marital conflict were less involved and less loving with their children and also reported higher parenting stress. Children of these fathers scored lower on socio-emotional assessments than other children. However, researchers also noted that when fathers engaged in “constructive conflict resolution,” even if fighting was happening frequently, the negative impact on the child’s socio-economic development was lessened.”
Hey! Listen to this!
After topping many “Best of 2023” podcast lists, I’ve spent the first few weeks of January going through the archive of PJ Vogt’s new podcast Search Engine. Each week, he attempts to answer a question using internet sleuthing techniques, killer researchers and a who’s who of great guests. ”How do I find new music now that I'm old and irrelevant?” is a thought that’s been through my mind on more than one occasion, even after years spent working in a record shop. Here, PJ and writer Kelefa Sanneh interrogate why we think that’s important and if there’s actually anything wrong with carrying on listening to the music we adored in our teens and twenties.
On the off chance you think I’m romanticising bedtimes, or that every night is rainbows and sunshine, last week I entirely lost my shit because my son wouldn’t go to the toilet before going to sleep, before having to tag out. Raising kids ain’t easy, and I’m trying my hardest, every damn day, to be more like the dad who wrote this.
Let me know how this one was for you.