It’s bedtime, and Emi’s asking for a drink before she goes to sleep. But tonight her usual request is accompanied by a more ominous directive. “Mommy,” she says, her face solemn, “when you come back, we have to talk.”
“Okay,” I agree, struggling to keep my expression as serious as hers, and trying to respect her wish for me to leave the room before I start the conversation she obviously wants some time to prepare for. But before I walk to the kitchen, my curiosity gets the best of me. “What do we have to talk about, sweetie?”
Emi is blunt. “We have to talk about how my feelings are hurting. I have hurting feelings so much because I don’t get to sleep next to you in the bed anymore.”
My heart is pierced.
We had been talking about a new bed for months, as her birthday was approaching this spring. Emi imagined that a bunk bed, or a princess bed that looked like a castle, might be just the thing for a five-year-old girl to sleep in. We had talked about brushing teeth, picking out pajamas, and then reading books and listening to music in a nice bed all to herself. And, yet, after these discussions — these in-depth imaginings of what a bedtime routine might be like with a fancy, fancy bed — we would do what was our normal routine: read a story, have a drink, and fall asleep, me on my side of our king bed, and Emi right next to me in the middle, with her panda, her special pillow, and her Hello Kitty blanket.
Eventually, I thought the time had come for us to move from the realm of the imagined to the reality of a bed just for Emi, and so we went to Ikea to scope out the situation. It didn’t take Emi long to spot the bed of her dreams: a loft bed, high enough off the ground to play underneath, but not so high it would be scary to sleep on. And, best of all, a slide.
“Can we get it?” she begged. “I’m five now, and only five-year-olds can get a slide bed, right?”
We discussed it over Swedish meatballs and juice, and it seemed as though Emi accepted that if we bought the new bed — with a slide! — she would have to sleep in it. Without me. Emi considered this and said, using one of her latest phrases, “I can handle it.”
I should have known that the excitement of the slide would obscure the very real separation anxiety over sleeping alone until she was home, at night, in her new bed, by herself.
Still, I was caught off guard by the calm frankness of her suggestion that we have a lengthier conversation, and by the realization that, slide aside, to Emi the new bed was not as much about empowerment and having some space of her own as it was about being kicked out.
We didn’t start out sharing a bed. Or rather, we did: in the hospital, after she was born, she lay next to me in the bed, sleeping soundly. At home that first week, we napped together, side by side, wherever we happened to fall asleep. But gradually, as I began to wrestle with what I now know was post-partum depression, I began to experience insomnia, which became so extreme that it necessitated me sleeping alone, with Gil and Emi in another room entirely, and me drifting off with the help of a wonderful drug to solve the problem of my prolonged sleep latency.
Emi slept in her crib until she was a little over two, when she was agile enough to climb out. From there she moved into a toddler bed, decked out with Blue’s Clues sheets and blankets. Sometimes, she would wander into our room in the middle of the night, or come in to ask for help with getting to the potty, but back then she was in her room, and we were in ours.
In January of 2002, I became pregnant, and that month Emi caught a nasty flu virus. I wonder now if the two were coincident, if she somehow sensed the burgeoning growth of the little baby who was due in nine months to usurp her. For that terrible feverish week of Motrin and Tylenol and pedialyte and popsicles initiated a bedtime bond that could not be broken, not even by a new baby brother. She was so sick and miserable, the only thing that brought her comfort was to huddle in bed with me. And I, being in the early weeks of pregnancy, was equally sick and miserable, and only too happy to oblige. We spent days and nights in bed, while Gil worked hard at his last semester of medical school, working around the clock, on call for nights at a time. Once Emi was better, there was no talking her into going back into her own room, alone. Why should she, when she could be with mommy?
And truthfully, I didn’t mind. Emi seemed to sleep easier next to me: it took her moments to fall asleep in the bed with me, as opposed to a solid 45 minutes of me going in and out of her room with our old routine. And the nighttime potty visits were easier to take, too. I was able to fall back asleep instantly, as we were only steps away from the master bathroom, and Emi was drowsed back to sleep by my sheer sleepy presence. Also, as my belly grew, I knew these hours of bonding with her as my only child were dwindling. Each time I felt the baby move, I was reminded that Emi would soon no longer have me to herself. We continued falling asleep together, and I would wake up in the morning to her sweaty head, her stale-sweet toddler breath, her arms draped over my shoulders.
Still, as we prepared for the new baby, we moved her toddler bed into our room, in the corner next to my side of the bed, to make an “Emi-only” space for her, so that she could sleep in her little bed when she wanted to (and so that we could have our space as well). Some weeks she’d sleep there; some nights she’d sleep with us. I thought of it as a gentle re-introduction to sleeping on her own again, and I knew, knowing Emi, that this was something that must be done gradually. Between the imminent new sibling and Emi’s natural resistance to change, it was not something that could be rushed.
After Nate was born, and Emi was struggling to reconcile her excitement over having a baby brother with the stress of his arrival, I figured it was not the time to force a change in our sleeping arrangements. In fact, letting her sleep next to me seemed like the most low-effort way to assure her primacy. She continued to sleep either in the bed next to me or in her toddler bed nearby, though for the first few months of Nate’s life our nights were punctuated not with his baby cries but with the thrashings and babblings of her night terrors.
After she was four, we started the conversations about beds and bedtime and what different people do. I told her about how I shared a room with my sister for most of my life, and she told me about her friends who had their own rooms with big beds. We talked about how fun it is to have your own space, and how one day Emi could have a bed in her own room and decorate it any way she wanted.
Finally, I felt, she was ready to make the leap, and so it was that we made that fated trip to Ikea.
When I return to her room with her drink, I am ready for her tears. “It’s hurting my feelings,” Emi is saying as I enter.
“Em, I know,” I say. “I know we had a really busy day. We picked out a bed, we built it and put it together, and it was really, really exciting. But sometimes exciting things can be overwhelming.”
“I want to sleep with you!” she cries.
“A new bed is a big change,” I tell her, “and it’s okay to be a little sad about a big change.”
“But my feelings are still hurting,” she says, full tears now.
I try to think. One part of me wants to say that we didn’t spend $300 and six hours on a bed for her to not sleep in it, one part of me wants to say this is what normal people do, while yet other wants to say climb on in to mommy’s bed and let those hurt feelings feel better.
“How about this,” I say. “How about I stay with you until you fall asleep, and then when you’re asleep, I’ll go to my bed and you stay in yours.”
She nods her head, tears on her chin.
I climb up the ladder and lay down next to her. Except for the height and the new-bed Ikea smell, we could be snuggled in my bed together just like always. Soon Emi is asleep. I contemplate sliding down the slide to get out, but instead I climb down like a grown-up and let her sleep, a little more grown-up herself than she was the day before.
In my own bed, flush with room to sprawl, I revel in my solitude and spaciousness at the same time I realize my feelings are hurting a little bit, too. It was time for a bed, a room of her own, I know, but I can’t help it: I miss her.