Today’s post needs a content warning for religious trauma and triggery religious language as well as a description of lots of big childhood fears.
I also feel like I want to re-emphasize the disclaimer that I made on Wednesday and say again, as emphatically as humanly possible, that this is entirely intended as a personal reflection and zero percent intended as a prescriptive list of how you should do things in your family.
If reading it gives you a new idea of how to do things and that feels good for you—that’s wonderful. But if reading it feels like “whoa what the heck? how does that work for anybody? That would NOT work for me,” then that’s okay too. You don’t have to feel angry at me or ashamed about yourself about it.
The process of falling asleep has always been a weird one for me. There were times as a kid where it took me hours to fall asleep, my mind racing and full of thoughts.
Sometimes I could control those thoughts and would tell myself complex, ongoing stories where I was the main character and would watch entire stories in my head like a book or a movie.
Sometimes I would tell myself instead that I ought to be praying or thinking religiously appropriate thoughts and would try very hard to think of prayers instead, though my mind would often drift back into my stories or into fears.
Sometimes I would lay awake for a very long time with a great deal of fear.
I spent dozens, if not hundreds, of hours of my childhood lying in bed very still with my eyes closed contemplating what to do if the house burned down. I was very worried because I often slept in my underwear, but I was afraid of having to run out the front door without any pants (trousers) on, so I would rehearse over and over exactly how I would get pants from the dresser and put them on while running outside. When we got a cat when I was 8, I expanded the worry/imagination to include how I could get her to come outside with me, because I knew that the “rule” was that you have to just run outside and leave all your belongings and pets, but I was utterly terrified and devastated by the idea of having to leave her behind, and convinced that if I planned hard enough then I would be able to get her successfully. I worried similarly and in great depth about being kidnapped. I worried about loved ones dying.
As a hyperlexic little kid, I had read nearly every book in our house, and this included a lot of pseudo-Christian “inspirational” books in which the author claimed to have had extensive visions of going to heaven or hell, or having died and gone to hell and been revived, things like that. I had also read a great deal of fictional and purportedly non-fictional books about the apocalypse and the end times.
I spent so much time worrying about hell, the end of the world, the fact that the Rapture would happen and everybody I knew and loved would go to heaven and I would get left behind. My prayers were often simply begging God to accept me and wishing I could somehow prove enough that I really believed in God.
My parents had what I think were very reasonable and very normal rules about bedtime: that we go to bed and then lay down in our beds with our eyes closed and the lights off and stay that way until we fell asleep. My brothers sometimes shared a room and sometimes had different rooms, but I always had my own room and slept by myself. It was *very* rare that we would go talk to my parents or interact with them again after bedtime, and I was always worried that doing so would get me in trouble. I don’t actually remember if I ever specifically got in trouble or if I just worried that I would. I know that I wished for a nightlight when I was scared of the dark, and for awhile I wasn’t allowed to have one, then I did have one but my parents would come turn it off before I went to bed. I wanted to listen to music to fall asleep, and for awhile I was allowed to listen to a CD all the way through but not repeat it, because my parents believed that hearing music all night would make my brain stay more awake. I used to dread it when the CD would get to the last song because I knew after that it would just be silent.
We laugh about the fact that I was fifteen years old before any of us realised that my bedtime of (by then) 9:30 was kind of early. It didn’t ever occur to me to ask for it to be later. I just knew what was expected of me: to lay down in bed and worry or think or tell myself stories or whatever it took, for however many hours it took, until I finally fell asleep.
I believed earnestly that if I voiced any of my fears, that I would both prove that I was not a good enough Christian to trust God to protect me, and also that I would cause the bad thing I was worried about to happen. I believed that the devil could hear me if I said things I was worried about out loud, but that he couldn’t read minds, so as long as I only kept my fears inside my brain then the devil wouldn’t know what I was most afraid of to hurt me with it. I had a Bible verse that I used as “evidence” for this to myself (which I no longer believe to be accurate). At the times when I did actually voice any of my fears to my parents, they would usually encourage me with Bible verses that seemed to say not to be anxious and not to be afraid. I stopped telling them and instead lay there in my bed beating myself up for being anxious and afraid. I told myself that I was proving that I didn’t believe in God enough with my stupid, fearful, lack of faith.
Sensory issues contributed to my difficulty sleeping. If I was touching any part of my body in which I could feel a pulse or a heartbeat, it icked me out. If I could feel my breath on any part of my skin, it icked me out.
In my late teenage years and on into adulthood I began to take significant naps in the afternoon (1-3 hours) and stay awake later and later at night. I functioned so much better this way. I also began sleeping with a fan or with white noise playing on my phone. Funnily enough, as a child I was so scared of the dark and desperate for a nightlight, but as I got older I preferred sleeping with an eye mask on my eyes so it would be 100% dark. Any light at all made it feel challenging to sleep.
When I got married and moved in with my husband was the first time that I had ever regularly slept with another human being in the room with me. My parents advised us to always go to sleep at the same time as one another, something that was really hard for us because my husband worked a 2nd shift job and I was going to school that required me to be up at 7 or 8 in the morning. He didn’t want to go to bed until very late, and I wanted to go to bed by midnight or so. For years, I felt mildly frustrated about the fact that we weren’t going to bed at the same time as one another, until I realised that it was safe to let go of someone else’s well-meaning advice and instead live according to what worked for our family. I also tried to stop wearing an eye mask to sleep because I was embarrassed about it, and similarly tried to stop hugging a stuffed animal to sleep.
However, the two of us were a little bit offbeat from the beginning. We slept with separate blankets for our separate sides of the bed. We had no money when we got married, and there was no reason to get new blankets when we both had perfectly good single-person blankets that were familiar and loved! Plus, no one was ever stealing each other’s blanket. I much preferred it this way. Eventually, I also stopped worrying about how wearing an eye mask or hugging a stuffed animal would make me look, and brought these things back to sleep, and my sleep improved.
Very often, I would wake up in the middle of the night from him snoring or making any small noise, and I would move to the couch to finish sleeping to be more comfortable. When we had kids this intensified extremely. Both kids slept in our room as babies, and it messed with my sleep to an enormous degree—in the sound of my white noise playing I would hallucinate hearing them crying constantly when they weren’t crying or making any noise at all, and any noise that they *did* actually make most certainly woke me up, and then I would lie there anxious, trying my best to tell myself fictional stories to fall asleep like I had done as a child, while my heart raced and I waited for the baby to make any noise at all. The only way I ever got relief was by going to sleep on the couch or on the floor mattress we had in another room for the rare guest who came to visit.
The kids got older, but it took embarrassingly many more years for me to realize that I simply consistently sleep better in a room by myself. I slept on countless couches before, in this house that we live in now, I got a 2nd mattress and put it in our home office so that I have a place to sleep other than my husband’s room. I sleep in the room with him sometimes, usually moving to the downstairs mattress when I wake up in the night. Sometimes I just start the night and end the night in my own room. I sleep infinitely better and more comfy this way. Plus, I like to be much colder with more fans pointed at me than my husband does, so *he* sleeps better, too.
When my kids were big enough to be out of a crib, when they first had free access to the room and everything in it, then, like most kids do, they wanted to wander around and play or look at books they had in their room or whatever. Both of them had push-activated nightlights, so even before they could reach the light switch, they could have slight light to do whatever they wanted to do around in the room.
We never really stopped them. We never made them lie down in their bed or stay still and quiet and with their eyes closed. I just figured they’d wander around til they got tired and then fall asleep, and they did do that, so we just kept going with it.
Exactly what that’s looked like has morphed over the years as we moved houses several times, but the principle has always stayed the same. Bedtime is really room time. My kids go in their room and play or build stuff or look at a book or create things or whatever and they eventually go to sleep. Of course, at 5 and 4 they’re tall enough to manage the light switches themselves. Sometimes they turn off their own lights, sometimes we turn them off for them after they’re asleep. Both of them have a soft silicon night-light in their room because both have expressed being afraid of the dark and feeling more comforted when they wake up and there’s light.
Both of them often create really elaborate things in their quiet room time before they fall asleep. (Sometimes they push the bounds of what is “quiet” room time and, yes, sometimes I have to go tell them to chill a little.) My son builds incredible dioramas and structures and buildings and vehicles out of every kind of blocks, loose parts, pillows, blankets, etc that you can imagine. My daughter likes to line up toys, sort them into their categories, sort them by color, line up stuffed animals, and sometimes talk or dance for them to watch her like an audience. They have both gone through phases of sleeping on the floor versus in their beds and they’ve both been fine. My son learned about being “tucked in” from somewhere and often asks me to do a whole bedtime tucking-in ritual even though he usually gets back out of bed and plays some more first.
Yes, there are always new phases where they poke around to see what the boundaries on this are. (For example, my daughter is currently seeing how many times she can call me back after I’ve closed her door and ask me random questions or to get things for her from downstairs before I’ll stop fetching stuff.) Both have experimented with opening the door and coming out, calling for us, needing more water, etc—sometimes actual needs, sometimes just figuring out what’s reasonable. That’s okay. That’s what kids are supposed to do. We just figure out what our boundary is going to be and then hold that. With consistency, they figure it out.
I wonder about if I had been allowed to read books until I got sleepy, or listen to audiobooks, or do something else with my brain other than just endure and live through it turning on itself. I wish it could have been different for little me. I treat big me with a lot of grace when I have a hard time sleeping. My instinct is to ignore the things that I feel like would help and instead just try to belittle myself. “You don’t need to go to the bathroom again, you just went!” Instead I try to set aside that belittling instinct and treat myself graciously. “If it feels like you gotta go, then you gotta go. Might as well do that and get back to feeling comfy in bed faster.”