Before I was a parent, I used to think the hour reading stories at bedtime must be the best bit of the day. I had images of clean, sweet smelling children, all snuggled up in soft pyjamas in bed, drifting quietly off to sleep while I read them a chapter of Enid Blyton. Ah, how lovely it would be, finishing our day in such harmony, leaning over to kiss them gently goodnight after their eyes drifted shut, before going downstairs and leaving them to sleep soundly for twelve hours while I sat in my tidy living room, discussed all the joys of the day with my husband, and perhaps watched a bit of Grey’s Anatomy before going to bed myself. Five years into being a parent, it’s clear that my actual best part of the day is when I shut the door on them, go downstairs to my toy strewn living room, pour myself a drink, contemplate the mammoth list of things I have to do before he morning, and don’t speak to anyone, including my husband, for the next twelve hours.
Bedtime, you see, is very far from all it’s cracked up to be in films, books, and Gina Ford baby care manuals. It’s not all clean children snuggling up and listening intently to whatever interesting and fascinating book you choose that night, and then falling soundly to sleep just because it was seven thirty pm and you decreed it should be so. Tonight, for instance, bedtime – with two exhausted, sugar-filled-after-a-trip-to-the-pantomime and therefore immensely unreasonable and irrational children – went something like this:
1. I persuaded child 2 into her pyjamas. She didn’t like the pyjamas I’d laid out for her, but decided this only after she’d put them on. While I was sorting toothbrushes out, she went upstairs and got changed Into a different set of pyjamas. Needless to say, first set of pyjamas were chucked onto the floor.
2. Fully dressed in the second set of pyjamas, she remembered that we hadn’t put her (usually hated beyond all reason) eczema cream on her arms and legs, and took her pyjamas off again. While I was heating up milk, she covered her legs and arms in a layer of cream so thick she couldn’t put her pyjamas on again for ten minutes.
3. We read a chapter of ‘Naughty Amelia Jane.’ The chapter was 22 pages long. With no pictures. We stopped every page to answer what I felt were frankly needless questions but the type of which are encouraged at school to develop comprehension skills etc, so I answered them, albeit slightly grudgingly.
4. I put child 2 to bed and refused to read another story. She looked at me as if this was cruelty of the level that merited at least a Childline call. She is allowed a short audiobook every night, so we argued over what ‘short’ constituted. I put one on and shut the door perhaps a little more firmly than was strictly necessary.
5.I allowed child 1 to play with his Lego for a bit longer. Although I felt he should be grateful for this unexpected extra time, and keep quiet, he decided he wanted to construct a stop sign for his Lego City. Out of paper. I found the scissors, glue, and paper. He drew the stop sign and needed Sellotape. I found the Sellotape and refrained from telling him that if he asked me for another thing, I couldn’t be held responsible for my actions with the aforementioned Sellotape. I thought of my husband, happily ensconced in the pub with his friend, and felt something bordering on resentment,
6. The child got into his pyjamas and cleaned his teeth, after many threats. The final threat was that I wouldn’t read him his chapter of ‘Beast Quest’, which is the moment he looks forward to all day. I was driven to it out of sheer desperation, and, shamefully, a faint hope that he would misbehave again and I wouldn’t have to read him the bloody chapter and it would all go a bit more quickly.He didn’t put his pyjamas on, so I broke the news there would be no Beast Quest. He cried as if I’d broken his heart.
7. I felt hugely guilty that I’d punished him by not reading his book (I’m an English teacher! I know how important reading is! How could i use it in this way? What kind of mother am I?) and spent longer listening to him read a new book than I would have spent on four chapters of Beast Quest.
8. I went downstairs.Child 2 got up and asked for more milk. Three times. (She got water. I was desperate by this time but not stupid)
9. Child 1 cried because there was a shadow in his room. I tried several different permutations of light/lamp/on/off. He cried more about the shadow, which was apparently still there. I let him get into our bed, then went into child 2’s room and turned off the CD player, which was playing the short story I’d selected for the fourth time.
10. It went quiet. I sat on the sofa and gazed around at the extremely untidy living room. It was so quiet that I – fatally – congratulated myself on a job well done. Then Child 2 appeared at the living room door and inquired as to where Cinderella’s clothes were, because how could she got her dressed for bed without them?
At this point I considered just letting her stay up. I mean, what was the worst that could happen? It’s a terribly middle class anxious parent thing, this preoccupation with bedtime. She could stay up, play, fall asleep where she fell. That was an eminently more attractive proposition than sending her back upstairs and waiting for the patter of her feet again. And again.
Fortunately at this moment my husband returned from the pub. In his post beer haze, he was delighted to see his errant daughter and took her upstairs to have some kind of serious chat – or maybe another story. She hasn’t reappeared, and I couldn’t be more grateful.
A few minutes ago, overcome by guilt that I hadn’t enjoyed bedtime more (the guilt always comes) I went upstairs and peered in. Child 2 was fast asleep, angelically cuddled up with cuddly Elsa and Anna. Child 1 was painstakingly reading another bedtime story to his horse and rabbits, pausing every couple of pages to talk them through, very seriously, what he’d just read.
I was wrong on both previous counts. This, in this moment, when you are unable to imagine loving anything more than this, ever, is the best part of the day.
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