The last time my hubby and I sat in front of the telly in the lounge with our children all in bed upstairs was around 4th February 2013, over three years ago.
We always had a fairly reasonable bedtime routine for our three children. Upstairs around 8pm, get ready and then a story. As Abi and her sister shared a room, they often listened to the same story. Being just 22 months apart made bedtime easy.
However, it was bedtime when Abi fell ill and suddenly passed into a coma due to a ‘catastrophic’ brain hemorrhage. At the time, I was reading a book to her sister while her dad was looking after her in our bedroom. Our son was already in bed and, though awake, was drifting off. It wasn’t that unusual for someone to be ill so there wasn’t much concern over Abi’s condition. This of course changed dramatically when she became disorientated and quickly lost consciousness. My hubby called me and I knew it was bad, though not as bad as it turned out.
So, we went from a sleepy, unwinding bedtime to full-on panic, screaming, crying in a matter of minutes. Paramedics. Mum in tears. CPR. Lights on bright. Shock and trauma. If I dare to close my eyes I can still see and feel it all now so clearly.
When we came back from the hospital a few days later, without Abi, we naturally wanted to reassure our son and daughter. Our daughter struggled at night in any case so I slept in her bed with her for about a week. Then we began to gradually fall into a new routine of all going upstairs together at bedtime and us reading to them and settling them before going across the landing into our bedroom and watching tv until we went to sleep. We’ve been doing that ever since, even with the arrival of two more children. Our bedtime routine is now at least two hours long, with play time and endless stories, and we rarely get into bed to start watching tv until 11pm. Then we watch a show and fall asleep around midnight before waking up in the morning and starting all over again. We’re knackered!
It’s not all about the kids
We’ve always known it’s not healthy, but then, what is? We never thought it would be forever, but then it’s become the norm. A few months ago, I met a mum in the park and her parting words to me have stayed with me ever since: ‘It’s not all about the kids’. This is so simple and truthful, because while we’re busy giving our all to the children, physically and emotionally, because we never know the hour, we have very little left for us.
Yesterday, our children’s counsellor asked us – ‘When will you be ready to sit downstairs again?’ We looked at each other. We’ve never discussed it. We just get through the days.
But, she pointed out, drawing out bedtime and staying upstairs is only adding to our anxiety. We, as parents, are reinforcing the fear that something will happen to one of them, and they, as children, are getting the message that we are there because there is something to fear. So they aren’t learning how to cope, how to soothe themselves, how to get by without us.
But there is something to fear! We saw it all up close and in detail. That crazy moment when the bright light of our lively, super-fit daughter was snuffed out, like that. No warning. No buildup. It’s inevitable that, in the aftermath, we are living on the edge… we all need reassurance!
Yet, with two new children, the subject of routine is coming up. As every parent knows, routine is key. It doesn’t have to be military but a simple and consistent routine makes for a much happier family. Children like confident parents, they like structured discipline, it keeps them safe. But despite knowing all this, I feel it’s a hopeless cause. I can’t take my own advice!
As my hubby and I had both discussed this with our children’s counsellor we saw this as a hurdle we needed to get over together. This is crucial as so often I am the one at the therapy meetings while my hubby is at work, and while I relay the things discussed it doesn’t make an impact if he hears it second hand.
Establishing a new normal
Last night we worked out a new plan; nothing too far off what we’ve been doing but much tighter in terms of timings. In grief, it becomes very hard to give a damn what the time is, so this demands a lot of emotional effort.
My hubby took our 2-year-old up first at 7.45pm to put him to bed, with just one story. He shares his room with our 9-year-old son so has been used to going up with him. At 8.15pm, he took our 9-year-old up to bed and read him a couple of chapters from a book. He was at first insisting on the usual game of bedroom football, but my hubby was brilliantly firm and calm.
Our toddler protested at the lights out so soon after his story and began to wail. We allowed our 9-year-old to read to himself with his small bed light. And then my hubby said good night, confidently, and left the room.
I was settling the baby in our bedroom and saw him standing on the landing not really knowing what to do. Years of sitting with them in the darkness until he heard them sleep was hard to undo like that. But he went downstairs and made a cup of tea. The boys kept quiet and stayed in bed.
At 8.45pm, it was our 14-year-old daughter’s turn. We like to read to her still and bedtime is a key time of day when she can talk about her day or her troubles – time that is essential at that age. But rather than doing this at 10.30pm when I was tired and irritable, I told her I was going to read to her at 9pm and then leave her to go downstairs at 9.30pm. And this was exactly what I did. I read, we had a quick chat, and I left. She did ask what if she needed me, and I simply said, we are downstairs. She got up to use the loo but didn’t come downstairs once. A good start!
So, at 9.45pm I was sat on our sofa, with my hubby, watching a programme we’d been following (from our bedroom telly). And boy, was it weird! I felt like a child doing something I shouldn’t!
I was uncomfortable, on edge and waiting for someone upstairs to call or need us. With four children up there it was inevitable that one of them would need something at some point. But no, it didn’t happen. I worried about the baby on her own, as she has never been out of my sight at night time. But apart from waking for a quick feed at 10pm, she was happy to settle down.
Then I worried that they were all being too quiet, I know too well that it’s when they are quiet you need to worry. I can tell when my children are genuinely ill when they go quiet.
Then, feeling fed up that I couldn’t relax, I went through a phase of thinking ‘Why are we bothering doing this? We can sit up there with them, it’s not doing any harm. We can start this tomorrow…’ the grieving mother in me fighting with everything to keep still and force myself to focus on the telly as if I didn’t have a care in the world. I was out of my comfort zone, and I realized that my comfort zone isn’t being chilled in front of the telly, it’s being on edge, tired and frustrated upstairs waiting for our children to call out.
Maybe we can do this?
It took a while, but we both gradually relaxed a bit more, we even cuddled up! We went to bed at 11pm, a bit too quickly as though we had been itching to get up there all along and back to our ‘safe space’.
Before we went up, I began to think that I could get the last load of washing out of the tumble dryer now instead of in the morning. And I realized I could get my daughter’s packed lunch ready for the morning, rather than rushing like we usually do. And this made me realise that with hopefully better rested children and more time for us, we could go to bed feeling less like we are ‘fire fighting’ and more like we’re winning at this parenting lark. Each one of us should benefit from a more structured bedtime and mornings – where we are all tired – will be a bit less stressful.
I am already exhausted thinking about doing it all over again tonight. It’s emotionally draining, feeling like we’re pretending to be assertive and like we aren’t afraid. But we have to consider the long-term impact on all of us by carrying on with our hypervigilance.
I may be a mother of five children, I may have children of all ages and stages, but I am still learning about parenting… and grieving… and living. I think it’s called ‘winging it’. I treated myself to a fab Selfish Mother sweatshirt with this slogan to remind me that I don’t need to do it all. (Incidentally, they donate a big part of the proceeds to charity.)
I hope that in years to come, our children are able to understand what we went through to give them a stable home, and stability is one of the greatest gifts you can give to anyone.