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See our guest post at the New America Foundation: Equality and Justice for All Families.

 

Bedtime Stories

by Laura Jones (originally published in the September 2004 issue of Welcome Home)

     Parenting books had forewarned me, but I still stepped right into the trap. A cranky, overtired four-year-old who always had trouble settling down to sleep, a day with too many difficult moments, and my own exhaustion set me up. To help my daughter relax one night, I ventured into dangerous territory and added an extra step to our bedtime routine.

     Shhh, shhh – let me tell you a story. Do you want to hear about the day you were born? When the doctor said, “You have a girl!” I was so happy. Tears were running down my face, but I didn’t care because I was so grateful and full of joy that you were here…

     It worked. Rachel calmed down, hugged me and said goodnight. I congratulated myself on my bright idea. Remembering her birth had done more than divert and reassure her – it had also reminded me of how much I valued my strong-willed daughter.

    But the next night Rachel asked to hear about her birth again. Maybe I should have drawn the line right there, but I repeated the story, with just a few additional details. The next night she requested the story of her brother’s birth, and then on following nights I tried to remember everything I had ever heard about my own and my husband’s birth days.

     Somehow I thought the stories had now run their course, but Rachel didn’t. The bedtime story was now a firmly established, time-consuming addition to an already too-long bedtime routine. I started running through everything I could remember from my childhood.

    When I was seven, we got a Basset hound puppy and named her Noodle. We used to pin her ears back with a clothespin so she could lick the bottom of ice cream cartons…

    It wasn’t too long before I was low on memories. So I launched into made-up “Betsy stories.” Betsy had a special magical place in the forest where she was transported on adventures and to fun places. I finally concluded Betsy was having too much fun, and added some Betsy stories where she stayed home and helped her mother, or at least her mother made her do some chores before she was allowed on her adventure! I sent Betsy on service projects and to help with Headstart classes. Betsy made a friend, Paul, who lived far away but ended up on the same magical journeys as Betsy. They visited friends at a retirement home, pulled each other out of the way of speeding cars and vowed to be friends forever. Sometimes I wanted Betsy to deal with some problems relevant to Rachel, but she was alert to those.

    One day Betsy was sad because her friends at school were being mean to her. So she…

    Mom, no. I don’t want Betsy to have problems like that.

    It’s just a story, Rachel. So, Betsy wasn’t sure what to do…

    Mommm!

    Okay, okay. One day Betsy and Paul went whitewater rafting…

    Betsy finally paled and I was cast back upon my own life. I decided that Rachel should know that every life has successes and defeats, so I pulled out times I was embarrassed, times I was proud and skills I had struggled to learn even though I would never be “the best.” I told her about the interviews for jobs I didn’t get as well as for the ones I did. She didn’t want to hear sad stories, but I wanted her to know that people can live through painful things. Sometimes, as I talked I discovered that my perspective had changed on my life events.

     In tenth grade, I asked a boy to a “turnaround” dance, and he said no. I was humiliated and angry, because I knew he wasn’t going with anyone else. But, you know, I think now that he was just intimidated. I can imagine your brother doing the same thing, not because he didn’t like the girl, but because he was overwhelmed at the idea and it would be safer to say no…

    The years went by, and every night I managed to come up with some short story. I told her what I could about her grandparents’ experiences in World War II, about books I had read as a child, things I had read in the paper that day. I explained, inexpertly, political events, world religions and the complexities of male behavior. Sometimes Rachel directed the “story” topic.

    Well, let’s see…a story, a story…

    Mom, I have a question about something someone said at school today…I don’t want to say it…Promise you won’t get mad.

     Okay, just say it; I don’t get mad at things like that.

    Rachel is now eleven, and the stories continue. Sometimes when I stand beside her bed, exhausted and struggling to think of a story to tell, I wish this had never started. But those other times, when I can hope that I have conveyed something of what I think is important, when I know I have passed on some family lore, when she has learned some perspective or small wisdom that might help her later – then I am grateful for this chance to share with my still strong-willed, wakeful daughter.

 

Comments

Julie Jeffery's picture

Wonderful article! I think I will try it with my kids. There is nothing like a bedtime story. Have you ever noticed how they prefer the books with just a "picture story" and no words? How they have to make up the entire story, page by page? It's sort of like that, isn't it?

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