My daughter's bedtime ritual has been just that for the past year. A ritual. A routine. My husband changes her diaper as I set up for story time. Mickey and her milk are assembled on the nightstand. Two books are piled on the ottoman in preferred reading order. The others we sometimes put into the rotation stay on the nightstand. I put the mobile music on, prop up the pillow to my left and wait on the glider. After a myriad of kisses and nose noses from Daddy, he shows her how to shut off the big light, and lowers her into my lap.
As any article, pediatrician, or know-it-all parent tends not to share, routines, said to be the foundation of parenting success, change over time. Usually the change is initiated by the child who, for no good reason, decides to shake things up. My daughter is no stranger to keeping me on my toes and has recently hijacked our story time tradition. In the past few weeks we've graduated from two to four books, twenty minutes of story time to forty, and now entertain a few more guests including: Ladybug; Pluto; Hedwig the Owl; and both Elmo slippers.
Though a typical night is no longer typical I sense a routine developing. To appease requests of "Again!" there are now a few more minutes of kisses and nose noses from Daddy. After all of our new friends are also kissed and nosed, my daughter settles in. She and I are both buried under Ladybug, Mickey, and Hedwig as I begin reading Goodnight Moon.
"Mommy!" She looks up at me with excitement.
"I got Mickey and Ladybug too." She holds the last syllable and sounds like she is bragging.
"I know you have Mickey and Ladybug too, are you ready for stories?"
"Okay, here we go. In the great green room-"
"Pluto!" I grab Pluto from the nightstand.
"Okay there isn't much room. How about I hold Pluto over-"
"Pluto!!!" Pluto squeezes between Mickey and Ladybug. Hedwig hangs on by the tip of her wing. My hands stretch to turn the page with this widened berth.
"Okay, all our friends are here, let's read. In the great green room-"
"After Goodnight Moon, we'll read Daisy Pixie. Don't you want to read this book? Look, the cow is jumping over the moon-"
"Pixie!!" Goodnight Moon gets put on the footrest and Daisy Pixie is retrieved from the nightstand. Ladybug falls and rolls to the door with the shuffle.
"Ladybug went to sleep, we'll get her later. Oh look its Daisy Pixie!"
"I got you! I got you Ladybug!" She urgently hops off my lap with Pluto and Mickey. I sneak Hedwig onto the nightstand.
"Okay go get Ladybug and come right back." Ladybug is retrieved. My arms open wide to grab everyone and pull them back onto my lap.
"Okay let's read Daisy Pixie now." The book has a patch of glitter on the cover warranting a few minutes of finger rubbing. This prevents me from opening it.
"Why don't we show Ladybug how you do your letters?"
She turns Ladybug to see the page, causing Pluto to fall behind the chair. She goes through her letters and I make it through the seven page book without her noticing another friend is missing.
"Night night book." I carefully place it back on the nightstand as she waves goodbye.
"Let's finish Goodnight Moon." While she sings patty cake to Mickey I put the rest of the books on the nightstand as we are now pressed for time.
"Okay, here we go. In the great green room there was-"
"Milk!" I get the sippy cup off the nightstand and instead of drinking, she cuddles it.
"In the great green room there was a telephone and a red balloon-"
"I got me Pluto, me Mickey, me Ladybug and me milk too!" She holds that last syllable.
"Yes I know, are you going to drink your milk?"
"Me milk!" More hugs are given to milk. Still no drinking.
"Let's read our book. In the great green room-" She pushes the pages to find the little house while balancing milk under her chin to free her hand.
"Chimney and roof!" She points to the new parts of the house we learned last night.
"Yes, now let's count the windows."
"One, two, three, four, six!"
"No, let's try again."
"One, two, three, six, seven!"
"No, let's do it together."
"One, two, three, four, FIVE, six!" In unison.
"Very good, now you count by yourself."
"One, two, six, seven, eight!"
"Fantastic, can I read from the beginning now?"
"Okay." She leans back. Mickey and milk roll under the ottoman.
"Uh-oh me Mickey and milk!" She tries to squirm off my lap again.
"I've got Mickey and milk." I start to bend over. Everyone else is cradled under my ribs.
"I got you!! I got you Mickey and milk!!"
"No I've got Mickey and milk, there you go." She cuddles them both again. I pick up Goodnight Moon for attempt number five.
"Can we finish the book now?"
"Snuggles!" She turns into my chest, knocking the book out of my hand, and creates a barrier between her and I with Mickey, Ladybug and milk . For the next few minutes she tries to get comfortable while I dodge plush ears and antennae. The sippy cup leaks onto my shirt.
"Okay let's be quiet and do snuggles then."
"Dot! Hi Dot!" She sits up and points to the beauty mark on my chest.
"Yes, that's Mommy's dot. Dot's going to sleep now."
"Shhhh, Dot sleeping." She whispers with one finger against her lips.
"Okay let's get close and do snuggles."
"You want to read Moon? Well can we sit like a big girl and finish the book?" I try to move her back to her sitting position.
"Snuggles!" I concede, position Mickey, Ladybug, and milk on her side and tell the story from memory as she bangs her forehead against my chest.
I'm motoring along, saying good night to the bowl of mush and the old lady whispering hush, when I completely blank on the next stance. My rhyming skills are weak and I can't make something up, filling the dead air with "ums and ahs". She winces with my lack of fluidity.
Her head is arched back resting her chin on Mickey. She smiles. Her eyes roll a few times and I wish she would just stop fighting sleep and actually snuggle. The sippy cup is loose and I put it on the nightstand in a quick and stealthy motion.
"Mommy. Owls on the branch." She looks above the door to the ceramic owls on the floral branch my mother and I made.
"Yes, we say goodnight to the owls on the branch before we go into the crib. Now let's do snuggles."
I try to push her head down. She rests there for a second before squirming. My body is tense and overheated from trying to keep us all on the glider.
I end the story and we say goodnight to the book which is still on the floor. The music of her mobile turns off, indicating 20 minutes have elapsed. I restart it via remote and hum along. I used to do this when she was younger and desperate to get her to sleep and keep myself awake. In the past few weeks she has started to hum with me.
She stops moving and her eyes close. We are still humming. I rock her, afraid to wrap my arms around and give her a hug because I know she is comfortable. Instead I keep them under her bottom, ready to support her and the rest of the gang when we get up and move to the crib.
"Okay, time to say night night to everyone." I reach down to get Pluto and feel the strain in my knees and back as we all then rise off the chair.
We turn around the room and say goodnight to Mr. Owl on the wall, the puppets in the corner, butterflies above the changing table, and of course, owls on the branch. I say hello to the rest of her friends in the crib and tell them she, Mickey, Ladybug, and Pluto, will be coming down for snuggles. I recap the day, talking about how much fun we had with Daddy, how we went for a walk, down the slide at the park, and how tomorrow we're going to have even more fun and need a good night's sleep and some sweet dreams.
She lifts her head, eyes closed, ready for the next part which is "Mommy Kisses". I kiss her nose and cheeks. Kisses to Ladybug, Mickey, and Pluto follow. I lower everyone down into the crib and tell her we're going to lay down with all of our friends. She squirms again to get comfortable and I see Mickey's leg sticking out from under her belly as I wish everyone good night and creep out the door.
I plop down on the couch next to my husband. Exhausted from what used to be the most calming part of my day. I'm frustrated and disappointed. I find comfort in the predictability of our nighttime routine and my husband loves the way she can identify letters and pictures from story time. But lately she seems bored and restless. I wanted to teach her something new tonight and to hold her longer. And my back could have done without all the jerky movement.
My husband pats my leg and says, "Good job." I give him a confused look. "I don't know what you do but you're the only one that can get her down without a peep."
I know he's right. She sleeps much better now and has grown to only want to read by herself or with me. Despite my frustration I know there will be plenty of nights ahead, when our stories graduate from Little Golden Books to The Harry Potter series and squirming becomes snuggles under the covers.
I look around at the sea of toys in my living room. Three foot Elmo sits in the corner, slumped over with the weight of his head. Though he is her favorite, over-sized dance partner I get up and drag his eight pound body closer to the couch. Away from her bedroom door and the potential of her grabbing his arm before tomorrow's routine. His big eyes stare at me but I feel no remorse. There are some lovable, furry monsters that Mommy just can't allow at story time.