Until recently, my 4-year-old and 1-year-old had no schedule. They’d eat when they were hungry and sleep when they were tired. I’d cookdinner, but if they didn’t want to eat at 6 p.m., then they could eat later. My 4-year-old, Xavier, loves McDonald’s or Chinese food. Almost daily, Dad would give in and get him what he wanted.
X-man and his little brother, Zachary, also went to bed very late. While my 12-year-old, Remi, went to bed at 10 p.m. even on weekends, my little guys would usually fall asleep around 3 a.m. and wake up at 1 or 2 in the afternoon.
‘Your Kids Are Still Up?’
My family and friends thought the schedule at my house was a little crazy. My mom called us vampires. My neighbors would say, “Your kids are still up? Oh, no, girl, I don’t play that. My kids go to bed by 9 p.m. whether they like it or not.”
I told myself, “Everyone raises their children differently and has different motives and goals. I believe that children should be free to be themselves. Parents should not mold their children to what they want. Let them be them!”
I also feared that my kids would hate me if I tried too hard to mold them. As a kid, I had felt that my mother’s rules and expectations were too much for me. As a teen, I rebelled. With X-man and Zachy, I set some limits on what they could and could not do—no swinging off the top bunk or jumping off the sofa because they might crack their necks—but otherwise my attitude was: “Why can’t they decide for themselves when to eat and sleep? It’s not dangerous!” I wanted my sons to see me as love and comfort.
My biggest fear was that I would lose my cool with my kids if I tried to get them to do what I wanted them to do. That’s what had happened with my oldest—he ended up spending three years in foster care.
Robot and Mini-Robot
With Remi, I followed a strict routine. When he was born, I was 18, living at home and determined to show my family that I could handle a child, school and a job all at once. I woke up at 7 a.m. and had Remi in daycare by 8 a.m. so I could get to school by 9 a.m. I went to college until noon, then headed straight to work at McDonald’s, working from 1-5. I picked Remi up by 6 p.m.
When we got home to my mother’s, we ate dinner and played for a little while. By 8 p.m. I was getting Remi ready for bed: bath, PJ’s, read a book and off to bed. Once Remi was in bed, it was time for homework, and by 10 p.m., I was out.
But I got so tired of this life. I had no personal life. I felt suffocated. I was like a robot, making Remi my mini-robot. Poor child, he had no time to do what he wanted. Our only time free was Sundays, and by then, I was too beat to take Remi anywhere.
When Remi was a year old, I quit school and we moved to our own apartment. But I didn’t handle the freedom well. I was young and wanted to hang out, so I either kept Remi out with me or dropped him off at my mom’s.
Sad to say, I was barely with Remi, and as he got older, I found him more energetic and excited than I expected. Many nights Remi came home from daycare full of energy and stayed up until 1 a.m. throwing toys, papers and clothes. I was always wondering, “What now? What next?”
The night before Remi’s second birthday changed our lives. Remi and I were alone in our apartment. I was taking a shower and Remi was in his crib. When I got out of the shower, I saw that the front door was open. Remi was gone from his crib. I freaked out, ran to the door and there he was, playing outside all alone.
God forgive me but I just flipped out. Above all, I felt like I had no control over Remi. All my frustration and stress about Remi not listening to me made me break and I made the biggest mistake of my life: I hit my son twice. He had a bruise on his arm and on his face, and a small red mark on his back. I felt terrible.
The next day, my family saw the marks and called child welfare. Remi ended up spending three years in foster care. Looking back, it breaks my heart to realize how young and stupid I was.
Enjoying the Baby Years
Lately I’ve been thinking that Remi might have listened more and been more under control if I had kept him life a robot. But I took the opposite lessons when my hubby and I had two more children years later: I convinced myself that if I hadn’t tried so hard to get Remi to listen to me, I would not have gotten so frustrated. So with Xavier and Zachary, I decided to be much more lenient. I wanted to enjoy their baby years. I also wanted to avoid the stress of trying to mold them to my expectations.
For several years, I felt like our relaxed system worked for us. I liked to stay up all night and I could get up for work without feeling tired. I also liked my kids to be up late because I was working all day and my time with them was in the evening. When I thought about putting them to bed earlier, I’d worry, “Do I get to come home just to watch them sleep?”
Making a Change
But a year ago, I began to want more of a structured, everyday schedule for meals, bath, bedtime and family time. X-man was about to start pre-school, and I felt that he needed his rest. I wanted him and Zach going to sleep at a reasonable time and waking up rested in the morning.
I also wanted some time to relax by myself at night. Many nights, I would feed the boys and get them in the bath, thinking they’d relax afterward and I’d watch my soaps or call a friend. But they would run wild, playing tag and catch and hide and-seek, screaming because they could not find each other, and fighting. They ran wild until they collapsed—in our bed.
The chaos was starting to frustrate me. I started thinking that it would be nice to put my kids to bed in their own beds, finish my work, clean up, play some games online or watch some soaps, and go to bed when I wanted without having to wait for them to go sleep.
‘I’m Not Tired’
So my husband and I started to try to put our little ones to bed by 10 p.m. At first, it was a disaster. I would tell X-man, “Now that you’re starting school, you need to get to bed earlier,” but that meant nothing to him. I tried everything: no naps, running him outside so he would be tired, calming baby bath and lotion, warm baths, warm bottles.
By 10 p.m., my husband and I would start getting X-man and Zach comfortable. They’d take a bath and we’d lie down all together. They’d drink their warm milk and relax. Just when I thought they were falling asleep, X-man would start his, “Please, Mommy, I’m not tired. Let me watch just one more cartoon.”
Being the softy that I am, I would let him play a little to see if he’d get tired. Many nights, my hubby was just as soft as me. And if Zachy saw X-man up and about, he wouldn’t sleep, either.
Other times, we had them in bed and asleep early—for nothing. They’d wake up by midnight as if they’d been napping. After that, oh man, it was playtime. They had recharged their batteries and were ready for a new, exciting day. The boys would play video games, play with toys, read with me, or wrestle with dad until 3 or 4 a.m.
Feeling the Frustration
When Dad and I tried to insist on sleep, it was not cute. They would scream or cry. It sounded like we were torturing them.
I couldn’t take it. I really don’t like to see my boys crying. That takes me back to when Remi was in foster care. When the workers snatched him from me, he screamed. At every visit, he cried. For years I could hear his screams and remember his little arms reaching out to me.
I know that bedtime is not the same thing, but the crying brought back those horrible memories. When my sons cried, I’d tell myself, “I couldn’t stop Remi’s cries then but I can stop their cries now.” I’d convince myself that my needs were irrelevant and that I should put their smiles first.
But other times I would start to get frustrated because I was tired and wanted them to go to bed. I would grab them and put them on the bed. Then I worried, “Am I grabbing them too rough? Am I being neglectful by letting them cry and scream on their bed until they’re losing their breath?” I hated it. It was scary that my kids and I were both feeling out of control.
I kept asking myself, “Is all this frustration worth it? Will trying to set a schedule bring my family to tragedy?” Having a child welfare case scares you in many ways. It makes you doublethink your parenting. I was afraid I would lose my babies just because I wanted them to go to sleep.
Stern Mom, Good Mom
Finally my husband and I got the boys to fall asleep by midnight several nights a week. But I didn’t stick with enforcing the change. Some nights, I let their tears and my fears control me. I still could not see that being consistent and stern with them wouldn’t make me a mean, bad mom—it would make me stronger and help my kids learn to be respectful and disciplined so they could have a good, constructive life.
Eventually, though, I realized that I was just confusing my kids. My husband and I als orealized that we really did need some “us time.” Working all day and staying up all night was tiring, and it was actually unfair to us all. Our kids were too free. They needed a little structure; we needed a little time to ourselves. My husband and I needed to run the house.
So my hubby and I decided to back each other more, so that if Mommy said no, they couldn’t just ask Daddy. When we both said, “It’s bedtime,” it was more effective.
Relief and Peace
We restarted by focusing on sticking to a basic schedule: After X-Man got home from school, I would take the kids outside and let them run and play. Once I brought them upstairs, they’d eat, play some more, then get in the bath by 10 p.m. Soon the boys were in bed by 12:30 a.m. at the latest.
Of course we heard: “No, I don’t want to eat.” Saying, “You will sit there until it’s gone” made me feel bad, but as time passed I felt good. I began to see that X-Man and Zachy were listening and even enjoying our schedule. They seemed relieved that we were giving them rules and telling them when to slow down, and the schedule seemed to give them something to look forward to, like, “At 8 we will take a bath with bubbles. Then we can read with Mom and Daddy for a while.”
‘You Will Be Fine’
The final frontier was getting the kids to sleep in their own beds. Many nights, they were still sleeping in our bed. My hubby and I decided that, when we moved to a new apartment, we would move the bedtime back to 10 p.m. and insist that they stay in their beds.
When we moved, the kids all shared a room. We explained, “This is your room and this is where you will sleep.” They looked excited about it. But once again it was a struggle. Letting the kids sleep in their own beds felt sad and scary to me, and they kept getting up and coming to our room crying.
I stayed calm, though. I would take them back to their beds saying, “You will be fine. I love you. It’s time for bed.” I still hated their crying, but I found that I was now able to control myself and talk to them, saying, “That crying and screaming is not going to get you what you want.”
Together as a Family
After putting the kids back to bed about 50 times a night for a week, the bedtime finally started to fall in to place. X-Man and Zach were starting to get in their own beds and say goodnight to us. It was like a dream.
My hubby and I would peek at them and say, “How sweet they look asleep.” We couldn’t believe how quiet the house was. My mom would call and say, “You must have them tied up, because it’s quiet over there.”
Once bedtime was working well, it seemed like everything fell into place. Soon we were eating as a family when I cooked, talking and making jokes together. Our boys seem to have been re-programmed for the better.
During playtime, my boys can still do what they want, but they know that when I say, “It’s 6, it’s dinner time,” I mean it. When I say, “Time for bath,” they get their PJs and toys. Bedtime actually seems to be the easiest time now. Many nights, 10 p.m. hits and they’re like, “I love you. Goodnight. Time for bed.” At first, we thought they were joking or making fun of the rules, but in fact, they adjusted really well.
Helped, Not Hurt
It feels good to tell my children, “Goodnight. Tomorrow is another day for fun and games.” I wasn’t always confident that we’d have tomorrow together. My mind would go back to the day that I said “goodbye” to Remi and he was gone for years. But I’ve learned that it’s OK to be a little apart.
I’m proud that my husband and I got through our fears. We were so afraid that changing our schedule would stress our family too much but our family is stronger. What happened in the past is not going to happen again.