Recently, when putting my 11-year-old daughter, Helen, to bed, I read to her from a diary I'd kept during her first few years of life. After we turned out the lights and I sang her a favorite song, she mumbled to me, "I miss being a baby." I smiled, because I knew we'd reached that special time of day -- the period I call "the magic moment."
For painters and movie directors, there's a time just before dusk that's known as "The Magic Hour" -- it's when the sun's golden embers bathe the world in breathtaking hues. Artists have to do a lot of standing around waiting for it and then work furiously before it slips away; many days it never arrives at all. But when everything meshes, the resulting vistas stay with you forever (like in the 1978 movie Days of Heaven). As a parent, I've discovered a similar magic moment right before my two children fall asleep. And yes, it can be just as tricky to capture.
Over the years, I've fretted about the fact that my daughters, now 11 and 7, have never put themselves to bed. Since birth, they have managed to figure out ways to draw out the nightly bedtime ritual. When they were infants, it felt like they withheld burps so they could be coddled a little more; as toddlers, they requested tunes as if we were human jukeboxes (in the early days, "ABCD!"; now, thankfully, "any Beatles song").
The years have passed, and while my girls are now older, I still find myself either standing or sitting beside them as they fall asleep. I enjoy being with them, but it often makes me feel ambivalent. My big concern is that maybe I'm the one guilty of drawing out these sessions because I don't want to let go, that I'm trying to stave off adolescence and thereby preventing my girls from learning true independence.
But every once in awhile, I hit that magic moment and its piercing insight into their hearts, dreams, fears, and true selves -- which is worth any imaginable downside. As kids grow older, it's only normal that a large portion of their lives happens away from our watchful gaze. And no matter how involved we try to be, their inner life often remains a mystery -- partly because they're still figuring out for themselves who, exactly, they are.
So it's during those last minutes of wakefulness that I often learn the most. Both daughters have volunteered information they would never cough up if asked at any other time of the day: what's worrying them or what they really think of a friend. During waking hours, kids will say "Fine" or "I forget" or "I don't want to talk." But right before they fall asleep, the truth often slips out. It can be something as simple as a thank-you for an effort you thought they hadn't even noticed ("I liked my party") or something you wish you weren't hearing but know you are better off finding out ("Hannah bit me on the bus") or a fear they would otherwise keep to themselves ("I didn't memorize my poem"). No matter what it is, this truth, this magic moment, is something all parents should seek out. Because when it happens, you see -- and hear -- your children in a way that the rest of the day doesn't allow.
When Helen told me she wished she was a baby, I prompted her, "Why?" She explained that back then life was all about playing and taking naps and she didn't have homework. That's true, I said, but I also reminded her that she couldn't eat solid foods, couldn't read, and couldn't go to Broadway shows. She nodded, rolled over, and went to sleep.
I have come to see all these free-floating anxieties as the junk that accumulates in kids' brains at the end of a day -- and this coddling them to the point of relaxation as something that harkens back to their infancy, to the last burp that needed to be coaxed out so they could sleep untroubled. Once the fears are spoken aloud, they're released into the ether; unburdened, the kids are able to drift off to dreamland. And you, in turn, have a little more insight into who your children are and can sleep better yourself. Until they wake you up, of course.
Copyright © 2005. Reprinted with permission from the August 2005 issue of Child magazine.