At the beginning of the pandemic, my older daughter Esmé, now three, had just turned two. She had some words, but not enough to express the complicated feelings of leaving babyhood behind, or of watching a new baby take shape beneath my increasingly tent-like shirt. She understood enough to inform us that “the mayor closed the park,” but not enough to make sense of being carried away from a friend’s front door when she wanted to go inside, or of being stuck at home all day to witness her parents do a curious thing: hunch over keyboards, talk to bobbing heads, and call it “work” in urgent voices.
During Toronto’s first lockdown, Esmé learned to dive over the bars of her crib to freedom. She had exhibited a taste for adrenaline from the moment she could walk, and so we found her a Big Girl Bed that was low to the ground. Her lockdown-within-a-lockdown lifted, Esmé took full advantage of her newfound liberty. After we tucked her in each evening, during the precious window of time that I used for writing and my husband used for keeping the pandemic from sinking our business, she came down repeatedly to announce “I awake,” looking pleased. The only way to keep her in bed was to lie beside her until she fell asleep. And so I lay. And lay. And lay.
Thus began our nightly war of attrition. For months, Esmé and I approached bedtime with divergent goals. Mine: to get her to sleep at a reasonable hour. Hers: to avoid sleep at all costs. By day, while Covid forced so many women out of their jobs that female workforce participation slid back to its lowest point in thirty years, I had the great good fortune of holding on to both my job and most of my marbles thanks to a talented caregiver, Gina. But come 5pm, I was cooking and having dinner with my husband and daughter with a knot of dread growing in my stomach.
At 7:30pm, bathed and diapered, wearing a Peppa Pig Rainbow Vibes dress that passed for pyjamas, Esmé would pad around her bedroom, the confident general preparing for an asymmetric confrontation. She’d dutifully select three stories from her bookcase. After the third I’d kiss her and say, “It’s time to go to sleep. I love you. Goodnight.” This should have been the final word.
As a warm-up, she’d chug all the water from her bottle and ask me to refill it. Then she’d follow me, hapless adversary that I was, out of the room. Herded back into bed, she’d down the second bottle, and then writhe for a bit—chatting, singing, kicking the air - until the water had done its work and she needed a diaper change. Then she’d tangle herself up in the sheets and wedge her body in between mattress and wall. “I’m stuck,” she’d say, a trapped mummy in distress. (This made two of us.)
If I tried lying still and quiet as a stone (the best I could come up with) she would cover my face with kisses. “I super love you,” she’d say, repositioning my arm around her and commanding, “Cuddle me more.” When her chatter flowed into nonsensical territory (“Shalom everyone. Sorry, we’re all out of pie!”) and was spliced with yawns, I’d smile in the purplish dark, certain that the sliver of time for my cherished second job, the one that reminds me I have a separate self, was about to begin, and then BAM - she’d hit my nostrils with her trump card: number two. Another diaper change, this one requiring me to turn on the lights. Back to square one.
Before becoming a mother, I seldom lost my temper. After two hours of being outmaneuvered by a two-year-old, however, with deadlines looming and unwritten words burning holes in my brain, I got mad. I tried explaining, using my Most Serious Voice, why I was frustrated. She laughed. I tried appealing to empathy, but she didn’t have that yet. I tried losing it (okay, it was involuntary) and yelling, “STOP KICKING THE WALL! GO TO SLEEP!!!” As you can imagine, this did not work. We tried calming music. Different nightlights. Dad doing bedtime. Guided meditation. Googling restless leg syndrome. Yoga. I told soothing stories that ended with us breathing in (like smelling a flower) and out (like blowing out candles). We moved bedtime forward and backward, and we let her roam around until she was ready to fall asleep on her own terms (11:30pm).
Finally, we enlisted help. Gina was going to stay late and try her infinitely more patient hand at bedtime. “This week, Gina is going to put you to bed,” I told Esmé one morning, stroking her curls. “She’s going to teach you how to relax.”
“Okay,” Esmé said. “But Mummy - ” she turned to me, genuinely curious, “Who is going to teach you how to relax?”
Touché, my child.
Now Esmé is three. The pandemic has hung like a fat cloud over a third of her life. My geometry has changed again, and a new person, Frida, has joined the family. Esmé has given up her bottle and learned to use the potty. We’ve dropped her midday nap, she’s begun pre-school, and the playgrounds are open again. All of these factors have contributed to a new reality in which I look forward to the evening. Now, after three stories and a readjustment of my cuddling technique, Esmé lets her breath slow and her body and mind give in to sleep.
Could we have gotten here earlier? I don’t think so. Time needed to work on Esmé’s capacity to understand, and she needed to work on mine. During those tense hours, my daughter was squirming with thoughts beyond her words. She needed me, her emotional metronome, to be not only physically present, but at peace. Instead, I was vibrating with unfinished business. By relegating the thing on which my peace of mind depended to the dregs of the day, I had turned bedtime into a war not between mother and child, but between the mother in me and the other self I was trying to keep alive. What had seemed like (and is) a run-of-the-mill maternal sacrifice - duties relating to others first, the one I’d classified as selfish last - was in fact costing her dearly.
Now I write in the morning, and the three stories I tell Esmé at night are ones that we invent, weaving our words and understanding together in the darkness of her bedroom. It took a while, but my toddler teacher has finally taught me how to relax.
Emma Knight is a co-founder and the head of brand at Greenhouse, an award-winning organic beverage company, and the author of two books. She lives in Toronto. Her latest book is called "How to Eat with One Hand: Recipes and Other Nourishment for New and Expectant Parents" and can be ordered here.