When I was growing up my dad read me a bedtime story every night. We worked our way through picture books when I was little, moving on to young adult fiction (a.k.a. “chapter books”) as I got older, including “The Little Princess” and the “The Secret Garden.”
At his most ambitious, he spent months and months and (months!) plowing through The Lord of the Rings trilogy. I can’t say I absorbed much of this saga–which my dad assures me is beyond fascinating–because I was unable to stay awake for most of it.
That said, I did know what to expect when the The Lord of the Rings movies came out—I knew they would last forever.
This bedtime story tradition has had a long-lasting impact on my life. For example, whenever my birthday rolls around and I have maybe a little trouble coordinating plans with my friends, I am quick to assume that they are actually and secretly planning a surprise birthday party for me. (i.e. the plot from a childhood favorite “Won’t Somebody Play With Me?”by Steven Kellogg.) Or when I am in a crowded elevator and we’re forced to squeeze in to accommodate more passengers, I can’t help but think of the ant in “Mushroom in the Rain” by Mirra Ginsburg who had sought shelter under a mushroom during a rainstorm and was later joined by a butterfly, bird, rat, and rabbit.
Also, even though I am grateful and lucky to have two adoring parents well into my adulthood, there will always be a little part of me who feels like a misunderstood orphan in 19th century England.
Obviously, the bedtime story tradition was a big deal to me. It was a huge, positive part of my growing up. So you would think that with all my good memories, I would like nothing more than to read to my own kids. And I do.
I do. I do. I mean, really, I do.
Now I do.
It’s just that. I didn’t. For a long time.
Like until a week ago.
In my defense, my son wouldn’t sit for a story until well after his fourth birthday. I remember trying to cuddle up to him with a book, and, in a matter of minutes the pages would be ripped and he would be running around the apartment. My daughter was different. She was one of those kids who would “read” to herself long before she was even in pre-school.
But my response to this disparity was to ignore the child who enjoyed books, leaving her to conduct her own “story time” before a semi-circle of stuffed toys, while I chased her older brother down with a book as he ignored me, pushing his trucks around the living room.
Sometime around my son’s fourth birthday, while my children were still sharing a room, I managed to institute a storytelling ritual at bedtime for both of them. My aim was more practical than educational, in that I wanted to establish a routine that conveyed “go to bed!” as quickly and effectively as possible.
Rather than expending the time and effort it would take to choose and read an actual book, I plopped them in bed, turned out the lights and told them one of the only stories I could tell from memory: “Goldilocks and the Three Bears.” I told them this story every night for several years. In the beginning, the telling would take up to fifteen minutes as I would be interrupted constantly with questions like “What did the porridge look like?” “How could one be hot and the other cold?” “Did Baby Bear get a new chair after his broke?” and my personal favorite, “How could the bears possibly know that someone had been sitting their chairs?”
As a former prosecutor, I was proud to have a child who was so consumed by the question, “Ok, I hear you say that. But what is your evidence?”
But at 8 o’clock at night? After I had just spent a day chasing after the world’s bounciest children? With the promise of an evening of quiet downtime dangling just minutes away from me, it took every ounce of willpower to keep myself from shouting,
“Just be quiet! Let me finish this story so I can finally be done with it and done with you for the night. Right now, I just want to go watch some reality T.V.”
Yikes. Writing that makes me cringe now. And not just because it sickens me to acknowledge that I used to watch the Real Housewives of New York.
It was because I had turned the bedtime story into the last chore on my parenting “to do” list. And the chore mentality had persisted until very recently. Even as I started to add real books to the routine and even as both of my kids started to enjoy reading and listening to stories, in the back of my head was this feeling of “Oh my god, when can we be done with this already?!”
Then something changed. Over Memorial Day weekend this year, we made our annual trip to Storyland, an amusement park in Glen, NH. It takes seven hours to drive there (without traffic), but we’ve always figured that the effort was worth the hassle because it has been such a special, even magical, place for our family to spend time together.
This year, the drive seemed surprisingly tolerable though not exactly short. When we got to the park, my husband and I were stunned to realize that our enthusiasm for this “Land Where Fantasy Lives,” was, for the first time since we’d started this pilgrimage, not quite matched by our children’s excitement.
Sure, they were happy to be there. There were smiles. But, in contrast to previous years, they were not jumping all over the place. They were not so overwhelmed with emotion that they couldn’t contain themselves. They were mainly excited by the news that the park had a new, high velocity roller coaster.
I was, too. We made sure to be in line early, among the very first people to go on the new ride.
The ride was, as my son exclaimed, “Awesome!” We stopped by the photo booth to get the requisite over-priced picture and bought several copies. It was the dawn of a new age, I thought. I smiled as I saw my son’s excitement as he insisted that we take the ride again, as my daughter and my husband went off to more tranquil adventures.
It was still very early in the morning, so the line to the coaster was still short. I figured we’d have the chance to ride it at least two or three more times before it got crowded. We got to the front of the line. My son looked at me with the biggest smile on his face and said, “I want to go by myself.”
I wasn’t hurt, really. (I did have mild whiplash from my first trip, but nothing to keep me from taking another go ’round) But I knew my son was serious. He wanted to go by himself. He was so proud! He was so brave! He was so big! It really hit me watching him there, as he took several more solo trips around the track. He was happy because I wasn’t there.
It was my first taste of that shift in balance, when kids stop needing their parents and the parents start needing the kids. I felt like I was one roller coaster ride away from that time in the not too distant future when he won’t be returning my phone calls.
I was rattled, standing there on the roller coaster platform, but I realized that I was still in Storyland. For the time being anyway. I needed to make the most of it. Animated by that sentiment, I spent the rest of the weekend deeply aware of how quickly the time was passing. I had a lot of time for contemplation because, buoyed by his experience on the coaster, my son realized that most rides were more fun when he was riding alone.
When the weekend was over, and when even that seven hour return drive home seemed to fly by, I knew the tide had turned. My days in Storyland were numbered in more ways than one. So the night we got home, when it came time to tuck the kids in bed, I lingered a little longer than usual, even though the hour was way past bedtime. I did the same thing the next night. And the next. I was enjoying story time in a way I hadn’t enjoyed it since I was a kid myself.
Now a few days into this new approach, I am confident that my new appreciation for this tradition will continue to grow. And should the time ever fly by faster than a roller coaster, I’ll know just what to do. I’ll have my JRR Tolkien at the ready, hold on to my hat and glasses, and enjoy the ride.