"Ella, you should ride it," I told her. "You don't want to hurt Santa's feelings. He gave that pretty pink bike to you."
"No," she answered calmly but firmly. "I don't like it. I wanted a big girl bike."
I knelt down by her, looked straight into those big, chocolately-hued eyes and said as gently but as honestly as I could, "I think we both know why Santa didn't bring you the bike you wanted, sweetheart. Don't we? Hmmmm?"
Alright, such honesty earns me an F- with the esteem-building parenting club, but all those threats about Santa rewarding only good behavior have to count for something. We had all warned Ella several times to shape up, shaking our heads sadly over her persistent gleeful misbehavior. She continued to be rotten right up until December 24th, and I happen to know Santa couldn't give her the expensive, sleek big girl bike she'd asked for simply as a matter of principle. Still, generous as he always is, he did give her a bike - a less expensive, plastic bike that was basically just a glorified tricycle - but a bike nonetheless.
He may as well have given her a box, a roll of duct tape, and a few shiny lumps of coal. It would have been more apropros, and she might have played with those, but the bike was shunned as a subpar offering and not even its pink color could redeem it.
"Look, Ella, you can ask Santa for that big girl bike this year, but you have to behave."
A look of desperation came into her eyes as she said imploringly, "No, for my birthday! My birthday, Mama! Pleeaaase?"
Yes, because even a three-year old knows there's a no-strings attached birthday policy; people just hand you a stick to hit the pinata and throw treats at you, simply because you were born. I looked at that sweet little face framed in curls and read in its expression her fear of bartering for that bike with good behavior.
Then an idea struck me. It was brilliant; it might work, and Matthew and I would get better sleep out of it.
"Hey, Ella, how about you earn a big girl bike by staying in your own bed at night? Mama will make you a sticker chart, and once you get a month's worth of stickers, we'll get you your bike, okay? After all," I added, seeing doubt in her face, "your birthday's a looooong way away."
She hesitated a moment, and then we shook hands on it.
This is what modern parenting has come to, you understand. You strike a bargain for your kids to stay in their own beds at night, and you hope to goodness they honor it! Let's see...I'll give you a popsicle for breakfast, a bouncy ball, and a Mcdonald's toy. How about it?
I remember the days when parents were cold, cold I tell you! and immoveable. It used to be that kids were not allowed in their parents' bed and dared not even attempt to creep in during the night because the expedition would end in failure and possible humiliation. Maybe we could smell the unwelcoming atmosphere the moment we approached the threshold, maybe the bed was diligently wrapped in mosquito netting every night, or maybe the room was bobby-trapped: as soon as you entered, you tripped a wire that sent twenty or so Jack in the boxes springing at your face, released a rubber mallet that repeatedly knocked you on your noggin, and a recording of Ray Charles singing, "Hit the Road, Jack!" blared forth out of the darkness.
Or maybe it was voodoo, the knowledge of which has passed into legend.
Whatever cold-hearted methods they used, I'm sure the beautiful sleep they got more than made up for feelings of guilt about parental abandonment.
My husband claims that even when he was sick as a little boy, if he found the courage to wander down the dark hall to his parents' room, his dad would point inexorably to the foot of the bed and proclaim, "There!" as if doling out a judgement for his audacity in entering forbidden territory. It wasn't comfortable curling up at his parents' feet, so he'd listlessly return to his own room, grumbling but with lesson learned.
Nowadays, I'm betting he thinks his parents had a pretty darn good plan in place. This is because every morning My Man finds himself confined to a six foot long by two-and-a half inch wide space. He lies there on his side straight as a stick, and dares not move for fear of inviting the wrath of the preschooler who is blissfully stretched out on the rest of bed, master of the master bed for almost four years now. And this after he has endured knees in his back and elbows in his ribs, well-aimed kicks to his midsection, and little arms that thwacked him in his face all night long for daring to fight for more than his two inches of space. Meanwhile, I'm sleeping in the recliner with our toddler, grumbling about my cruel fate and bemoaning the fact that I have neither the courage nor the stamina to fight Ella for a place in my own bed.
A friend once confessed at an annual Halloween party that when his eldest son was younger, he tried everything to make him stay in his own bed, including throwing out his favorite Thomas the Tank engine toys as punitive damages for interrupted sleep. I can just picture our friend saying, See James the Red engine? Gone! Thomas? Sayonara sucker! Percy? Hasta la vista, baby! When his son was back in bed, he'd sheepishly dig the toys out from the garbage, rinse them off and place them on top of the fridge to return later.
"Looking back," he told us. "I think, Wow, I was such a jerk!" The rest of us all nodded our heads in profound sympathy for his desperation, but we couldn't help laughing heartlessly at the same time. Misery, I am shamed to say, loves finding others between the same old rock and hard place.
Oh, there are urban legends about the desperate measures parents will go to just to sleep alone in beds they paid hundreds of dollars for, and there are rumors about the parents that are such pushovers their kids still sleep with them when they're nine.
Matthew and I have tried taking things away. It doesn't work. Because little kids forget they were ever threatened with losing TV, a toy, or a favorite treat when it's dark, and Mama and Papa's warm, expensive bed calls to them in the small hours of the night. We've tried taking them back to their own beds, too, but they only stay there long enough to allow us to get comfortable and cocky before they come crawling back in, planting their feet on our backs and arms across our faces in order to mark their territory. As we roll away from them and grind our teeth in frustration, they follow us around the bed like little heat-seeking missiles, not satisfied until they have rested themselves in our personal space or actually on our stomachs.
So you see now why I lured Ella with the promise of a shiny new big girl bike? It worked well, too. She wasn't consistent, I'll grant you, but she was always excited to get a sticker the morning after staying out of Mama/Papa's bed. It only took her three months before she had 31 stickers and had earned her big girl bike. It was Matthew's and my anniversary when we went to pick it up. We were so happy to give it to her, all pink and blue with Disney princesses on the side and a basket for her baby doll, because we could hear the sweet bells of freedom ringing in our heads!
To conclude this heart-warming tale of two parents triumphing over adversity, I must disclose that each night since that day Ella earned her pretty new bike, she has as usual woken up in the night and felt the urge to invade our bed. But what do you think she does now? Why, she just promptly crosses the hall and crawls right in! I have no doubt that as she elbows us out of the way, she thinks to herself, I'm so glad I've got my big girl bike. Now I don't have to stay out of Mama and Papa's bed never, ever again!
Yes, feel sorry for me, very sorry. Now if you'll excuse me, I must wrap my bed in mosquito netting, booby-trap my bedroom doorway, and find that old recording of Hit the Road, Jack. It's the only way My Man and I will get a decent night's sleep.
This piece is dedicated to my beautiful, angelic mother, because somehow I neglected to mention her in my anniversary post. I remembered one night as I was nursing my little boy, and my hand slapped my forehead, and I thought, Good Grief! How could I forget Mama Darlin'? She's royally important, and she reads all my stuff, no matter how lame it is! So this piece is all for you, Mama, and if you happen to have some advice on keeping your grandchildren out of my bed, please just pass it along.