Rituals are funny things. They take over your life in ways you never expected, only to disappear with the slightest change in your routine.
We are ritualistic about breakfast, lunch, and dinner. We are ritualistic about waking the same time each weekday morning, showering at the same time, brushing teeth, walking the dog. We are ritualistic about hanging our clothes in the closet, or placing them always in the same spot in the same drawers of the dresser. T-shirts to the left, socks to the right, third drawer down.
Children require similar ritualistic behavior for their proper development and the parents' sanity. Perhaps the most important ritual, at least for the sake of our sanity, is bedtime.
Since Our Daughter was two months old, bedtime has been sacrosanct. It was important to us that she be able to put herself to sleep in her own bed without endless rocking, or a bottle, or us rubbing her back, and she obliged splendidly. Several years later, so did our sons.
As Our Daughter grew to become a communicative toddler, we changed from the "lay 'em down and let 'em sleep" approach to the bedtime story. I, or My Lovely Wife, would read to her from one of the many board books in her room. As she learned the meaning of the strange shapes on the page, she would read along with us.
After the book was finished and put away, I would delay the inevitable for a few more minutes. Invariably, she would ask me to make up a story of my own. We had a tendency to repeat the same story over and over, sometimes using her stuffed toys to act it out. I wish I could recall the details of the story, but it's probably all the better lost to time. I'm certain it wasn't anything all too creative. As the years progressed, the books grew more complex and the playful imaginings gradually were tucked away.
I must admit to both fretting over and longing for the end of the bedtime ritual for some time. While I wouldn't mind a few extra minutes at the end of my busy day, I don't know if I'm ready to trade the enjoyment of seeing my children off to bed for the simplicity of a peck on the cheek and a muttered "g'night" as they head to their rooms.
When Our Daughter turned thirteen last year, I suspected the end was at hand. After all, how many teenagers really want their fathers tucking them in every night? But she didn't stop tracking me down at the appointed time and dragging me off to do just that. At least, not straight away.
Little by little, here and there, the signs of change began to show. Several times during recent months, bedtime has come and gone without my noticing. When I finally realize it, I'll climb out of bed where I might have been dozing, or climb the stairs from the basement where I was working on my book, only to find the television and lights off, and her fast asleep in her bed.
Standing there in her doorway, taking stock of how the trinkets of childhood have been replaced by the necessities of teen life -- a hair dryer where a doll used to be, a computer desk where a toy chest once stood, makeup and jewelry gradually taking over the domains of Barbie and Polly Pocket -- I'm struck hard by the imminent death of a lingering ritual.
© 2011 Mark Feggeler