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The Very Strange Turn Bedtime Takes When You Disrupt My Toddler’s Evening Routine

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When you’re a parent, you quickly realize that druids might be onto something. If you don’t have kids, that probably sounds crazy, but when you’re a parent, routine quickly becomes ritual, which in turn becomes its own sort of religion. To non-parents, this doesn’t make sense, especially in social situations.

My wife and I will be at a party, and one of us will glance down at our phones and notice that bedtime is fast approaching, and we’ll instinctively lock eyes, as if we both realized that the Doomsday Clock from the Union of Concerned Scientists had struck midnight and the missiles were in the air, and we suddenly snatch up our kids, yell a hasty goodbye and peal off onto the highway to get the kids back to their bunker — their bedroom —before the bombs (tantrums) hit.

That is to say, if you stumble upon a routine that works to solve one of your daily parenting battles — dressing the kids, manners, preventing your progeny from starving — it’s hardly a stretch to imagine yourself donning a robe and chanting prayers to the Celtic god Iovantucarus, the protector of the youth.

Nowhere is this clearer than bedtime. My wife and I alternate nights putting the toddler to sleep, and on my nights, it’s the part of the parenting day that I dread the most, in part because it’s often a mirage. It’s when the parenting workday should come to an end, but instead, it can be just the start of the trouble. It often happens like this: Your child, who should really be tired, given they missed their nap and have been essentially doing wind sprints across the front yard all evening, is still somehow wound up, so you indulge them with an additional book or 2, or maybe a video clip, or an adorable chat that ends with “I love you,” and they respond with something random like PIZZA followed by a sudden squall of laughter.

You might as well get (un)comfortable as you “cuddle” (lose feeling in your extremities) in their bed, because you’re going to be there for a while.

toddler baby sleeping
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Then it happens: you make some sort of minor mistake. You don’t tuck them in the right way (?!) or their stuffed animals are disarranged, or you tell an improvised story that doesn’t involve their (new-as-of-10-seconds-ago) favorite animal, a capybara, which you’re pretty sure they’ve never heard of. Or, your story does mention said immense rodent but he’s not in a rocket ship, so you try to correct your error, but they gainsay you immediately, claiming that they didn’t ask for a rocket ship, and at this point, there’s no point continuing the discussion, because they are clearly sleep-deprived, or as I prefer to call it, toddler drunk.

When you reach this phase, you might as well get (un)comfortable as you “cuddle” (lose feeling in your extremities) in their bed, because you’re going to be there for a while. It’s essentially an interrogation, but in reverse. Your sleep-deprived subject will be asking you, in an ever-increasing volume and whininess, to rectify your mistake, and the one after it, and it doesn’t take long for you to realize you have no idea what they want you to say. At this point, you start to understand why torture is useless, and you just throw your head into your hands and say, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, just what do you want me to do?

But when toddlers reach this point, they don’t know either. The only thing they are is unhappy. To put it in the parlance of contemporary police dramas, they have abandoned the good cop strategy. In fact, the good cop is dead, and the bad cop has killed him. Settling that guy down takes about all the time and effort you can handle.

A clearly laid out ritual, however inane or bizarre, can help prevent this. At our house, bedtime is non-negotiable, and the routine immediately beforehand, barring an earthquake or a meteor strike, is always the same: We eat dinner, we play a bunch, then get pajamas on, watch a show, read a book, brush teeth, and then head off to bed. This is when the trouble begins.

Our son likes to “talk a little bit” before bed, and we have to tread carefully in our conversations. These are some of the more fraught parts of my life as a parent, as toddler drunk is only a few mistakes away, but at the same time, I cherish my nights putting my son to sleep because you never know where a toddler’s mind will lead.

I always let him guide the conversation because it’s a free-association rodeo. He’ll talk about playing tag with friends at daycare, and then opine on how it’d be really funny if “Darth Bader” was riding a donkey and eating a pizza.

I always let him guide the conversation because it’s a free-association rodeo.

Sometimes, a topic sticks. For a few months, he wanted to talk only about barnyard animals and specifically why and how sheepdogs help protect sheep. Then one night, out of nowhere, during one of those conversations, he transitioned to a topic that he’s been coming back to for a year now: the war in Syria. He knew about it because he overheard a report on the radio one morning. It was around when the picture of Aylan Kurdi went viral, so I explained the basics to him, that people had to leave because it wasn’t safe and their homes were being destroyed. He comes back to it again and again.

He asks me to point out Syria on our globe, interrupts a home improvement project to suggest that I could use my hammer and my screwdriver to “fix all the houses” in Syria, even offering to get his own (plastic Little Tykes) hammer to help. Sometimes, the Syria allusions are even funny. The other day he stopped me mid-sentence to say, “Daddy, in Syria, where the war is, the houses got broke. Yeah, there was probably a big bad wolf there.” (The kid’s not wrong.)

So as much as I dread my nights putting the kid to sleep, I look forward to them, too.

And when I think about it, that’s actually a pretty good summary of parenting. It’s hard work, and you’re afraid most of the time — worried about them getting sick, or hurt, or that they might hurl cutlery at the waiter — and the job itself is replete with all sorts of loathsome tasks, but kids somehow unexpectedly turn this drudgery into something to look forward to, these lovely, often hilarious moments that serve as the waypoints of your progress in helping these strange, funny little people toddle into the world.

Brett Ortler is the author of a number of non-fiction books, including Dinosaur Discovery Activity Book, The Beginner’s Guide to Ship Watching on the Great Lakes, Minnesota Trivia Don’tcha Know!, and several others. His writing has appeared in Salon, at Yahoo! as well as atThe Good Men Project, and on The Nervous Breakdown, among many other venues. A husband and father, his house is full of children, pets, and noise.