The Day I Realized I Had to Sleep Alone
Then they decided to stay.
I have a king bed, one of those memory-foam mattresses that doesn't jiggle as you get in or out. Even if you cleaved it down the middle with a pickax, the thing wouldn't tremble. It's practically earthquake-proof. My ex-husband and I chose the mattress together, back when we thought the hefty price tag was worth it because the bed's 20-year warranty would affect us both. It's a motionless bed, so I can creep in after the kids are sleeping and wriggle between them without waking them up. (Usually there's also a pug dog on the bed, sometimes turning around in circles as he tries to settle his body comfortably on my daughter's face.)
After the kids are sleeping is key to this routine: My mental tranquility depends on the two free, private hours between their bedtime and mine, hours I like to spend with wine or food, TV shows or novels, sometimes a phone call involving language that's probably inappropriate for innocents to overhear. The moment when they fall asleep has always been a great liberator.
But once I go to bed myself, I love the company. I love the heap of dreaming mammals. And I'm well aware that childhood has an end.
It turns out, though, that I don't sleep so well in the heap, though it took me a surprisingly long time to notice. I can be pretty dense about my own basic needs, when my focus is getting through the many small tasks of a day's work and a day's caretaking. My daughter lies motionless and contained as she sleeps; my son thrashes and hugs me and digs sharp little toes into my flesh. Once I woke up to find both his feet down the back of my pajama pants. That didn't seem right. (Apparently his feet get cold. I try to make him wear socks to bed, but in the morning I tend to find them shucked, balled up in the covers.)
So recently I bought a device to monitor my sleeping patterns. "1.5 hours of deep sleep," it told me again and again, after an eight-hour stretch. "3.5 hours of interrupted sleep." I'm no mathematician, but I was pretty sure that didn't add up to eight.
This year I noticed: I'm 47. When I get up in the morning, patterns of blankets and pillowcases are imprinted on my skin, and unlike when I was in my 20s and 30s, the patterns can take hours, not minutes, to fade. I walk into the office or take my son into school and there's a flower on my cheek I wasn't born with. A certain beloved shag pillow that sometimes gets crushed against me leaves a field of indentations that frightens casual observers, resembling some dread affliction that might be contagious. Then there are the under-eye shadows, two dark sides of the moon.
And the children are 12 and 8. I can almost hear the challenge from Child Protective Services. I picture an unannounced home visit. "Ma'am. Is there a teenager in your bed?"
Also, after a half-decade dry spell there's an adult I wouldn't mind sleeping next to, and though he lives on the other side of the country, he may someday visit. I'm not always astute about the subtleties of interpersonal dynamics, but my suspicion is, king or no king, that overnight might work out better minus children. (There's not much I can do about the dog, though. Pugs are creatures of habit.)
Some breathing room is called for—mine as well as theirs.
So first it was one night a week in their own beds, then two, and now we're up to three, with four on the schedule for next month. I'm pretty excited about four. They spend one night with their father most weeks, so four often means five, and five means well-rested. Five means I may even crack a smile before my coffee. Possibly.
In the meantime, when they're not there, it feels like there's space in the bed, and I have room to move and stretch out my limbs. There's a sense of luxury. And privacy. No one can see me! Other times it just feels like emptiness. Invisibility. No one can see me.
Will it always be just me from now on, I wonder, when I wake up to no sound at all at 2 in the morning? Silence stretches around me. Will it always be me alone on this wide expanse of memory foam? A man in his own bed thousands of miles away, a girl and a boy, in their separate rooms, growing up and apart?
Or maybe not. Either way it's my bed now. The 20-year warranty is mine alone. And the nights are my own. I can choose to feel the luxury of space or the emptiness of solitude. It isn't so bad, having that choice.
Lydia Millet is the author of Sweet Lamb of Heaven, Mermaids in Paradise and Magnificence.