Last night my daughter Lucia told me that she was scarred by that horrible parenting move I performed on her regularly until she was about twelve-years-old. She described it as “force napping.” According to Lucia, now sixteen-years-old, she remembers that every time we went on an airplane or a road trip somewhere when we arrived, I would force her to nap. I’d do a guided meditation and gently brush my palm over her eyelids to close them, trying to get her to fall asleep for an hour or twenty minutes or ten or whatever I could “force” her to do.
“Sometimes,” she recalled, “you’d turn on white noise and leave me in a room in some strange house or hotel so I’d ‘nap.’”
She’s not imagining this forced nap history. I did it. I remember it well. I was convinced that I could keep her calm and collected as long as she had enough sleep. On those early morning flights when Lucia didn’t get enough sleep, I was possessed to get her to nap, especially if she didn’t sleep on the plane. I was sure that kids misbehaved because they were sleep-deprived.
Lucia was an easy child. She was naturally compliant and cooperative and calm, but I convinced myself that if she didn’t get enough sleep, she’d turn into a demon child and I wouldn’t be able to handle her. Maybe I was worried about what other people would think. Or maybe I thought that if I let her get into a bad, sleep-deprived pattern she’d never be that “easy” child again.
At sixteen Lucia has the same disposition as that of her younger days. For a teenager, she’s easy. My friends and family say, “You have a good kid” (whatever that means). I’m biased, but I actually think she’s amazing. She has a great sense of humor. She’s smart and mouthy and appropriately dismissive of pretty much every aspect of my being. But she is a teenager which is simply not easy as a parent.
I don’t get to control Lucia’s sleep anymore. I don’t have control over much anymore. At the beginning of the pandemic, she moved down to our basement to get some space and I don’t really know what’s going on with her during the day or the night. The other morning she came upstairs with two new holes in her ears.
I ask Lucia every morning how she slept, sometimes inquiring about what time she went to bed, but she never tells me. It’s her time now and I have to trust that she’ll sleep when she wants or needs to. When Lucia told me about how much she hated force napping it made me think about what other parenting decisions I might have made based on my own self-preservation. In addition to force napping, I made Lucia clear and set the table, practice piano, brush her teeth, and say please and thank you religiously.
I imposed those rules so that my life would be easier. If I could train my child to listen to me and do what I said, I’d be okay. We’d be okay.
Is that what parenting is? Keeping our children contained and controlled enough so that we retain our sanity? We say the rules we make when our kids are young are for them, but I think they’re more for us, at least they were for me. I can see now that not having the ability to impose order and control over my teenager, how much I relied on those rules to make me feel like I was a good parent.
It happens that all those rules I had for Lucia have worked out. Lucia is a good person, a responsible human and she doesn’t get tons of expensive cavities. But adolescence is the time to blow shit up — to challenge the rules that we made for our kids. It’s time for the kid to teach the parents some stuff. Teenagers are figuring who they are and what feels good to them. They can’t do this by following the rules that we made up to make us, their parents, feel in control when they were kids.
So now it’s time for me to be out of control, to be a victim of Lucia’s non-sensical rules for life. Lucia’s room is a disaster. It looks like a frat house. Her drawers are overflowing and obscenely disorganized. Her bathroom has used contacts, makeup wipes, and dirty towels along with empty toilet paper rolls littering the floor. I know I taught Lucia to keep her room clean, but the rules have changed.
Lucia articulating to me how much she hated the force napping was funny. We laughed and laughed at how ridiculous and controlling that was of me. But it was also clarifying. Lucia was articulating that she is past all that. Those rules, that control, that micro-managing is all in the past.
It’s a relief really, to acknowledge that I don’t have the control over Lucia that I used to. As parents, at some point, we have to trust that our kids will be okay. Lucia may not sleep enough. She may live in a clothes tornado, but at the end of every day, I say goodnight to a good person, someone I’d like to talk to and get to know. She’s just beginning this new journey of creating her own rules, her own path in the world. It’s hers now. I get to sit back and watch it all unfold.