I don’t really remember the specifics of our first few weeks together as a family. It was all so different and completely consuming. And while the girls continued to call us Mom and Dad, it felt a whole lot like an ongoing babysitting gig. Was that normal?
There were moments that these strange feelings would cause slight anxiety in me. I dealt with the fear that I’d never attach in the way I was “supposed to”. What if I never felt like their mom? What was being a “mom” supposed to feel like? Who could I talk to about this? I mean, I signed up to enter parenthood this way, so I really shouldn’t be complaining…
I knew I felt responsible for them. I wanted them to succeed. I was cooking and cleaning and keeping up with their laundry. I did their hair in the mornings before daycare and tucked them in at night. We gave lots of hugs, answered lots of questions, and adjusted to our lives not being our own anymore.
And while it all felt a little bit weird, we kept going.
Mornings were hectic. Bedtime was exhausting. Sleep was elusive. We knew that parenting was hard and that stepping into parenting this way would be even harder, but we didn’t have a barometer for anything. We weren’t friends with anyone who was fostering. We overthought and questioned everything that was happening, trying to figure out if any or all of it was “normal”.
We were going to appointments, meeting with their case worker, sitting in court rooms, and figuring out sibling visits (which proved to be really difficult) all while trying to learn the ins and outs of who our daughters were.
And we weren’t able just to focus on bonding because we wanted to make sure they got into good patterns of behavior in our home. We had to find some balance of discipline and correction alongside the task of establishing trust and connection. It seemed so hard to do both. Had we been placed with a baby, we’d still be exhausted, but we wouldn’t have to jump right into rules and consequences and registering for Kindergarten. We knew we’d been thrown in the deep end, and it was time to learn to swim.
Everything we had read (which wasn’t an awful lot) told us to establish routines and stay consistent. So in the midst of chaos, I tapped into my inner rule-follower – who loves lists and plans and knowing where I’m going – and got to work. Dustin is really good with structure too, so this part made sense to both of us.
The first thing that was apparent was that bedtime needed an overhaul.
Even though we had been sticking to their routine and had kept their bedtime consistent, they were definitely not settling in. As soon as we’d say goodnight and close the door, the cycle would start. They’d get up for a myriad of reasons, or no reason at all. Over and over again we’d put them back to bed. We tried being gentle. We tried being firm. We tried rocking until they were more tired. We tried incentives. Nothing seemed to work.
Once we got them to stop coming out and we thought they’d finally fallen asleep, we’d hear them talking. Sometimes an hour or two after we’d said “goodnight” one of them would sneak out of their room and just sit at the top of the stairs, waiting for us to find her.
And though we were trying to get them to bed between 7:30 and 8pm, by the time they were actually asleep, it was closer to 9 or sometimes even 10pm.
Once they had fallen asleep, the middle of the night interruptions began. Most nights, our younger daughter would leave her bed several times and make her way to our room. I’d wake up to her just standing there, next to my bed, just looking at us, saying nothing. No questions. No words. Just staring.
I wondered if she was fully awake. Maybe she was sleep-walking or had woken up from a nightmare. She was in a new room of a new house with new parents. The fact that she wasn’t waking up screaming was actually surprising, and yet this wandering around thing was unsettling and exhausting. Was it normal for a child to wake up this many times a night? Shouldn’t she be able to self-soothe? Did she ever turn-over and just go back to sleep on her own?
And why did they wake up so early? How could they possibly be rested enough to get up?
One thing was clear – we needed a solution. This wasn’t working for any of us. I woke up to every sound, every night, feeling hyper vigilant, unable to relax, adrenaline pumping through my veins.
As my number of hours of sleep plummeted, so did my spirit and my ability to cope graciously.
I was frustrated that we couldn’t control the situation. I was frustrated that they weren’t getting the sleep they needed. I was frustrated that we weren’t getting the sleep WE needed.
I know, I know. Typical kids. Lots of kids find every reason possible to get out of bed. They need a drink of water. Another hug. Another question. A sibling is in the room, and they want to chat. They wake up in the middle of the night and get up early.
But there was something in both Dustin and me that said this whole thing was different. While it looked the typical, it just wasn’t. Trying to convey the nuances of our situation to other people was super difficult, and I found myself becoming angry when people would minimize the issue or explain it away as common place. While I didn’t yet know our girls well, something told me that this was something more.
So we tried everything we could think of, some conventional tactics and some specifically for kids from hard places.
We made the room darker, hoping they wouldn’t wake with the sun. We bunked their beds for less distractions, so they couldn’t see one another at eye level. We stopped playing quiet music and started using a sound machine. We ordered a weighted blanket that was supposed to help with anxiety. We spent more time rocking them hoping to create a deeper bond. We diffused lavender oil. We did massages before bed.
And we ordered a cow clock.
If you’re not familiar with the cow clock, it’s a cute little clock/nightlight that lights up a cow that is either awake or asleep. We’d set the clock to sleep when we tucked the kids in, and when the cow woke up the girls were allowed to get out of bed.
Honestly, I wasn’t sure how it would work. They had obviously been trained to just crawl into bed with their former foster parents when they woke up early (even at 4am), and that was going to be a hard habit to break. But we knew that for the long-term, sleep was essential – for them and for us. So we got serious about it all.
We started by being firmer. Maybe they were just testing boundaries with us. New home. New rules. Testing limits would make sense.
So, we did the normal bedtime routine, then sat outside of their room after we’d close the door. We’d listen to see if either of them were talking. If/when we heard voices, we’d open the door and remind them “It’s quiet time.” Close the door. Listen again. Remind them again.
We’d wait some more. One of them would inevitably come out the door, needing nothing in particular. One of us would immediately say, “You have everything you need. It’s time for bed.” Over and over and over and over. Gently at first and firmer as they continued.
Somtimes we just escorted them back to bed, kissed them goodnight again, and left the room silently. They’d know we were there for them, but we wouldn’t give much interaction.
One night I remember sitting on the floor outside their room, utterly exhausted. I looked at Dustin and broke down, tears streaming down my face. “Why won’t they sleep? How long will we have to do this? I can’t keep waking up with them. It takes me an hour to go back to sleep and then they are up again.” It was like having a newborn, except that they didn’t need to eat or a diaper change. And they could walk to find us. And they “should have” figured this out by now. And I didn’t yet feel quite like their mom. And it was just so, so hard.
As I reflect on those first couple of months, I wish I could have been more gracious in the middle of the night. I remember hoping that we could somehow, through amazing attachment practices, get them to stay in bed and get the sleep they needed. I remember praying that they’d start respecting our words and reminding myself not to take it personally when they refused to do what we asked.
And somehow, the combination of it all seemed to start working. Firm consistent, boundaries at bedtime and in the middle of the night. Putting them back to bed over and over and over again. Talking about the expectations every single evening and celebrating in the morning when they made progress. We stuck to the plan and finally just got through it.
And we still love that cow clock.
Because of this whole process and the months it took get us where we are, we still consider our girls’ sleep schedule a top priority in our family rhythm. I’m sure this has been hard for some of our friends and family to adjust to, but truth be told, when we stick to the plan they are phenomenal sleepers. They go to bed so well, almost every single evening. They stay in bed all night and get up when their alarm goes off.
It makes going out in the evenings difficult, since they go to sleep so early, but we just offer to host so that we can still be connected to people. We have to get creative when we travel since they really need it to be dark to sleep well, so we bought sleep masks that we keep in the car and use at hotels. They love them and they work so well. We travel with the sound machine and weighted blanket and that wonderful cow clock. And if they are sleeping in a new environment, we try to use lavender oil to help them calm down before bed.
We know this is a season and that someday (hopefully) they will be able to manage this part of their lives themselves. But for now, the discipline of it all is so worth it – for everyone.
Not all parts of parenting work like this – just come up with a plan, adjust as needed, stick to it and see the desired outcome. So for the time-being, I’m celebrating the victories, looking at the progress that we’ve made, and depending on grace for the rest.