The voice on the other end of the phone was both familial and familiar. During my formative years, it was the last voice I would hear each night, whispering to me before I finally surrendered to sleep.
"Hey Mag. Now, I know you're trying to be funny, with that crazy bedtime story in last week's column? But...I was just wondering...are you okay?"
That's my big sis, Lisa, calling me on my public crazy. We shared a room for years as kids and used to finish each other's sentences. We can accomplish more effective communication in three minutes of grunting and shared giggles than most people can in a verbose day-long off-site meeting.
What I'm saying is that we have a mind meld going on. So I guess I shouldn't have been surprised when she read and heard a sister-on-the-edge's cry for help.
I frowned at the phone and whimpered.
"Okay, I have a couple of thoughts for you..." she began.
What she said next changed my life.
1. Separate Bedtimes
What? No way. One bedtime is hell on earth—that would make two, what, a burning inescapable inferno of doom? It would take forever!
But when Lisa gently asked me to calculate how much time I am currently spending on bedtime, and I had to admit that it was between 2-3 hours, we both allowed the perfect beat of a comedic pause and then started laughing uncontrollably.
Lisa's boys have always shared a room so she is well versed in the spaz begets spaz syndrome of the shared-room bedtime routine. She promised that if I did it right, via this divide and silence method, I'd only spend about 20 minutes with each kid. Which leads me to her next nugget of gold.
2. Your Best 20
I'm not gonna lie, I was challenged by this piece of advice: give the best 20 minutes you have in the last 20 minutes of your child's day. It's the difference between completing the marathon of your day with a strong sprint versus throwing yourself over the finish line, nipples bleeding and pants pooped as you crumble to the pavement.
So in that moment when you are so done, like done done, like stick a fork in you you're a turkey whose instant-read thermometer has popped done, instead of, oh I don't know, rising from the couch suddenly and yelling, "Bedtime! Now!"—you've got to dig deep and pull out the best you can muster.
I hung up the phone, determined to give these two ideas a try.
After the first night (no screaming), I was a believer. After the second night (done within an hour), I lavished her with "you saved my life!" texts. By day three (little one asleep within five minutes, big one asleep within 15), I knew I would devote my next column to her.
My evenings are quieter now and more peaceful. I've put down the remote and the iPhone. I'm looking in my children's eyes and not at the ticking clock. I'm rubbing their backs and singing lullabies. So help me God I am playing Candyland with full commitment and little to no irony.
I can do pretty much anything for 20 minutes.
And like magic, the kids require less. I dole out the attention in a more potent and smaller dosage—like a concentrated laundry detergent. And when the 20 minutes for each is up, they are able to separate—from me, from each other, from the waking world.
Bonus points: I've stopped playing my imaginary violin about having to have my kids share a room. Maybe they are getting something out of it. Maybe they're creating a lifelong bond and secret language. Maybe it's no coincidence that the person whose whispers helped me fall asleep on so many nights, so many years ago, is the person who is helping my entire family to do so now.