Some issues just seem to strike a nerve. Last week the New York Times
ran an article titled, “Whose Bed Is It Anyway?” about couples who allow their children to sleep in the bed with them—they call it “co-sleeping.” Here’s how it began:
This is what 3 a.m. looks like at the Costello house, a diminutive red brick three-story in the West Village: On the second floor, Harrison, age 5, is splayed, sideways and snoring, across his parents’ king-size, Anglo-Indian four-poster, having muscled his mother out completely and pushed his father, Paul, a 35-year-old photographer, to the extreme edge of the bed. Sara Ruffin Costello, the style director of Domino magazine, is upstairs in her 3-year-old daughter Carolina’s bed, which is a hammered-metal four-poster queen dressed in pink paisley sheets with a ruffle. “It is the bed I would have if I were single,” Ms. Costello, 38, said. “It is my dream bed, which is a good thing because I spend a lot of time in it.” Harrison’s bed, his fourth, a trundle model from Ikea, is empty and pristine, the least-used space in the house.
“I used to get hysterical and wonder, what is this new life of stumbling around in the middle of the night?” Ms. Costello said. “Now it’s just so oddly part of the routine. Paul and I wonder, will we ever sleep together again?”
The weary parents interviewed for the piece said they wanted their children to sleep in their own beds, but couldn’t seem to find a way to get them to do it. The article quickly jumped to the top of the paper’s “Most E-mailed” list, and within a day had attracted more than 400 e-mail responses from readers.
This was the first I had heard of this “co-sleeping” problem. From the day our daughters were born, Merry and I had them sleep in their own room. It was important for us to set our bedroom apart as a way of showing the girls the importance of our marriage; it was the place for us to spend time together alone, building our relationship. During their early years the only exceptions were when they were sick, or scared (usually of thunderstorms), or when I was out of town (they would take turns sleeping in the bed with Mom). Though they pushed other boundaries, they didn’t challenge this one because they knew it wouldn’t work!
But now there are so many parents who have difficulty establishing this boundary that they pay “child sleep” experts to give them advice. “It might be a problem of anxiety,” says one psychologist in the Times article, “but mostly the origin of the problem is the difficulty parents have in setting appropriate limits. It’s commonly believed in the mental health field that it’s important the children learn to sleep on their own. Not doing it often generalizes to other problems, because it’s about a fairly important way that parents say no to their child.”
While reading through the comments from readers, I found a number of parents who defended their decisions to allow their children to sleep with them. But a very solid majority felt it was important for parents to stand firm on this boundary—not only for the sake of the kids, but also for the marriage relationship:
“It’s time to take back the reins and also, to place the marriage at the center of the family, not the kids.”
“This is so sad. What kind of impression are these children receiving of the emotional and physical privacy required to maintain a healthy adult relationship?”
“I am all for children having a voice but when it comes to matters that could affect your marriage, a firm stand should be taken.”
“Do these people think it’s better to ruin their married lives in favor of spoiling their children?”
“When I had my son, my mother told me that the best thing I could do for him was to prioritize his parents’ relationship. There are three things my husband and I do in our bed: sleep, talk and have sex. All three are vital to our happiness.”
“The strength in the family lies in the bond and strength of the relationship between the parents. Parents should have their own kid-free bed to be together, in privacy, every night reliably. To fight, to have sex, to talk, to sleep. And kids, no matter how upset they get, should not be able to mess with that. Actually, it is likely reassuring for kids on a fundamental level that nothing, especially not their crying, will get between their parents.”
I wouldn’t be surprised if this column steps on a few toes of readers who want me to mind my own business. But I think one of the best gifts you can give your children is a solid marriage—and a great message to send them is, “Our bedroom is our territory.”