Have you gotten used to sleeping alone?”
After my divorce in 2014, my married friends had a lot of questions. That one surprised me at first, but then it made sense. What could be more jarring, even scary, than an empty space where your spouse used to be? Than a bed that seems twice as large because it is half as full?
For years, I didn’t have to get used to sleeping alone, because I fell asleep with one child and woke up with the other.
My co-sleeping arrangement with my kids has persisted in some form or another since their father and I split up, when my son was 4 and my daughter was 2.
It started both by accident and necessity: A few weeks after the separation, I became really sick. What began as a sinus infection took over the rest of my body. I ran a low-grade fever, was intermittently nauseated, and coughed until I doubled over gagging. Weeks went by and I made multiple visits to the doctor. Nothing improved.
At the same time, I was clinging to my long-distance job in Los Angeles, getting on a plane every Monday morning after preschool drop-off and flying back on Thursday.
Days turned into weeks, and I did not get better. I lost weight. I had so little energy that I stopped running, which I had done virtually every day for 20 years. I was so sick I stopped drinking wine, which I had also done virtually every night for 20 years. It was all I could do to drag myself through the workday.
By Friday, back in San Francisco and reunited with my kids, I would be on the verge of physical and emotional collapse.
Boiling hot dogs and making instant mac and cheese for dinner, I counted down the minutes to unconsciousness. At 7:30 sharp, the three of us, pajama-clad, the kids’ hair still damp from the bath, were all in my bed. I could not read them stories because my cough would start up again. Instead I just lay there in the dark, listening to them breathe, inhaling the scent of incompletely rinsed shampoo and giving silent thanks.
My job was ending. My marriage was over. My life plan was in ruins. But I had two beautiful, perfect children. Or at least they seemed that way when they were asleep. Being their mother meant shouldering a profound responsibility and experiencing a heart-smashing love. It gave me a reason to keep going.
Four months later, I got better. In the fifth month, I got well. But at that point, we had our routine, and it was devilishly difficult to break. My children did not want to go back to their own beds. I didn’t want them to either.
It was not so much that I had grown used to them. It was that I needed them — the immediacy and sweetness of their presence on either side of my body — to fall asleep.
In 2015, I bought bunk beds as an incentive to break what I knew to be a bad habit. That got them back in their room. But the co-sleeping did not end; it just changed.
My son had difficulty falling asleep alone. I would lie next to him and wait, getting up when I was sure he was asleep, only to have him call me back again. A friend recommended mindfulness meditations, so we started listening to them on my phone. The meditation guide’s soothing voice told us that the mind is like the sky: “So when thoughts come, they’re just temporarily obscuring the vast, open nature of the sky. And they’ll pass.”
“That’s my favorite part,” my son whispered. “Me too,” I whispered back.
The meditations worked, maybe too well. Inevitably, we both fell asleep, me waking up several hours later, my nose inches from the ceiling, the meditation guide still talking about the sky. Groggy and confused, it took me a minute to remember that I was on the top bunk of my 6-year-old’s bed. I climbed down, walked unsteadily down the hallway and fell into my own bed, too tired even to read.
Sometime between 2 a.m. and 3 a.m., I heard soft footsteps on the carpet outside my door, my daughter appearing in silhouette, blanket in hand. Silently, she got into the side of the bed where her father used to be. Within minutes, lulled by the sounds of her sucking on her fingers, we were both asleep again.
That year, we made our annual visit to the pediatrician. She wanted to know about our sleeping arrangements. My stomach tightened.
My daughter said, matter of factly, “I go to sleep by myself but I wake up in my mom or dad’s bed.”
The pediatrician turned to me, eyebrow raised. “We have a migrator,” she said, and then discussed strategies for getting her to stay put. I nodded along. Reporting back to my ex-husband afterward, I cheerily rattled off statistics about height, weight, eyesight and hearing. All within normal limits. Anything else? he asked.
A few months later, he raised the topic himself as we sat side by side on one of the wooden benches that ringed an indoor pool, straining to see our kids through the swampy air as they learned the strokes for the butterfly and the crawl.
My ex-husband explained that he had been getting up and walking our daughter back to her bed, then sitting with her until she fell back to sleep. I nodded along.
“Do you want to give it a try?” he asked. “It would be great if we could be a united front.”
I shook my head.
“I know it isn’t fun getting out of bed in the middle of the night,” he said. “But she’ll stop coming in and you won’t have to do it anymore.”
“That’s not why,” I said. My throat closed and I was on the verge of tears, both fearful and ashamed.
He looked at me expectantly.
“I don’t want her to stop coming in.” I swallowed. “I am not ready to give that up.”
He resumed watching the swimming lesson.
What I told myself over the years was that sleeping side by side was important for my children because they were still vulnerable after the trauma of the divorce. Yes, they were becoming more independent, speaking in full sentences and even long fluid paragraphs. But they still needed me to cut up their food. They still reached for my hand.
What I told myself wasn’t really true, though. It was important for me, the parent, after the trauma of divorce. The physical immediacy of my children when I was at my most broken and vulnerable was healing in a primal way that nothing else was. Those of you who co-sleep too know exactly what I’m talking about.
Lara Bazelon, an associate professor at the University of San Francisco School of Law, is the author of the forthcoming book “Rectify: The Power of Restorative Justice After Wrongful Conviction.”