One night recently, my son Zander was having a terrible time falling asleep. He had passed the point of no return, when extreme fatigue manifests as insomnia, and was nearly hysterical with exhaustion. Like a good mother, I sat on his bed listening to him sob about the myriad worries in his 8-year-old life (worries at home, at school, on the playground, on the soccer field...). Unlike a good mother, however, I resented it enormously and felt as if any moment I might jump out of my skin.
It's not as if my motherly presence was providing much comfort. If Zander had been mildly upset when I first sat down, now he was beside himself. "I hate school," he hiccuped. (Not true. He bounds to the bus stop every morning with nary a backward look.) "No one likes me." (A blatant exaggeration.) "My teach-er haa-a-ates me! I don't have any fri-eee-ends!" he continued, collapsing into incoherent sobs.
I knew what I should do. Sit with him, reassure him ("Sweetie! You have lots of friends! Your teacher loves you!"), rub his back, sing him songs, stay right there till his worries evaporated and he relaxed into sleep. Tragically, however, I'd left my wine downstairs. And The Daily Show was about to come on. And I'd been patient and understanding with both my children for more than 16 hours that day, and I'd have to start right up being patient and understanding again in another eight.
Deep down I knew Zander wasn't truly having an existential crisis -- he was just tired. But even if I were the kind of mother who could leave a weeping child alone at bedtime (I flunked Ferberizing -- twice), Zander's anguished cries of "Mom! I need you!" would certainly make it hard to concentrate on my nightly tryst with Jon Stewart. So I took a deep breath, gritted my teeth, and stroked his heaving shoulders. "You're right. You don't have any friends," I heard myself say.
Zander whipped his tear-stained face around and stared at me. I froze. Where did that come from?
"Also, my teacher hates me," he said, watching me carefully.
"I know! She haaaaaates you," I said. What was I doing? The kid was going to grow up and rob banks.
"I don't want to go to school anymore," he went on.
"And you don't have to. Stay home with me," I said.
"I hate soccer," he yawned.
"Soccer is terrible," I agreed, more softly. "Probably you should quit tomorrow."
We sat there a moment in silence. Then Zander sighed. "I'm going to sleep now, Mom," he said placidly. "I'll see you around."
When I got downstairs, my husband, Greg, looked astonished. "I thought you were in for the long haul," he said. "What happened?"
"I -- um," I said, realizing I'd just done the opposite of what every parenting book, every parenting expert -- every parent -- would consider appropriate to the situation. And somehow it worked. "I have no idea," I told him truthfully.
Fernanda Moore, a Parenting contributing editor, has also written for New York magazine.