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Sleeping Together as a Family

At night, each of this mother’s three children wanted to be with mom. by Sharon Puttmann

One of the joys I experienced as I made my journey toward parenthood was planning my child-to-be’s bedroom. My first referral took more than four years from the beginning of the home study to that glorious phone call, so I had several years to pore over catalogs and wander through furniture stores. When finally I was told that my child would be a seven-year-old girl, preparations began in earnest. I chose the bed, my father made the headboard, the walls were painted, the teddy bear border applied. The bedroom occupied the entire second floor of my tiny house, and it seemed to be a child’s dream. There were cubbies for storing treasures and windows that looked out into the treetops. I dreamed of tucking my daughter into her cozy bed each night, singing her songs, and then tip toeing downstairs to my room.

Our first night together was in a hotel in Guatemala City. I was dismayed that my facilitator had not made arrangements for a bed for my new daughter. She had expected that the little girl would sleep with me. We were virtual strangers, and in that crowded single bed, we both struggled to maintain our personal space.

During those first days, I discovered that my daughter had lived with her mother, several older siblings, and nieces and nephews for much of her life. She had never slept in a bed by herself, except for a brief and frightening month in a foster home just prior to her adoption. Bedtime with birth family involved having as many as six in one bed. My daughter would explain to me in Spanish and with hand gestures that she often slept at the foot of the bed on the feet of other family members. I remember thinking how glad this little girl would be to have a bed of her own once she came home.

Going to sleep at home

As with many dreams of parenthood, reality proved to be quite different. Night was a time when fears and grieving became the most intense. My daughter would start each night in her own bed, but shortly after I fell asleep, I would feel her small presence in my room. I would open my eyes to find her standing beside me. I struggled with these times.

This was in the early 1990’s, and I had never heard about the concept of a “family bed.” When I had mentioned to others that my daughter wanted to sleep with me, I had been given warnings and disapproving looks. I soon learned to keep quiet about our arrangement. My little girl seemed to need my comfort during the night, and I needed my rest. From the time that she joined me at age seven until age 11, she slept either in my bed or in her sleeping bag on my floor. Very suddenly, as she entered puberty, she wanted her own space. Her room became a refuge during the day and she began sleeping in her own bed at night. I lost my roommate.

My oldest was 12 when I started the adoption of my second daughter from China in 1996. This child would be an infant, accustomed to sleeping in a crib in an orphanage, and I thought that I would escape the sleeping issues of her older sister. When my seven-month-old was placed in my arms in an office in Changsha, China, one of the first things that her nanny told me was that this baby had slept with a crib mate since five days of age.

Once home, I placed my tiny daughter in her new crib. During the daytime, she would nap peacefully, but night was a different matter. She struggled to fall asleep, and then would awaken every hour. She cried uncontrollably. I tried comforting her periodically, but finally my gut instinct and growing exhaustion caused me to bring her into my bed. There she slept soundly, often holding on to the sleeve of my nightgown.

The family grows bigger

When my baby was three, a new sister arrived from China. Our addition was two years older than the youngest, and I thought that two little girls would provide enough comfort for each other that I would be able to reclaim my bed. Not so. Both girls wanted to be near Mom during the night. My full-sized bed was far too small for three, so I went back to an arrangement I had used as my oldest became older. Each night, right next to my bed, we arranged what my girls called “the nest.” This consisted of several soft quilts placed on the floor with pillows and favorite stuffed animals added. At bedtime, my two little girls would curl up into the nest, whisper and giggle until they received a few stern warnings, and then fall asleep. If one felt she needed extra comfort at some point during the night, she might join me, but most mornings found them cuddled together in their custom-made bed.

That first year, when the four of us were adjusting to our larger family, even my eldest would sometimes join her younger sisters on my floor. Obviously, being 16 didn’t negate the need for a little additional nighttime comfort now and then.

My newest has now been with us for almost three years. She still finds the need to have Mom close at night, and has maintained her nest on my floor, although she will usually start out the night in her own bed. The youngest, with me for more than five years, has decided to sleep in her own room exclusively. The 18-year-old long ago abandoned my bedroom for her own “digs” in our basement. I know that the time is coming soon that I will have my room to myself once again, and I will probably miss the company of my three girls.

Sharon Puttmann is the mother of Carla Lynne (18), adopted in Guatemala in 1991, Joli Hua (8), adopted in China in 2000, and Maia Xing (6), adopted in China in 1997. The Puttmann family lives in Rice Lake, Wisconsin, where Sharon teachers English in the local middle school.

This article originally appeared in the April 2003 issue of China Connection. Reprinted with permission.

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