The bedtime routine. What should be a blissful hour of giggles in the bathtub, reading aloud a much-loved classic to an enraptured audience, followed by kisses and cuddles goodnight, is often a chaotic last hurdle to jump over before collapsing on the sofa with a large glass of wine and the next episode of Borgen.
When you’re tired, surrounded by mess, and you have to repeat the same instruction five times like a malfunctioning robot – “Have you done your teeth yet?” – it’s a real challenge not to skip bedtime stories and let them spend half an hour playing on their Kindles instead. Or, if I read them a story, I’m often yawning so much they can’t understand a word I’m saying anyway.
But failing to read bedtime stories to children just adds to the constant trickle of everyday parental guilt. (Five-a-day? Erm…not today.) So when my children were younger (they’re currently 10 and eight), I tried to solve this problem by reading them stories while they ate their tea or lay in the bath. That way, I could tick the story box and get ahead of the game, perhaps enjoying a little extra time to myself starting a little earlier in the evening…
As if. My children are smart. While I’d ticked the story box ahead of schedule, my children had a new box waiting for me: the Tell Me Something.
Every night, as I tucked them into bed, they’d beg: “Tell me something! Tell me something now – please!” Apparently, this ‘something’ had to be a true story from my childhood. Such as the time I stole my best friend’s purple stone and ended up confessing, unable to look her in the eyes – or display it in my own precious stone collection for fear of being rumbled. Or the time, aged six, I wet my knickers while standing up reading Roger Red Hat in front of the whole class. You get the gist – anything with a good dose of guilt, humiliation or general ‘epic fail’.
And when I’d run out of those, they’d demand a true story from someone else’s childhood. Such as the time their dad, at the age of nine, locked his little sister in the cupboard under the stairs after farting in it. Or the time he flicked a peanut and it landed in his sleeping father’s open mouth. (He often tells them these stories himself, as I only know so many of his childhood anecdotes.)
When I’d struggle to think of true anecdotes, they’d up the ante even more by demanding a made-up story instead. So what do you say when your head is empty, you can hardly keep your eyes open and you’re not even sure you’ve got the energy to watch the next episode of Game of Thrones? You say the first thing that comes into your head: “There once was a girl called Fartina Gasratilova…who suffered from an unfortunate condition…that kept landing her in lots of trouble…”
It’s actually quite satisfying to see what you can rummage out of the depths of your depleted imagination – especially when you’re one glass of wine away from being asleep yourself. And watching your kids’ faces light up as they picture the story you’re telling is a true delight.
Of course, that triumphant feeling didn’t last long, as they started demanding a new Fartina story every night. Eventually, having kept up with my children’s demands for weeks on end, I had enough material to put together a little ebook. I polished the stories up, persuaded the husband to knock up some illustrations, and changed her name to Fartella just in case…you know…the book became so huge, I got a letter from Martina Navratilova’s lawyers. (Well, what do you expect from a woman with a depleted imagination?)
These days the bedtime routine is a little simpler. My eldest is happy to read to herself and my youngest is, too – provided she has a book she’s happy with (my current challenge). I still read to my youngest, although more often, she likes to read to me. I’m still thrown a request for a Tell Me Something from time to time. But nowadays, it’s usually on a long car journey just as I’m getting stuck into a favourite album or Desert Island Discs. So what do you say? You say: “There once was a girl called Thirsty Kirsty, who lived on a desert island surrounded by sharks, and was only allowed to take three luxury items with her…”