I didn’t see it coming.
(How many motherhood-related stories could I write with that opening?)
One day he was napping every afternoon; one day he wasn’t. He gave it up cold turkey, willingly, like an exemplary addict showing up at rehab with a smile on his face. It’s cool; I don’t need that stuff anymore. There were withdrawals, sure, but nothing we couldn’t handle—afternoon crankiness already runs in the family (see: me + the seven-month-old during the witching hour).
It was the day after his third birthday.
Had I known his birthday nap would be his very last, surely I would have spent it better. But no. I worked on my laptop and ate salami on the couch, put a load of laundry in the dryer and opened some mail. Such a waste! What I wouldn’t give for a do-over of that last nap. I would put on my stretchiest sweatpants and curl up in bed with a carton of cookie dough ice cream and all of the Netflix I could possibly watch in two hours.
I went through all the normal stages of grief: shock (too soon!), denial (maybe it’s a phase?) anger (this was MY time!), bargaining (naps = Paw Patrol reward), sadness (woe is me), and eventually…..acceptance.
Reluctant acceptance, I should say.
Never one to wallow, I quickly developed a plan. He might not need to sleep every afternoon, but he still needs a break every afternoon. I mean, we all need a break, from noise and from each other, at least once a day. Right? Right.
The next day, I pulled up my big girl mom jeans and proudly announced, “Son, let me tell you about Quiet Time.”
I was a nanny in college. I watched two little kids every day, 15 hours a week during the school year and 40 hours a week in the summer. To this day, it was one of the best jobs I ever had—good kids, a membership to the local pool, a jar of cash on the counter for movies and ice cream, and a better salary than I made at my first two jobs out of college.
(Remind me: why did I ever give that up?)
Even back then, with the sought-after energy of a nineteen year-old, I recognized that eight hours a day was a lot of time to spend with children. Once summer rolled around, we stayed relatively busy with swim lessons and play dates and gymnastics, but there were still hours (hours!) in each day that needed to be filled.
On one particularly exhausting day—lots of arguing and yelling and get out of my room’s!—as an afternoon activity (not to be confused with a punishment), I pulled the nanny boss card and instituted Quiet Time.
“We are going to be quiet for one hour,” I pronounced.
“ONE HOUR?!” the seven year-old asked, a look of horror on her face.
“Yes,” I confirmed, “It’s good to be quiet sometimes. You can read a book, or color, or draw, or sit and stare at the wall for all I care. But we are all going to be quiet, starting now.”
And…..what do you know? Aside from the occasional sneeze or cough, those kids stayed quiet for an entire hour, followed by one hour each day for the rest of the summer.
They’d probably still deny it to this day, but I can assure you: those kids grew to love quiet time.
Mastering the art of Quiet Time has been a science experiment of sorts. My son admittedly had a leg up on the process, because we had been doing “Independent Play Time” since he was roughly 13 months old. When he dropped his morning nap, I simply replaced that with Independent Play Time, or IPT as I sometimes referred to it via text. We started in the crib, 10 minutes alone with a bunch of toys, and eventually worked our way up to 45 minutes alone in his room with the baby gate on the door. I used those 45 minutes to shower and get dressed every morning, with the video monitor on the bathroom counter next to a piping hot cup of coffee. Bless those sweet one-kid days.
We continued this routine all the way through my second pregnancy, pretty much up until his baby brother was born. Sadly, once I entered two-kid land, all bets were off. Our morning routine was a cluster of chaos, I never had time to shower, someone was always crying, and my cup of coffee was always cold. Bye bye IPT.
And you see, this wasn’t a problem, per se, because for six beautiful blessed months, both of my children napped at the same time. Two hours of quiet among life with two children might as well have been a whole day at a meditation retreat. From the hours of 1pm-3pm, my house became a sanctuary. Naps for them; Namaste for me.
When one of those naps suddenly disappeared, I knew I had to bring back IPT, or, as we’ve recently rebranded it: Quiet Time.
I started with well-calculated options. Three year-olds love options! I laid out the choices, clear as day. You can a) nap, b) lay in your bed with your eyes open, or c) play with your super awesome toys while listening to super fun music!
He took the bait.
Next, I set the stage: lights on, curtains open, iPad set to Toddler Radio on Pandora. Plus, access to special toys he didn’t have access to during the rest of the day (and by special toys, I mean toys I had hidden six months ago during one of my monthly hormonal purge-fests).
After that, we needed a light at the end of the tunnel—something to look forward to. So we bought one of those ok-to-wake clocks and I set it for 3pm each day. When the clock turns green, he knows quiet time is over and we can get a snack.
And finally, I dug out that baby gate collecting cobwebs in the closet and placed it on his doorframe so he couldn’t escape. You know, again, like rehab.
And all was right with the world again.
I know what you’re thinking. That can’t possibly have been that easy. And you’re right. It wasn’t. Some days he protested, some days he asked for different toys, some days he just straight up whined, “I don’t wanna do Quiet Time today!”
We’ve had to make adjustments, and find new systems for rotating toys that keep his interest. In the past six months, we’ve also added some screen-time into the mix. Like most systems and routines, this has been an experiment with lots of trial and error.
We stuck with it. I have been annoyingly persistent. And I’m here to sing hello from the other side. Every day we do Quiet Time from 1pm-3pm in this house and I feel only a slight twinge of guilt in telling you they are two of my favorite hours of the day. They are a reset. A break. My time to eat salami on the couch in peace.
And there’s something else, too…..something I've noticed.
When you force your kid to play alone for a little while every day, a shift happens. Without a baby brother to distract him, or a mom to talk to, he learns to be resourceful. He learns to entertain himself, to use his imagination, to be creative and figure out things on his own. He learns to become a Master of Play instead of just a student.
It would be easy for me to hide in my bedroom during Quiet Time, and sometimes I do, but truthfully, I’ve found a great deal of joy in strolling past his bedroom during those hours to see what he’s up to. I love to see what kind of magic he's creating in there.
For example, one day I found him wearing a raincoat and rain boots, sitting under an open umbrella reading a pop-up book about Noah’s ark. One day I found him dancing with his Elmo, rocking out to a song like he was at his own private concert. Another day I found his dinosaurs lined up on the windowsill, as if they were plotting an epic escape. One day I found all of his Hot Wheels perfectly lined out on the carpet in the shape of stars, and another day I found him totally naked, sitting on the floor doing a puzzle. Sometimes he whispers to himself, or talks on behalf of his toys. Sometimes I catch him “reading” (he can’t read) - making up a story to go along with the pictures on the pages of his books.
Usually he spends the majority of Quiet Time building “masterpieces” (his word, not mine). He builds train tracks with bridges and tunnels, and sets up his army men next to the road signs. He builds castles and houses out of Magna Tiles—always with a garage full of tiny cars.
Lately he’s started dedicating his masterpieces, which brings a whole new adorable element to the mix.
“Mommy, I made this for you!” he says proudly, as he points to a collection of Hot Wheels that he’s designed into a figure 8 on the carpet.
“I made this one for Daddy,” he tells me, motioning towards a line-up of Paw Patrol cars with quarters placed perfectly in the wheels.
He’s always so pleased with his creations, excited to show me what he’s made and beaming with pride at his own handiwork.
“I worked really hard on this, mommy. Do you love it?” he asks.
I look around the room and see what he sees: a blank canvas, a room of possibility and wonder, space to invent in solitude, rest in mystery, and use the creativity the good Lord has blessed him with. I think back to those six sacred months when my house was silent for two hours every day, and how it’s different now with the muffled sound of toddler dance tunes and “I have to go potty!” interruptions and clanging Legos. Not bad different, or good different, just…..different.
“It’s the most beautiful masterpiece I’ve ever seen,” I tell him.
Words and photo by Ashlee Gadd.
p.s. Once the velcro baby gives up his nap, I am done for. Our Quiet Time favorites: ok-to-wake clock, Magna Tiles, train set, jungle animals, wooden blocks, magnet board. For screen time, we just started using the JellyTelly app on the iPad and love it! You can enter to win 1 of 5 one-year subscriptions here.