The Sleepover

by Sam Harper

boy jumping on bed
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I’m never using the term “sleepover” again. From now on, it’s “Awakeover,” or Survivalover.” Or, if I’m feeling the need to be specific, “All-night-Giggling-Video-Watching-Refrigerator-Pillage-And-Torturing-Sister-over.” let’s face it, “sleepover” is a misnomer. The kids don’t sleep. The parents don’t sleep. The dog looks like he’s asleep, but that’s only because those sugar-buzzed sleepover kids spent the midnight hour gleefully feeding him a near-fatal dose of fruit leather.

Sorry if I sound sour. At heart I’m a responsible sleepover host parent. I recognize that it’s spiritually nourishing to invite other traditions into our home in the form of diminutive overnight guests. And I know that sleepovers provide extended unstructured playtime for a generation of children whose social interaction is otherwise segmented into day-fracturing play-dates. Heck, I was even deeply moved when my eldest marched out the door on his first sleepover, making a primary separation from the familiar comforts of home.

Believe me, I know that sleepovers are developmentally integral. But that’s hard to keep in mind when Sleepover Dread Syndrome (SDS) strikes.

In layman’s terms, SDS is a dizzying rush of fear and nausea triggered by the question “Can I have a sleepover?” It results in excessive stammering as you bumble for a reason not to have the sleepover, clumsy flailing for the date book in the hope that it contains a conflict, and sweating palms as you unsuccessfully try to foist the sleepover onto another household.

In part, my SDS finds its origins in discomfort with the behavioral adjustments my kids insist on when their friends come over. Namely, (a) they want me to sleep less than my usual 14 hours (b) I have to wear more than one item of clothing during mealtime and (c) I can’t repeatedly sing at high volume the two lines that I remember from “My Heart Will Go On.” The nausea portion of my SDS is an anticipatory response to the inner conflict I’ll have during the sleepover itself. On the one hand, I’ll want to make the sleepover the wildest, most fantastic night any child has ever had. On the other hand, I’ll be fighting the urge to beat them with a wet sock if they make a single sound after 10pm.

Get over yourself, you say? Take a chill pill? The best cure for SDS is to rent a couple of videos and make sure they’re asleep by 11pm? You’re right. It is simple. Unless your children happen to be best friends with the four horsemen of REM-interruptus: “Midnight Run,” “Burl Hives,” “Mr. Vegas” and “Waterboy” (pseudonyms meant to protect the identities of Mike, Steve, Kyle and Rex.)

“Midnight Run” is a small, sensitive kid who has never actually completed a sleepover. Most recently, he shuffled into our bedroom at 2am, just about the time the dog was recovering from his fruit leather overdose. M.R. said he was feeling traumatized by the sight of a spider outside his window. He wanted to go home. Knowing that M.R.’s lame parents always turn off their phone ringer so they can enjoy a full night of sleep, I offered to kill the spider for him. This made M.R. sob uncontrollably for the fate of small creatures. The good news is that the crying wore him out. M.R. slept soundly as I drove him home to Bakersfield.

“Burl Hives” gets throat-constricting shingles if he’s exposed to trace amounts of peanut butter oil, artificial flavorings, or animal fat. Because these happen to be the primary food groups my house, trace amounts, (okay, globs) can be found on our walls, bed linens and my shirt. When Burl stays over, my wife and I lie awake, clinging to our bed covers, hoping we don’t hear any labored breathing.

“Mr. Vegas” claims his nannies let him do anything and everything. No limits. No boundaries. He can eat Tootsie Rolls for breakfast, set up the “Slip `n Slide” on the roof, cruise “Live Nude” clubs on his Schwinn. Inevitably, he forces me to make the “we-don’t-do-that-in-our-house” speech. I hate that speech! It’s the one speech I swore I would never make when I became a parent. In retaliation, Mr. Vegas says something inflammatory to me, like “You’re a has-been screenwriter who has authority issues!” Then I’m up for the rest of the night crying.

sleeping boy
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“Waterboy” can’t enter dreamland unless he’s “properly hydrated.” He usually feels the need for hydration shortly before midnight, which is shortly before he hears a strange sound from the closet, which is shortly before he thinks he is getting an ear infection, which is shortly before he points out that all of our Advil expired in 1992, which is shortly before he hates the lullaby tape you put on for him, which is shortly before he says his pillow stinks. Shortly before dawn, he falls asleep. Which is shortly before he hydrates his bed.

Given my fragile mental state, I suppose you’re wondering how I’ll handle the inevitable request for a birthday slumber party that will include all four sections of the third grade. As a matter of fact, I will say “Yes.” (After all, I can’t say “No.” It’s the `90s. Saying “No” to children is forbidden.) But on the invitations I will include the phrases “Live Big Cats!” “Chainsaw Fun!” and “Bring your own tourniquet!” I figure this will keep the numbers down.

Maybe some day all of my kids will be out on sleepovers at the same time, tucked between Waterboy’s plastic sheets, ensconced in Mr. Vegas’ mansion, curled up in Burl Hives’ hypoallergenic bubble. My house will be empty. Quiet.

And I’ll be in bed wondering why the heck I can’t get to sleep

Copyright © 1999 Sam Harper. All rights reserved.