I have been struck down with a little-known condition that seems to affect most parents at some stage: FSSS, or False Sense of Security Syndrome (or to give it it’s Latin name, Pridus avant Fallus, Twatus). It is triggered by your child getting better at something or mastering an up-until-this-point unachievable skill. The parent starts by feeling relieved, then moves into a phase of being pleased which often is accompanied by a side-effect of smugness, usually coinciding with the compelling urge to tell someone else about your offspring’s achievement. The penultimate symptom is a calming sense of closure on the previous worry that they would be the only child walking the planet that had never managed this. But the final, most debilitating symptom by far is the sinking feeling when realisation strikes that the problem is far from over after all and you were just experiencing a mild, hallucinogenic episode, often brought on by fatigue.
Let’s take an example at random. Ooh, I don’t know, let’s say E’s inability to sleep through the night, for the sake of argument. And argue I will, because I am a tad short-tempered and quite frankly, I can start an argument with a house brick these days, because I am still FUCKING TIRED.
We had duly pinned up the bribe sheet, sorry, I mean reward chart and in eight days, E had racked up five sleep throughs and had earned himself a book. Rock and roll, we thought. What a piece of piss this behaviour change is, we mused, as our fingers hovered over another sticker to add to the growing, wobbly line that represented E’s success at sleeping. We’ve got this cracked, we whispered to each other as we got into bed, anticipating another delicious night of uninterrupted sleep. I may have mentioned it to a couple of friends. Big, big mistake. Now, suddenly, E has decided that he can’t sleep through after all. The next bribe is still two stickers away, and remains resolutely so. Every night as we put him to bed, we remind him of the holy grail of another treat that awaits him in just two more sleep throughs. Maybe he knows that I got the last book at a knock-down price of £2.49 from Amazon and he is punishing us for our cheapness. Or lack of imagination. He did mention to M on receipt of the book that technically, a treat is chocolate-based, or words to that effect. An effect such as: “where is my chocolate treat, daddy?”
So we are back if not right to the start, then somewhere near it, except £2.49 worse off and with a growing sense of frustration and even more tired than before. Maybe we should up the bribe ante? I am loathe to go down this route, for fear of bankrupting ourselves and spoiling E. After all, my natural instinct is to staple him through the testicles to the mattress in order to get him to stay in bed, not to shower him with gifts. Though I appreciate my natural maternal instincts and compassionate motherhood may not be in speaking terms. They may not even exist in the same universe, to be fair.
And I just can’t escape the niggling feeling that the early success at sleeping through was simply a demonstration by E of his ability to get though the night without getting out of bed. Think I can’t sleep through, mummy? Well I’ll show you. Zzzz. There you go. Five nights of sleep throughs: tick. Now, let’s get back to coming in at 3am every night, as it’s far more entertaining to see you roll out of bed with atrocious bed hair, grinding your teeth and trying hard not to shout at me. We experienced a similar thing with E getting himself undressed. We made a big fuss about him being able to undress himself, and employing that parental favourite of reverse psychology, insisted that he couldn’t possibly be grown up enough to take his own clothes off, thereby managing to get him to strip off without a fuss before bath time. For about a week. At which point, the penny dropped and E realised that this whole ‘new skills and greater independence’ equation had one great big minus side: more work for him. At which point he promptly lost interest in getting himself undressed and re-entered the much more amusing territory of having mummy try and extricate a small boy from his top whilst his arms are resolutely folded over his chest.
I think the root cause of FSSS is parental optimism (P.O.). I am no scientist, but I believe the P.O. gene spontaneously comes into being at the point of offspring birth. It is not only to blame for recurring bouts of FSSS, it has it’s chirpy little fucking fingers in all sorts of erroneous thoughts and actions, such as: I think my five-year old is very intelligent, just look how quickly he completed that four-piece puzzle, or: I will enrol her in ballet, I think she has real promise to be a great dancer once she stops falling over. I understand the Darwinian imperative attached to this optimism gene, as it would make it a tad more difficult to survive and thrive if a child hears the unvarnished truth fall from its parents’ mouths on a regular (‘Look, Freddie, you’re just a bit thick, so stick to the comics, will you?’ and ‘I’m not saying you are not ballet dancer material, sweetie, but you did crack three floor tiles the last time you practised’). But bloody hell, it sure can make talking to parents at their kid’s party a painful and dull experience.
There appears to be no cure for FSSS. But on the up-side, it tends to be short-lived. My current bout was done and dusted in eight days, after all – from hope to despair, in just over a week, not unlike doing the lottery. We have now all clambered aboard the good ship Wakefulness again, to sail the rough waters of interrupted sleep and spurious claims of ‘I’ve had a bad dream, mummy,’ from the ship’s captain. But the next time E sleeps through, I shall take it for what it is: temporary calm before the next sleepless storm. Pass a bloody sou’wester, will you?