There’s a hole in my bucket …

I can’t say the words without hearing Harry Belafonte’s smooth mellow voice singing the words to this 400-year-old nursery rhyme – a most humorous depiction of futility: going round and round in circles without getting anywhere. A ‘hole in the bucket’ is, in fact, more than just a great analogy for futility; the word ‘futility’ originated from the Latin word ‘futilis’ meaning ‘leaky’. A hole in the bucket is undoubtedly the most concrete visualization of its meaning.

I’ll never forget my literal hole-in-the-bucket experience – about a decade ago in our much-loved vacation spot in Maui. Joy and I were there alone and she had gone off to get some groceries when a rare and angry tropical storm arrived. Even though we were on the fourth floor of the building, gravity-defying sheets of rain came in laterally from the sea it seemed, pouring in through the venting that was meant to serve the air conditioning. I looked desperately around for something to fight the elements as the flood rose over the hardwood floor before my eyes.

I was much relieved to find a bucket in a closet and immediately re-commissioned our beach towels for the job. I proceeded to squeeze the water out of each drenched towel into the bucket in rapid and exhausting succession. After what seemed like an eternity trying to fill the bucket up, I finally peeked in to see it as empty as when I began. My bucket had a hole in it. The hilarity of the experience was immediately obvious to Joy when she returned. I must admit it took a while for the comedy aspect of the experience to catch up to me.

My bucket didn’t hold water.

There are several things in life we cannot hold on to. We cannot hold on to time, we cannot make good experiences last, we cannot make another hold on to us. These buckets all have holes in them and we don’t often find this out until we have desperately tried to hold them fast. Sometimes these experiences become acute, like during bedtime for instance. And of course, at death time.

The more I have been thinking about bedtime, putting the pieces together through the lenses of attachment, emotion and development, the more convinced I am that bedtime truly is a potential crucible of character, especially with regards to cultivating the strength required to live with the core futilities of life. By crucible, I mean metaphorically as a transformative experience that affects us to our very core. But only if futility – these leaky buckets as it were – is faced and felt.

This means of course, that sadness – the feeling of futility – needs to be a part of the experience of bedtime. There are two challenges with this. The first is that our parental instincts are typically to protect our children from sadness, especially at bedtime. The second challenge is with the nature of the sadness itself. Sadness about what we cannot control can only be experienced when there is sufficient safety to do so. For example, when we lose a loved one, we need to feel enough of a connection to be able to feel the hole they have left in our lives. To give our children the strength to feel sad, we need to preserve the connection with them sufficiently for them to feel sad about what they can’t hold on to, including us. I can’t think of a better way to summarize the challenge of bedtime, providing a continuity of connection so that the felt futility of holding on – at least concretely – is not too much to bear. And of course, this explains also the ensorcelling magic of the lullaby as both the ultimate instrument of primordial connection and of the sadness needed to enable our children to let go of holding on – to time, to consciousness, to good experiences, and to being with us.

Thus the importance of getting bedtime right. Of course, the essential challenges of bedtime never go away. Bedtime simply sets the stage and brings these life futilities to a head. It also brings to a head the challenge of holding on to a child when apart. For those of you who have already watched my Getting Bedtime Right presentation, you will have been introduced to these concepts, at least theoretically. We will be following up this presentation with a webinar series of three panels in November 2021, to flesh out the challenges of bedtime with practical suggestions and guidelines.

And yes, my bucket does have a hole in it – one that is more difficult to talk about and so left to the end of this little piece. I was diagnosed with cancer almost a year ago and have been in a fight with it ever since. Surgery wasn’t successful in removing the cancer and so am now hoping the course of radiation treatments I have just completed will do the job. I won’t know if I have been cured, however, until I have been free from signs and symptoms for several years. Talk about suspense!

Of course, everyone’s bucket has a hole in it; some holes are much more noticeable, especially once we desperately don’t want them to be there.

And yes, I have also found laughter through the tears and cherish the special sweetness of life and love that sadness serendipitously delivers in its wake.


For more information about the Solutions to Sleep Webinar Panel Series in November 2021, click HERE.

© 2021 The Neufeld Institute