What they mean by "no sleep"

Joel was the first to suggest that we enjoy our last months of sleep-filled nights prior to Frankie's arrival. He mentioned it during the same conversation in which he warned of the evils of cloth diapers and the unimaginable volume and offensiveness of baby shit, and in the same dire tone. "You'll never sleep again, David." At the time, I took it for what it seemed worth: one more desperate warning from a man who'd been in the trenches of parenthood for all of six months. I appreciated the heads up, but assumed things couldn't possibly be as bleak as he'd made them seem. Besides, at that particular moment I was more interested in his enthusiastic condemnation of cloth diapers, so the subject of sleep was momentarily set aside.

Since that initial conversation, the ominous threat of perpetual sleeplessness has been repeated countless times, by Joel and many other parents. In fact, by almost
all other parents. Since becoming an expectant parent, I can recall few conversations with post-birth breeders that didn't include a discussion of sleeplessness after the baby's arrival. These conversations are all strikingly similar in terms of both tone and content: equal parts funereal seriousness, sermonic admonition, and apocalyptic prophesy. Ultimately, it always takes the form of a plaintive warning: I've got to make you understand....YOU'LL NEVER SLEEP AGAIN! Of course, most folks are quick to remind that parenting is a blessing, and babies are just the most incredibly miraculous things ever, but this mostly seems like a perfunctory gesture, the performance of which simultaneously confesses and apologizes for the inadequacy of mere words. The subtext is crystal clear: this is the kind of life-saving knowledge that is acquired only through experience, and no matter how sincere and persuasive the appeal, it's a bone-deep truth you won't really appreciate until you're living it. I can even sort of wrap my head around this bare fact, and consciously acknowledge that, sleeping-wise, my life is really going to suck for a while, but that's not really knowing. And yet, they warn us anyway. And the futility of the gesture just makes me think, my God, how bad can it be?

Perhaps it's an instinctual impulse that compels those who have been through the process to warn expectant parents of the perils that lie ahead, chief among which appears to be the end of sleep(1). It might be a primal drive for collective survival, an inborn desire to prepare those charged with the care and maintenance of future generations to deal with the overwhelming enormity of the task. Books and classes might be helpful, but they don't tell you everything (2). For example, in the pompously entitled
The Baby Book: Everything You Need to Know About Your Baby From Birth to Age Two, 39 index subheadings appear under the listing for "Sleep," but only one addresses the issue of sleep for parents, referencing a scant four pages, all dedicated to persuading mothers to adopt their newborns' sleeping habits (3). There's no mention of sleeplessness, or the physical and emotional strain it creates for new parents. The American Academy of Pediatricians' Your Baby's First Year dedicates something in the neighborhood of 20 pages to the subject of sleep, but not one discusses parental sleeplessness. The Baby Owner's Manual: Operating Instructions, Trouble-Shooting Tips, and Advice on First-Year Maintenance is cute and informative, but likewise silent on the issue. Unless there is a twenty five-year-old VHS tape of parents sharing their tortured stories of infant-induced sleeplessness, we are not likely to learn much about the subject in our parenting class (4). In this vast ocean of instructional materials, nary a drop of advice about how to deal with the impending nightmare of extended periods of sleep deprivation. It makes sense, then, that post-birth breeders would feel compelled to fill in this gap, and that each conversation with an expectant parent would invite the plaintive warning. And it scares me that the so-called experts are utterly silent on an issue that is so universally invoked as a critical topic of conversation by just about every parent I know. I mean, seriously, how bad can it be?

But the worst thing about the looming period of sleeplessness isn't the fact that we can't really know how bad it's going to be until we're actually in the muck. Like I said, I understand this. I acknowledge this fact. The worst thing is that we can't even really enjoy these last sweet months, even having resigned ourselves to our inevitable fate. I began writing this Saturday morning at 5:42 am. I'd been up since 5am, when Malcolm (cat) demanded to be fed and let outside. This has become a morning ritual, as Anna has been indulging the little shit in order to train herself to be able to briefly wake up to feed Frankie and then to fall quickly back to sleep. Up until the last couple of weeks, my nights have ended well past 4 in the morning, with work on the dissertation heating up again no later than 10am the next. Neither of us has been savoring this fleeting opportunity. That's the worst part. On Saturday morning, I decided to spare Anna her 5am wake up call from Malcolm, so I gave him his food, let him outside, and started writing this. Anna slept in until almost 9am, when I set this aside to go vote in what turned out to be a losing cause, but a very nice morning walk nonetheless. It's now Wednesday night, and I'm finally picking up this half-forgotten thought. I remember that I started writing about sleeplessness because it had finally sunk in that even when Frankie falls asleep, I'm going to be lying awake, listening for his breath. If he sleeps for an hour straight, I'll be putting my head to his chest, and maybe turning him so he doesn't get flat head (5). I finally really understand what Joel and everybody else means by sleeplessness. And what I wanted to say was that finally figuring that out means this is going to be even harder than I'd previously imagined.

[Check out the messages attached to this post for footnotes (*)]


Blogger Critical Mess said...

(1) I don't think sleeplessness is actually the chief pitfall of parenting a newborn. If I had to guess, I'd say lack of intimacy ranks pretty high on most parents' lists of complaints. But that's only a guess because there's a general prohibition against the discussion of such topics in polite conversation. So instead, we talk about sleeplessness. Is this a euphemism, perhaps? Are they trying to tell us something else entirely?

(2) The books and classes have inculcated two primary perceptions: labor and birth are going to be more painful than we can possibly imagine, and our prime directive in life is now the preservation of our baby's health and welfare. We are entirely responsible for our baby's survival and well-being, and that he will be fragile and vulnerable and constantly exposed to an infinite array of potential threats, from exposed electrical sockets to defective high chairs. There is literally no end to the potential dangers the mind can conjure: stampeding elephants, alien abduction, giant radioactive ants (and that's only to avoid thinking about the real shit, like pedophiles, drunk drivers, leukemia). It's hard to fault overly protective parents, even if overprotectiveness carries the attendant hazard of turning your kid into a risk-averse, neurotic mess. It's a fine line parents walk, and the difficulty of the job is hard to overestimate. Now, deal with all that shit and do it on 3 hours of REM sleep over the last 72 hours.

(3) The subheading "Mother's," which references a page in the breastfeeding chapter that advises mothers to adopt their baby's sleep routine, a page in the infant feeding and nutrition chapter that likewise advises mom to adopt baby's sleep schedule by practicing "nap nursing" and "night nursing," and two pages in the chapter on contemporary parenting that explain the benefits of this "sleep sharing" philosophy. Moreover, "sleep sharing" doesn't really accommodate the breastfeeding mother who is returning to work full-time just six short weeks after giving birth. So, for couples in our position, this book effectively says nothing about the toll infant care will take on our sleep, and by extension, our sanity. This apparently does not fall under the heading of "everything you need to know."

(4) Tonight's class: pain relief options we already know about and a video of a cesarean birth, which I did not watch.

(5) Totally serious. Babies can get "flat head" (plagiocephaly). Check it out.

11:36 PM  
Blogger MommaS said...

Colton is 11 months old. I have not yet slept thru the night. He has, I haven't. Sex? Hm. I remember it. We've technically had sex 4x since he's been born. Reasons? Exhaustion, lack of opportunity, co-sleeping, mindless irritation at each other (due to sleeplessness), or simply not being in the mood. Add to that a form of birth control we didn't foresee (Colton). He doesn't like us to touch each other, only him. Jealous little man. Good luck. Sleep is overrated, anyway.

6:17 AM  
Anonymous Dave's mom said...

Free baby sitting while you sleep or whatever....I invision lots of week-end trips to Austin in the near future and we sure can't wait!! When Carlee and Tressa were babies, I'd stay with Deb to give her & Russell free "date nights". They NEVER ONCE went to a movie or out to eat, if that
tells you anything about lack of sleep, etc.

9:59 AM  
Blogger Silver Zephyr said...

we might go sleep at the movie theater...it's nice and dark in there...or maybe out in the shed! we may find it worth it to drive 3 hours to see you just so we can sleep (and i can tweeze my eyebrows with the special tweezers, too)...i really like to sleep. i will mourn its loss. sigh.

7:48 PM  
Blogger BobDobbs said...

I read somewhere that there are safe amounts of sedatives that babies can ingest. So jack the little fellah up full of codine or turkey meat or whatever and then pop a few pills for yourselves and have a great big family coma. You'll all wake up refreshed and ready to go out and face the world!

9:30 AM  

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