I did not realize that becoming a parent meant that I would never again get a full night’s sleep.
The secret is out when it comes to newborns. Everyone knows that time will be measured in three-to-four hour chunks, regardless of whether it is light or dark outside. You’re equipped and encouraged for what’s billed as a finite endurance challenge or extreme athletic event. It’s insinuated that you only have to survive a few months on sleep measured in increments shorter than some movies.
We all work towards this magical, mystical milestone called “sleeping through the night.” We sneak rice cereal into milk, hoping that carbo-loading works as well for infant sleeping as it does for marathon running. We buy black-out shades, we install white-noise machines. We howl at full moons.
We hold our breath after the first night that baby goes to bed at a socially acceptable hour and wakes post-sunrise. When a three-night streak ensues, we dare to whisper about it to our mothers and closest friends. After a week, we strut around parks and give sleep training tips to anyone who will listen – and even to those who clearly don’t want to.
Ah, the bliss of ignorance.
As soon as your wonder baby figures out how to keep her eyes shut for eight hours, you figure you’ve got to take advantage. But not by catching up on your own sleep. Instead, you book-end her full night’s sleep with all the things you can’t do when she’s awake. For example, things requiring uninterrupted thought, or things such as doing absolutely nothing at all.
So you clean, or organize, or pay bills. You shop online, or respond to emails, or make a to-do list for the next day. You sit on the couch and you just sit, period.
As long as that child is in a crib, this is how your nights progress. For every 10 hours she sleeps, you sleep maybe six. Every morning you wake up ashamed for indulging in a little Jimmy Fallon, promising yourself that you will start putting yourself to bed earlier. Then he starts a segment called “Lip Sync Battle,” and you decide it’s more important to watch Will Ferrell’s rendition of “Let It Go.”
Your circadian rhythms take the most meaningful hit with the introduction of the toddler bed. Henceforth, your child is mobile, even at night. If she needs you, she doesn’t have to cry. She can just march right down the hall and jab her finger into your eye socket.
Now, with every dream they might otherwise have fussed through, or every bathroom event they might otherwise have shared with their diaper, or every shadow that would otherwise have gone unnoticed by an imagination uninitiated to Peter Pan, you are brought into the action in almost real-time.
You find yourself explaining at 3 a.m. that raccoons can’t fly, or walking a disoriented toddler back from the bathroom, or negotiating the luminosity of a night-light. Your alertness is dulled by the consequences of your decision to have a glass of wine and read a book after bedtime. And then you found “Mad Men” on Netflix.
Alternatively, you wake up with two children in your bed, when you could have sworn you fell asleep with zero children in your bed. Or, you wake up in your child’s bed. Worse, you wake up on the floor next to your child’s bed, with nothing but a superhero cape as your blanket.
Time away, that blessed event you used to call vacation, doesn’t help. You can’t fall asleep because you’re wondering how they are and what they’re doing. Your body confirms it has become biologically incapable of staying in bed past 7 a.m.
The future doesn’t look much more rested. Curfews will become parental bedtimes. College means sleepless hours spent wondering why they aren’t texting back. In between and forever after, you lie awake wondering how they are and what they’re doing.
So the warnings of sleep-deprivation that new parents hear are helpful only to a point. It should be clarified that there is no expiration date. And that your television is your enemy.