Before I had my daughter, I had all sorts of reservations about becoming a parent. I worried about how I would keep up my social life and about how I would maintain an upward trajectory at work. I fretted over whether I could manage a parenting-appropriate level of sobriety after my cold turkey pregnancy or manage a private school level of financial solvency to someday afford cello lessons and fancy college dorms. But what scared me most of all, what really kept me up at night, was my fear of what parenthood would do to my sleep. And while so many of my other anxieties look downright silly in retrospect, it turns out that sleep was the one and only thing I hadn’t worried about enough.
As I suppose would have been the case with any mildly alcoholic pot-smoker, sleep used to be a very big part of my life, and bedtime was the biggest, bestest, most important part of my day, so important and so pleasurable that all of those hours in between coming home from work and getting into bed just seemed incidental, a formality of waiting for the clock to reach a not completely embarrassing bedtime for a woman of my still young age. Because bedtime wasn’t just about sleeping – it was a perfect, beautiful slow motion meditation on my day, a luxuriant delicacy of one hundred percent nonproductive time that soothed away all other ills of my life. I could smoke in bed (when I was still single, at least). I could drink tea or drink whiskey or drink whiskey with tea. I could read a chapter of a novel and a chapter of nonfiction, I could write a few lines in my journal and read a few lines of philosophy. I could snuggle up with my fat and furry cat and my many stacked up pillows and sleep so well and so long that it would take three alarms to rouse me.
And then I got pregnant.
The first time I realized that I was never going to sleep again was while reading one of those generic all about baby books that pregnant women now turn to in lieu of the oral wisdom which, in more civilized times, we would have gleaned from our elder tribeswomen. This is where I discovered that most newborns need to eat (or suck milk from my breast, to be more specific) every three or four hours until they are at least SIX MONTHS OLD. This meant that at the very least, I would spend my first three months back at work sleeping no more than three to four hours at a time – if I was lucky.
If I was unlucky, which often (read: always) I was, the baby would nurse for half an hour and then take another half an hour to fall asleep. It would then take me another half an hour to fall asleep, which meant that sleep would actually occur in intervals of only ninety-minutes. Ninety-minute intervals of sleep, all night, every night. Work, meanwhile, would still take the form of nine-hour days.
I never believed that I would be able to manage this kind of schedule, but I did, just like every other working mom I’ve ever met. I survived those first weeks and survived those first months. I survived the first half year and survived the first birthday. I even survived the milestone of “sleeping through the night” only to discover that this actually meant sleeping a span of only six hours, which, unless I went to bed with the baby at 8pm, also meant not much of anything for me. I survived it all thanks to the belief that someday, someday soon I would sleep again.
And now two years have passed, and still we do not sleep in my house.
Of course we are sleeping more now than we did when my daughter was a newborn. Of course we have nights every now and then when she will go to sleep at 8pm without a fight and not wake up until 6am the next day. But more often than not, sleep, in the traditional sense of the word, is not happening.
Take last Monday, for example. My daughter went to sleep like a perfectly sleep trained child, then woke up at 3am and refused to go back to sleep until naptime the next day. Or this Monday when she used her perfect toddler diction to say, “I’m tired Mommy, I want to go to sleep,” only to spend the next two hours banging on her crib like a prisoner protesting against his cage. Or even tonight, with this post pending in my MUST DO BEFORE I GET ANY SLEEP list, when my daughter insisted on me standing watch for an hour while she sang and danced herself to sleep, favorite babydoll in tow for her magical mattress tour.
During the daytime, my husband and I try to be positive about it. She’s so good at everything else, can we really expect her to be perfect at everything? Can we really get mad at her resistance to sleep when she’s using all of that late night awake time to practice reciting her ABCs or her multilingual counting? Can we really blame her for missing us and trying to squeeze in more family togetherness during the only time in our calendars still left unscheduled? How can we really complain about this one little thing?
But then the lights go out and primeval transformation occurs. She is no longer the precious, perfect light of my life Koukla; she is a wild, gurgling animal, flopping around on her bed like an amateur acrobat in an eternal, every night struggle against sleep. We’ve tried rocking and tried swaying, tried warm air misters and cool air misters and blue air circulation machines. We’ve tried Walk In Walk Out, tried the No Cry Solution, tried the Gradual Withdrawal Tiptoe Dance. We have the Sleep Sheep and the Light Up Ladybug and the Sleepless in Seattle Rain Machine. And yet we do not have sleep.
I imagine myself now as that tribal elder I never had, the tribal elder that doesn’t yet exist for this new generation of working moms forging new paths into new wave feminism and new wave parenting. I imagine myself going back in time, back to those first moments of fear, those first epiphanies of what lay ahead for my sleeping life and my working life and my social life – for the lives that I would never know again – and I imagine I would say this:
It Doesn’t Matter. It doesn’t matter how little you will sleep or how isolated will feel or how difficult it will be to balance it all. The only thing that will matter is your child and the boundless joy and the bottomless love that they will bring to your life.
Because this is the only way to explain why, after all of the cajoling and pleading and coercing, after all of my dizziness and my stress and my sleep deprivation, the moment my daughter falls asleep I’m eager for the next day to begin again, eager to hear her calling out for me at five or six in the morning, eager to spend another hour or two or three escorting her into sleep again that night, and eager for every moment in between.