Some things in life are constant. For example, there is nothing that I enjoy more than a good night’s sleep. I love every part of the process—the onset of sleepiness, bedding down under the duvet, the delicious fog of pre-REM sleep and then kicking off the covers in the morning and taking a few minutes to contemplate the world before I get up. Before becoming a parent, I slept for 8 hours a night and often spent Saturday morning in bed, making up for any late or sleepless nights. More than the physical rest, I loved the way the sleep changed my inner world: a good sleep stole the heat from my anger and the despair from my worry. When I woke up after a good night’s rest, I felt perfectly in balance—like Buddha sitting under the Bodhi tree knowing that everything was exactly as it should be.
So you can guess how I felt after I gave birth to Ayla and realized—firsthand—that one of the great losses of parenthood is sleep. I willingly gave up my privacy, my time, my ability to chew while eating. But sleep. Ah. I struggled with that one.
My coping strategy early on was to go to bed at the same time as Ayla. Since I was exhausted from the birth and since we were co-sleeping, it was easy enough to climb into bed at 8 or 9 p.m. I much preferred sleep in long stretches rather than short bursts, but I wound up getting about 8 hours a night, and decided that I could sacrifice quality so long as the quantity was right.
But then, as Buddha calmly predicted, impermanence set in. I eventually found myself wide awake at 8 p.m. and realized that my body no longer needed as much rest. I spent evenings cleaning, cooking, emailing, writing, and doing anything else I fancied. Sleep was good, but I was beginning to miss my adult life more. I began to invite friends over for dinner or visited with family instead of catching extra zzz‘s. For a time, that worked too.
But the winds of change swept through my bedroom once again. After a few months of sleeping at midnight and getting only 5 or 6 (constantly interrupted) hours a night, I morphed into a different person. More than the grogginess and irritation, I hated the sleep headaches and the mental chatter that accompanied them. The chatter was always negative and combative, and endlessly repeated itself. A typical dialogue sounded like this:
“You wouldn’t have this headache if you had gone to bed earlier,” my Left Brain would scold.
“But I can’t fall asleep at 9 p.m. anymore,” my Right Brain would answer.
“Just look at you—you’re a mess. You’re not going to get anything done today,” Left Brain would snicker.
“But I’ll drink coffee,” Right Brain would plead.
Left brain would persist, always wanting to have the last word. “Drink a whole pot and you’ll still feel like crap. Good luck parenting a newborn today!”
And with those words, my right brain would cower, and back down, knowing that I would struggle to think straight and that at some point, I would lose my cool. I would go through the day alternately wishing I had gone to bed earlier and counting down the minutes until I could go to sleep again. And that night, Ayla would wake up 9 times instead of 5, and the next day I would feel even worse.
I reached my breaking point around the ten-month mark and called in for reinforcement. I didn’t recognize myself anymore. I needed to sleep “properly” again. Some friends of mine called Dr. Sleep or Nurse Sleepytime who promised children would sleep through the night and parents would achieve “pre-child” sleep quality. Others visited places like Whisper Cottage and 40 Winks. I called my dad. During a family trip to Florida, he night-weaned Ayla without forcing her to cry herself to sleep or to face the struggle alone. A week later, Ayla was sleeping through the night in her own room, and I was sleeping in long stretches again, feeling invincible in the mornings and forgoing coffee altogether. Sleep was heaven. And I was grateful that I had been given back my wings.
For three weeks, I slept soundly, feebly clinging to the belief that it would stay like this forever. But one night, I found myself unable to fall asleep, and later, to stay asleep. I didn’t know what was happening or why everything had changed. As the clock ticked on and on, I recalled a persistent memory of my father.
As a teenager, every time I took the car and went out for the night, I would return home to the same sounds—my father’s footsteps plodding to the bathroom, the toilet flushing and then the sound of him getting into bed. We didn’t talk about it but it was clear that my father couldn’t sleep until he knew that I had safely returned from my outing. This pattern continued for decades, and finally, when I was in my early thirties and visiting from New York for the weekend, I said, “You can go to sleep now. I’m not going to drink too much or drive too fast. I care about my life as much as you do.” And my dad’s response was to pat my shoulder, lovingly and knowingly, as if to say, when you’re a parent you’ll understand.
After Ayla began sleeping through the night and I found myself unable to sleep through the night, I finally understood. In contrast to the promises of the Dr. Sleeps of the world, I am drawn to my father’s ways, whom I lovingly call “Dr. No-Sleep.” Now that I’m a parent, I too sleep with one eye open and when I hear or sense Ayla’s discomfort, I am instantly awake—my blood coursing with adrenaline—racing out of my room to be at Ayla’s side. I don’t want to achieve “pre-child sleep patterns” because what I want more than sleep is to be available to my child. And now that I no longer crave the way things were, I am pleasantly surprised that Sleepus Interuptus doesn’t bother me anymore.
Two years ago, I would have thought that I’d be Dr. Sleep’s top client. Today, I couldn’t be less interested in turning back the hands of time. Last night, Ayla woke up at 1:40 a.m. shouting “Shovel! Shovel!”—and I wasn’t sure if it was a nightmare or a play-mare. I patted her back to sleep and then went to the bathroom, flushed the toilet and lay awake for another hour, listening to the wind. My Left Brain and Right Brain were quiet. I wasn’t angry to be awake or desperately counting minutes of lost sleep. Eventually, I fell asleep and when I woke up, Ayla was at my bedside scrambling to get into my bed to nurse. And that’s when I realized that my love of sleep wasn't a constant in my life. Now I value a good wake-up call more than a good night’s rest…