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To Sleep, Perchance to Scheme

A Couple Survives (Barely) the Sleep Wars

By Adam Wasson
Excerpted from Blindsided by a Diaper by Dana Hilmer

    I came across prisoners who signed what they were ordered to sign, only to get what the interrogator promised them. He did not promise them their liberty; he did not promise them food to sate themselves. He promised them—if they signed—uninterrupted sleep!

    —Menachem Begin, White Nights: The Story of a Prisoner in Russia

    Without enough sleep, we all become tall two-year-olds.

    —Jo Jo Jensen, Dirt Farmer Wisdom

We had been warned. My wife, Lael, and I had repeatedly been cautioned by our experienced friends to expect severe, relationship-altering sleep loss after the birth of our daughter. The truth was, though, that we looked forward to the challenge. Like changing diapers and not having sex, sleep deprivation seemed to us a rite of passage of new parenthood, and we approached it with manic resoluteness.

We were prepared. We were a team. We had read What to Expect When You’re Expecting twice.

We tore through that first month on caffeine and adrenaline, proudly weathering the exhaustion that apparently felled lesser parents. I even began to enjoy advertising my sleeplessness. There’s a kind of baby-fatigue chic that’s popular with new dads: yawning, unshaved, pushing a stroller to Starbucks while sporting pajama bottoms and bed head. The effect is similar to wearing a Lance Armstrong wristband or listening to the latest Norah Jones album: it tells the world you’re a sensitive, self-sacrificing new-age man with a confidence that disdains traditional vanity (this look can be enhanced by spiking your bed head an inch or two with mousse).

Other men eyed my puffy features with respect; women offered kind words or one of those “you’re so sweet, let me help you” half smiles. It was a pleasant kind of attention, but therein lay the rub: no matter how tired I was, I didn’t get any of the same sympathy from my wife that I got from relatives, friends, and complete strangers. My patented “sore back” twist with exhausted eye rub, so effective at eliciting attention at the mall, didn’t even get me a second glance from a spouse who was just as exhausted as I.

And vice versa. Her plaintive yawns meant nothing to me, and even her “help me, please” scowls went largely unnoticed. As the weeks wore on and the novelty wore off, it began to dawn on both of us that these midnight, 3 a.m., and 5 a.m. wake ups weren’t just some fashionable phase. We were exhausted, we would be exhausted tomorrow, and we would be exhausted next year. In fact, we were going to suffer some form of sleep deprivation every night for the foreseeable future.

Fatigue chic ceased to seem as cool or hip or fun as it had been the first month. We had moved on to what you might call fatigue fatigue.

The books will tell you that babies begin to smile at exactly this point—six to eight weeks in—as a matter of survival. Exhausted parents have reached their limits of endurance, and exchanging smiles with their child reaffirms feelings of love and allows the nurturing process to continue. What the books don’t tell you, however, is that this is also the time parents stop smiling at each other.

I remember the day that this became clear. It was around noon, and Lael and I had both been up for much of the night. She was feeding and making goo-goo eyes at our daughter, when suddenly she cast an accusatory look at me as I reclined on the couch. “As long as you’re not working,” she said, “could you watch her for twenty minutes while I take a shower?”

After offering my own peekaboo smile at the baby, I glared back at my wife and said, “I am working. I’m thinking. That’s an important part of my work. And I still have two hours until it’s my turn.”

She said, “I’m tired, I’m covered in baby formula, and I haven’t showered in two days.”

“I’m tired, too,” I said. “I haven’t showered either, and I’m trying to think!”

She replied, “It’s just a twenty-minute $*#@ing shower.”

I said something like “It’s just my career, my art, my single remaining escape from the friendless, sleepless purgatory my life has become.”

She cried.

I sulked.

No one took a shower.

Of course, that was one of our more healthy, reasoned, daytime exchanges of opinion. Nighttime was when the true dysfunction set in. Our P.M. arguments were vicious, underhanded, and inevitably centered around the same three sleep-related topics: the baby monitor, sleep training (also known as “Ferberizing”), and the ever-prickly question of who would get up with the baby in the middle of the night.

The baby monitor is, in my opinion, one of the most devious sleep-deprivation systems ever devised by man. Its genius lies in the fact that, when turned to full volume, it actually picks up breathing noises. My wife seemed to find this feature comforting: If she couldn’t physically watch her child every second, she could at least listen in. (Come to think of it, that monitor might actually prove useful once we get to those “we’re going to study in my room with the door closed” teen years.) The problem we had was that the amplification required to hear the baby’s sighlike breaths meant every cough, squawk, and kick resounded loudly enough to jolt us out of sleep and, upon one occasion, right onto the floor. Such rude awakenings could happen as often as three or four times a night.

Combined with the times the baby actually did wake up and need attention, that meant that neither of us got more than two uninterrupted hours of sleep. Ever.

We had terrible arguments over these earsplitting wake ups (I wanted to turn the monitor down), yet they were not even the most nefarious aspect of that devil machine. The worst thing was the quiet. Even the most sensitive monitors cannot always pick up breathing noises. Sometimes the baby rolled away from the microphone or just breathed quietly, and we couldn’t hear a thing. At this point Lael inevitably became concerned that the baby was not breathing. Nor was she shy about voicing this concern.

“Can you hear her breathing?”

“I’m not listening. I’m sleeping.”

“I can’t hear her breathing.”

“You can’t hear your mother breathing either.”

“My mother’s in San Francisco.”

“Exactly. Yet you assume she’s still breathing. So why not assume your child is, too?”

“Suppose she’s not breathing. What if you could save her and you don’t?”

I couldn’t believe she had said that. It was conniving, manipulative, and surprisingly effective. I knew perfectly well that my daughter had shifted into a position where the microphone couldn’t pick up her sounds, but now I couldn’t erase the specter of a nonbreathing child from my half-unconscious brain. Irrational baby anxiety is contagious, especially at night. It wasn’t long before I was the one slithering up to the crib on my belly to ensure that my sleeping, perfectly healthy child was, in fact, still breathing.

I argued, threatened, and cajoled, but my wife refused to give up the monitor. Accordingly, I began to hatch Wile E. Coyote-like plans to destroy it. I’d bump it off the nightstand with my foot; “accidentally” drop it down a flight of stairs; surreptitiously shortcircuit it in a deluge of water. Unfortunately, none of these plans ever bore fruit. Like that eerily self-satisfied revenant of a road runner, baby monitors are apparently indestructible. I did manage to unplug and hide the monitor once, reasoning with my wife that the baby’s room was only ten feet away and that when the child actually did wake up we would hear her easily. I calmly explained that people had gotten along for millennia without baby monitors in the bedroom. She responded that she would get along just fine without me in the bedroom, but she needed that monitor. So I returned the device and retreated to the couch, more convinced than ever that baby monitors are one of those “helpful” new technologies that make life much, much worse.

Sleep training, on the other hand, is a wholesome, low-tech, old-fashioned idea about which we also managed to have vicious disagreements.

The premise of sleep training is simple. You put the baby to bed before she is asleep, and when she cries for attention you refrain from comforting her so she can learn to fall asleep, and stay asleep, on her own. In our case, though, my wife could not bear to hear the baby cry without immediately going in to console her.

Even when I explained that it was for our daughter’s own good, Lael could not stop herself from entering that room.

How long would this continue, I wanted to know. Were we going to let her eat candy because she was crying? Buy her a car? Let her date some motorcycle-riding bass guitar player? The time for discipline was now! Our daughter’s plaintive sobs weren’t easy for me to hear, either, but I was willing to do what it took to get her, and us, more sleep. My wife was not.

What was so frightening about this sleep-training disagreement was that it illustrated a fundamental difference in the way we approached parenting. My wife was willing to sacrifice her physical and mental welfare (and mine as well) to make sure our child suffered no emotional discomfort—even if that discomfort was temporary and for the baby’s own good. I, on the other hand, felt we needed to ensure our own well-being if we were going to be effective parents, and in this case part of that well-being was getting some sleep. I felt angry and betrayed when Lael abandoned the sleep-training plan, and my sense of indignation played a big role in our subsequent arguments over who would get up in the middle of the night.

Like war veterans and prison guards, experienced parents never forget those middle-of-the-night sounds. A rustling, a slight croak.

A throat-clearing groan. Then that cringingly hopeful moment of silence before the all-out wail that forces desperate, sleep-deprived people into a direct confrontation with “the question.”

The question is familiar, even innocuous sounding, yet it has broken more young marriages than has any other question (with the possible exception of “Whose earring is this?”).

Who’s going to get up with the baby?

In our case, this question was rarely answered directly; rather, it was answered through an intricate, passive-aggressive battle of wills. I became quite adept at the nocturnal version of these exchanges and liked to think of myself as the master of the mumble.

My wife would awaken and say something like “I’ll get this one and you get the next one, okay?” and I would respond with something like “Mrrrph.” This unintelligible murmur served two purposes. First, it planted a seed of plausible deniability when she asked me to get up the next time—maybe I really hadn’t made an agreement, maybe I hadn’t even been awake. And second, a well-executed mumble sounds a cautionary note. It says, “I’m not even capable of speech. Do you really want me handling our child in this handicapped state?”

No slouch herself in the passive-aggressive arts, my wife quickly learned that any deal she wanted to strike would have to be made during daytime. She particularly excelled at the art of negotiation through comparison.

“Jessica’s husband gets up three mornings a week,” she would say. “And I know for a fact that Eric Perez takes care of Antonio every single weekday morning.”

Supposedly I was less helpful in the morning than every husband of every mom in Mommy and Me. My wife knew that playing on my competitive instincts was a good way to manipulate me. I didn’t want to get up in the middle of the night, but neither did I want to be out-fathered by some early-rising investment banker named Gerald.

I hadn’t met enough new parents to compete at the comparison game, but I did have a few weapons of my own. Chief among these was an arsenal of shadowy, hard-to-refute excuses to avoid wakeup duty: back pain, flulike symptoms, and the ever-popular important next-day meeting were some of the most useful. Once, in a particularly desperate moment, I even faked a doctor’s note alleging my medication made getting up on short notice impossible.

That I never used the note is immaterial; the fact that I wrote it illustrates how desperate I had become.

In the aftermath of the sleep-training fiasco, though, I rarely needed to resort to such subterfuge. I had discovered my wife’s weak point: She needed to be needed. All I had to say was, “The baby wants you. She doesn’t want a bottle. She needs her mom.”

Our daughter aided me in this strategy once she started speaking.

She would call “Mama” when she woke up in the morning, which made it very clear who was being requested. And Lael, as previously noted, could not refuse a request from her daughter.

Finally, after more than a year of sleep deprivation, the tide was turning my way. Lael seemed resigned to the fact that the baby wanted her more than me, and I was allowed to sleep in comparative peace (albeit often on the couch). I may have lost the battles over the baby monitor and sleep training; I might have been beaten by the fabled Gerald in a husband-of-the-year contest; but I was, at long last, winning the war for sleep.

Then an amazing thing happened. My wife had been away for a few days on business, and I’d dutifully arisen every time our daughter woke up (without need, I might add, of the baby monitor) and gone in to comfort her. I’d listened to her familiar cries of “I want Mama” and patiently rocked her back to sleep. When Lael returned home, it seemed initially that things would go back to normal. She volunteered to get up the next morning; I looked forward to sleeping in again. But when the baby woke up and Lael entered her room, she was greeted by the most astonishing words: “I want Daddy.” This was an unprecedented event, like the Red Sox beating the Yankees in the playoffs: everyone was shocked, most of all the Red Sox themselves. As I lay in bed savoring the words—”I want Daddy”—an important truth dawned on me. I hadn’t been winning the war for sleep; I’d been losing, without even realizing it, the trust and affection of my daughter. I’d been losing the struggle to be number-one parent! That was a competition I hadn’t even realized existed, but once I did the sleep wars took on an entirely new meaning.

Lael and I had directed so much love and energy toward our child (and, consequently, away from each other) that we were starved for attention ourselves. Once the baby was able to give some concrete affection back, we both wanted it. Suddenly sleep seemed like nothing compared to my desire to be needed and trusted and loved by my child. Meanwhile Lael, though stunned to find me such an able competitor, was not about to give up her George Steinbrenner-like dominance at the top of the game. Soon we were both bounding out of bed at the slightest peep from our daughter, wanting to be the first one in there to do the comforting. Lael began staying up later to answer the midnight distress calls that had always been my purview; I trained myself to leap out of bed in the morning and move toward our daughter’s room without a single wasted motion. We were like two frantic candidates running for a constituency of one. Sleep was no longer a goal but a liability, a hurdle to clear in this fervent though unspoken battle for our daughter’s affection.

What had once been excuses now became seemingly kind offers—”No, you go ahead and sleep, honey, let me get this one”—and the outright hostility became more of a faux consideration. Perhaps the most interesting thing about our battle for our daughter’s affection, though, was that it made us do things together. My wife and I had been so exhausted during that first year that we rarely did anything together: when one of us had the baby, the other would seize the opportunity to work, eat, shower, nap, or hang out with someone “on the outside.” Now both of us were playing with the baby, feeding the baby, and bounding together out of bed when she awoke in the night. So there was a kind of mutual respect established through this unspoken competition. I might not have agreed with Lael’s philosophy on sleep discipline, but I was grudgingly impressed by the ferocity with which she could descend the stairs in order to be the first face our daughter saw in the morning.

A couple of times we both thought we heard our daughter waking up, and rushed in from different parts of the house only to discover it had been a false alarm. There was something lovely about just standing there in the half light, two besotted adults staring down at the slumbering child who has caused such upheaval in their lives. We still weren’t on entirely firm ground: The first year’s sleep battles had been too brutal for that. But there had been a definite shift in tone. We weren’t less tired, we just didn’t care as much about being tired. Yes, exhaustion made us less effective at work. It made us worse lovers, worse drivers, and less interesting conversationalists. But it was also its own kind of bond. Our shared willingness to sacrifice for our child was a reminder of the qualities—like tenacity, compassion, and even competitiveness—that had drawn us together in the first place.

In the end, it was a statement by our daughter that put the definitive stamp on this relationship revision. She had awoken screaming, and Lael and I raced into the room to provide comfort. We reached her simultaneously, picking her up in a kind of awkward three-way hug on the toddler bed. After a fair amount of tickling and mugging and giggling, she beamed at both of us and said, in a timid voice, a word we didn’t even know she knew: family. Actually, it sounded like “famiyee,” but we understood what she meant. We chuckled uncomfortably, and our daughter did what she always does when she finds a word that produces a reaction. She said it again, louder. “Famiyee.” We said it back to her and she said it again, this time bouncing on the bed and saying it in three emphatic syllables:

“Fa-mi-yee.” We laughed and bounced with her, all three of us in a warm messy jumble of pillows and blankets, all laughing and chanting our new word and feeling quite intoxicated that it was five in the morning and the rest of the world wasn’t up yet. They were sleeping, poor fools.

Adam µ

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