last week, the question now is: why am I writing a post this week instead of sleeping?
When more than 200 people tell you, in no uncertain terms, that the first step to dealing with the exhaustion incurred when a child does not sleep is to find ways and moments for you, yourself, to sleep, that’s a fair question.
And I have been sleeping—downstairs while my husband takes the night shift, during "Dora the Explorer", while my two year old pushes through other children’s nap time, and in pockets here and there, whenever I can. Still, when friends, readers, and total strangers reach out in response to a question—or plea—for advice, I thought I’d write enough this week to at least say: I heard you.
I really heard you.
Lisa Belkin at The New York Times responded to my post by putting it in greater context and including it on her Motherlode column, a stroke on her part that, to me, felt like both a journalistic and magical act. All of a sudden, what had been a solitary and isolated experience became part of a larger conversation with people who, even in my most rested state, I might never meet in person. I printed the 154 comments, just as I did the comments posted on this Lunch Box Mom blog itself, and the notes sent to my private email. I put the pages in a folder, and carried it around to read while eating, or at pick-up, or before heading to bed—a collection of essential information, stories, warnings, admonishments, and support, that came at the right time.
First, there were those men and women who wrote to address the physical depletion a parent feels when he or she has experienced prolonged sleep deprivation. These were cautionary tales. The women who eventually developed seizures; a chronic disease (believed to be linked to the stress of the experience); others who had panic attacks while eating—and choked; one with neurological problems lasting longer than the child’s sleeplessness; and a dad who related three-fender benders.
There was the emotional pain--marriages, friendships, familial ties: broken.
These stories stopped me in my tracks. They were, as much as the empathy expressed alongside them, enough to wake me up from whatever pattern I was creating.
For that, I looked at the other advice sent in those emails, or posted in comments. Nap while the kid watches TV, enroll her in more (than we were already doing) daycare, trade off nights with my husband—and sleep somewhere else when I do so; get the ball rolling to find longer term escapes (a night nurse, or nanny). Co-sleeping had not gotten us much more sleep--but I was glad to know it worked for many. And, there were the wonderful and beautifully not paradoxical sentiments: to give in to the circumstances and have fortitude.
Most of the comments—and every single email sent directly to me—included a story about the writer’s child (or relative) who experienced sleep problems. Many, but not all, included a specific path towards progress, or a diagnosis that made a world of difference. Sleep apnea, sensory processing disorder, dairy protein intolerance, autism, the 1 in 20 million case of being born with liquid in the inner ear, or the unique case of an adopted child whose body contained excessive amounts of a heavy metal—needing to be cleansed; others with iron deficiencies discovered only when taken to a hospital for a comprehensive sleep study. Fixes included craniosacral work, crying it out with a lock on the door, melatonin, boring the kid with Masterpiece Theater, or exhausting them with running the stairs of an apartment building.
There were the comments posted from the other side of the spectrum—the readers who were bad sleepers when they themselves were children, or who knew people who were. The young woman who learned to swaddle herself and those who eventually used their hours of wakefulness to be highly productive. Along those lines, there was the advice to help Ava be as independent as possible, chiefly, through books and the ability to read. And, with our work with Ava now, it seems the stories about children with active imaginations, who need both intense interaction and physical exhaustion during the day, and specific coping strategies to unwind at night, children, who with age and ability, become better sleepers, were consistent with what we’ve seen in our own staggered progress.
I was struck with a deep sense of connection to the readers who wrote to say they’d “been there” that “it will get better,” and in the meantime, to find ways to sleep and “hang in there.” I laughed out loud as though I was separated from birth from the woman who wrote to say that her first thought when she felt dizzy and disoriented from sleep deprivation was to think she was being poisoned from carbon monoxide. And, I thought about what it meant that one woman, whose pre-teen now sleeps at least nine hours a night said, “I still remember that light-headed, walking on eggs feeling only too well—I suspect it will haunt me to the end of my days.”
I am deeply grateful to the people who posted comments or sent emails. They didn’t have to, and certainly what they recounted were either hard-won strategies, or memories that would have been easier and less painful not to revisit. Still, they reached out—they wrote, they helped.
Becoming sleep deprived is like walking into a forest at dusk. One bad night becomes two bad nights; two bad nights become a week; a week becomes a month, and months become years. By the time you realize you are alone in the dark, too disoriented to find your way out, it’s too late to look for a map. I wonder what parents might be given before their child is born (even if it’s their second, or third) that could establish benchmarks and strategies in the event they find themselves in this part of the woods. Something that takes the subjective, emotional part out of assessing one’s own level of depletion and makes it as much a part of our discussion of child rearing as post-partum depression. Six months, nine months, 18 months, 24 months in—how are you doing? How much sleep are you getting? If it’s less than x, then here’s what we do. Not for the kid—but for you.
Along those lines, as I’ve drifted off to sleep, I’ve had a version of a Utopian dream. Some people already live in communities that might offer this, or have a network of friends who “care-share” or belong to churches that have something similar, but as far as I know, it’s not popular in my area.
In our conspicuous age of parenting, when we have classes for every age and interest, and gadgets for every need, why don’t we address the physical and emotional needs of parents and have buildings—parts of a hospital, a church, a gym or center like those built for seniors or teens—designed specifically for parents or caretakers that is free from the distractions of home?
And, life would go on.
And, now, because I heard you and I listened, I am going off to bed.