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And You Thought Tired <i> Kids</i> Were Bad

A wise pediatrician--my daughter’s, actually--once said that parents facing childbirth for the first time are like people standing in front of a tall brick wall trying to imagine something on the other side. No matter how they try, he said, they can’t know what parenthood will be until they get to the other side.

Women can really relate to this notion because for many, childbirth is exactly like crashing into a brick wall . . . pelvis first.

But, you know, as fun as that sounds, it’s nothing compared the years of trauma that parents will experience as they desperately try to get enough sleep.

A friend of mine is fond of saying that no matter how much it hurts, labor lasts only a matter of hours.

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Sleeplessness, however, can last a lifetime.

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It’s a hoary cliche that parenthood can change even the least sentimental person. What mother or father will not, at some point, experience that rosy, at-one-with-God, a-child’s-smile-can-light-the-darkness feeling?

What I wish they would tell you more about is another kind of change--the relentless chipping away of personality that comes from lack of sleep.

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I was once the kind of person you might like to have over for dinner. I dimly recall evenings with friends involving wine, candles and spirited exchanges about the world. My conversational range, while perhaps not deep, was wide--like pond scum, if you will--and I could almost always stay up past 10 p.m.

Then I had a baby. Hardly anyone invites me for dinner anymore. How can I blame them?

Where I used to talk about books and movies, and gossip about the sex lives of people I don’t know--who wants it, who needs it, who’s getting it--now all I want to talk about is sleep--who wants it, who needs it, who’s getting it.

My once-large circle of friends has dwindled to a few people who became parents around the same time I did. We have devolved from interesting, articulate, involved and curious people into sleep-deprived, nap-craving parents of small children. More than motherhood and fatherhood, lack of rest has bonded us in a way we never thought possible. Our every conversation begins on the same sad note: how little sleep we got the night before.

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It’s a complete perversion of the keeping-up-with-the-Joneses mentality we laugh at in other people: “You got up with the baby at 4? Ha! Ours woke us up at 2, 3, and 4! Top that , you pathetically well-rested fool!”

The truly sad part about becoming a parent for the first time in your 30s is that you have absolutely no idea if the bags, crow’s feet and forehead grooves are a symptom of age or of parenthood.

You will therefore have no idea if you need plastic surgery or just a good night’s sleep.

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Sleep deprivation is more than annoying. It is dangerous. It can cause airplanes to crash, ships to run aground and, according to my husband, an unacceptably high rate of celibacy in marriage.

In the beginning, you don’t sleep because the baby wakes up every few hours for feedings and comfort. This is OK, because most people don’t expect much in the way of erudition from a new parent. Of course, there will always be exceptions. I recall a conversation with a childless screenwriter friend when my daughter was about 6 months old. At that point, I felt I was thinking pretty clearly, even if I wasn’t verbalizing too well. I remember trying to explain to him how exciting it was that my baby’s recent projectile burp had missed my shoes and hit the kitchen tiles instead. His expression reminded me of the pitiful way Claire Bloom looked at Cliff Robertson in “Charly” after Cliff became an idiot again.

Later, you don’t sleep because the kid gets up so early and you--trying to act like a real live grown-up again--have gone to bed so late. My child, who has not let confinement by crib dampen her attempts to run my life, is a veritable rooster of a girl. Each morning, about two hours before we are ready to rise, she screams her reveille: “Mommy! Lake up!” (We are working on our consonants.)

Getting children to go to sleep and stay asleep is big business. There are all kinds of books on the subject--one of the most popular is “Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problems” by Dr. Richard Ferber, a pediatric sleep specialist. He urges parents to spend a few painful nights letting the kid cry it out until he or she learns how to fall back asleep without parental intervention. Some call this “Ferberizing” the baby. I call it salvation.

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There is just one teensy little question I wish he would answer.

How, dear doctor, might a toddler be trained to sleep till noon after her parents have stayed up partying all night?

I, uh, have some friends who want to know.


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