Lying about lying down: Something about sleep

I am trying to write something about sleep, but holy crap am I tired.

The thing about baby sleep is that it’s a nightmare. And everybody experiences it differently, but also exactly the same, and almost everyone lies about it — as it is happening, in retrospect and even projecting into the future about how they will wrangle a yet-unborn child. They lie to you, they lie to everyone they know and they lie to themselves.

For example:

“We just put them down in the cribs awake and they went out without making a sound.”

“We hit the jackpot. She only ever cried when she was teething. She was sleeping through the night pretty much right away.”

“We did some gentle sleep training. He didn’t ever really cry, just fussed a little for a couple of nights.”

“We used the Ferber method. It really wasn’t that bad. Just a night of crying and then a few minutes and then nothing.”

We know that everyone lies about baby sleep because, for some reason, we have been incapable of lying about it. We suffered through 10 long months (give or take) of extreme torture from Serafina very publicly and we are now on month 8 (though honestly, only 4 of those have been brutal) with our twins and everyone that knows us knows this.

If you really start to scrutinize the stories other parents are telling you about their perfectly sleeping children, the holes will become more apparent. If you spend time with those families — time that corresponds with when their children are napping or going to bed — you will gather tangible evidence that what they mean when they say “she never cries” is a very different thing than how you interpret that statement.

For example, you will hear that “never crying” baby shriek for a solid 20 minutes like she’s being eaten alive when she is put down for a nap while her parent calmly makes a sandwich and settles in for a chat with you.

For our part, we start most of our days before 5am. Sometimes we start them, like I started this one, at 3am. We get out of bed a lot in the night, taking turns trying to rock a baby back down, removing a crying baby from the room where another one is sleeping or, back when we only had one child, escaping to the couch for a couple of “off” hours. We are often ripped out of sleep by the sound of crying or a sleep-talking (sleep-shouting) toddler. Sometimes that happens at the precise moment that we have finally, after a long day of caring for 3 children and working full-time, dropped off into our first stretch of “rest” for the night — and that there is the very worst of all. And we know we could have it so much worse.

We do some combination of bed-sharing and crib sleeping with the babies, just like we did with Serafina until she was about 15 months. We have no regrets, especially about the bedsharing. It is wonderful, sweet, cozy and heaven for reconnecting with your babies as a working parent.

We’ve also done our share of sleep training. We can make ourselves feel better about it by qualifying it was “light” or “gentle,” but the fact is, there has been crying. Cumulatively, among our three babies, there has been more crying than we would prefer — which, of course, is none at all. But we have come to understand that around four months, all babies will stop sleeping “like babies” and shit gets real. They have lost the involuntary sleep that defines the newborn period and, instead, have to be taught to fall asleep and then to stay asleep.

There are a million ways to go about this, as one broad Google search will reveal, and small fortunes have been made in preaching some of these methods, but what we believe is that you must go about it, one way or another.
You can’t go over it, you can’t go under it, oh no, you gotta go through it. But this is one of the things people will lie about too.

These are not lies people tell with malice, I think. But maybe as an exercise in assuaging their guilt or fear that they’ve done something, or that there’s something wrong with their child. Or perhaps it truly is a reflection of how we are all functioning in our own unique interpretation of reality, with our individual tolerance level for the pain of sleep deprivation and the sound of our baby’s cries.

As survivors of Serafina’s reign of terror, we know these things will work themselves out. Sometimes that makes it easier to manage what happens during the long, hazy nights we’re having with the twins, but we have no illusions that this is going to be easy or a thing that passes without some work.

To the dangerously exhausted mother of a 5-month-old, sputtering miseries about the way her son won’t stay asleep for more than 30 minutes to the child-free friend she just bumped into in line at the coffee shop: we hear you, we recognize you and we salute you. Thank you for keeping it real even if no one seems to care or understand.

The flat earth of right now

It’s a bright and beautiful Saturday morning in June and I am sitting in a bed typing next to my feverish toddler, watching her sleep off whatever evil thing is making her feel ill. Again.

Two weeks ago she was knocked out by the very worst virus of her 2.5 years of life. It was Memorial Day weekend. She was incapacitated, burning up and scaring the crap out of me with hallucinations in the middle of the night. We missed an epic neighborhood party (with bouncy house) across the street. We missed grilling with our friends. We missed everything, most especially restful sleep. And then we missed three days of school and work because this virus lingered so long.

I am trying not to worry too much about what this relapse might mean right now while she snoozes peacefully. I am trying instead to absorb life as it unfolds in each complicated but sweet moment.

But I’ve been up since 4:30am, when one of our 8 month-old twins — the one I was sleeping with in our bed — started whining her way out of sleep. It stirred my wife, who was downstairs sleeping on the couch with the other twin, who had started her whining wake-up routine at 3am. Darry came upstairs, we traded babies and I went down to the living room, standing and rocking Rowan so she’d remain asleep. Finally I was able to sit and spent 90 minutes in relative quietude, staring at Rowan’s perfect face and making mental lists of all the things I want to do but have no time to do.

I don’t know who coined the phrase, “the flat earth of infancy,” but I like it. It’s helped me recast my current despair about our situation, most particularly the sleep part — which is not sleep, exactly, but a bizarre routine we engage in each night in various spots around our house, usually with one baby in arms, but sometimes two, or sometimes with the impossible combo of one baby and one toddler. We rest in short bursts of two or three hours before it’s time to relocate, swap kids or stand up and lull a kid back into dreamland with the slow, steady rocking motion of a person losing their mind.

We are awake for the sunrise each morning. This sounds romantic but I cannot recall seeing the actual rising sun ever. I can only remember the sensation of my muscles constricting when the first “mama” floats over the monitor from Serafina’s room, seconds after I’ve finally just gotten a baby back to sleep on top of me. Somewhere — where? I don’t know, somewhere in this house — Darry has likely just done the same thing. Who makes a move to fetch the older kiddo? Whose sleep is more sacred? Some mornings we all start the day in our king sized bed, all five of us. Babies crawling around. Serafina hollering at them to not steal her beloved Giraffsie from her clutches. Me and Darry delirious and in love but also murmuring quietly in our internal voice (well, just me anyway?) “fuck my life, I need to sleep past 5am so badly.”

We *will* sleep past 5am again, I know this. In that brief window of time, between when Serafina was about 17 months and when the twins were born, just before her second birthday, we slept beautifully. We enjoyed evenings after bed-time, engaged in adult conversation, chores, binge watching two (sometimes more!) episodes of something. We thought life was complicated then with one child and I guess that it was, but really, it was not.

Serafina is awake now, next to me. Still warm, but her brief nap seems to have revived her energy and spirit, at least a little. She wants to “snuddle” with me and she does not want to get out of bed. She wants to sleep, but is playing little games with her dear Giraffsie and gazing out the window happily. She wants to lie here forever, I guess, in the flat earth of our lives, where we are chained by the tyranny of childhood colds, viruses, nap times, sleeplessness and snuddles. Here we are on this planet, making wistful lists of things we will do one day when the earth is round again, holding tiny creatures who know nothing of the difference between life then and life now.