Of course there were plenty of times before children that sleep alluded us, but then there was always that distant hope that, eventually, we'll be able to catch up.
If we had a stressful week, month, even year of work that kept us from resting peacefully, we could look forward to the completion of a project, or a vacation, or even a different job that would allow us to take a break.
If we had to pull a week of all-nighters studying for exams, we knew that after we'd completed the tests we could spend a couple days snuggled deep in our covers, occasionally waking to have a slurpee and put on the next disc of Friends.
If we decided to stay up way too late the morning before we had to get up way too early, we would use coffee and 5 Hour Energies to power us through until we could get home to take a nap.
If we had too many nights of tossing and turning, unable to quiet anxious thoughts, we would pop a couple of Tylenol PMs to force our bodies to slip into sweet unconsciousness.
Sleep has always been wonderful, but when that inevitable reward to a day well spent is snatched from you time and time again, you start to become...obsessed.
I wish someone had been honest with me about what sleep is like for parents. Maybe they were honest, but I simply didn't understand because I couldn't imagine a world where there wasn't some kind of end in sight, where I could finally sink my head into my fluffy pillow and drift off to dream land, knowing I had fulfilled the responsibilities of that day. The day doesn't end for parents. There's no stopping and starting. It's constant. It's like being at an all-night lock-in, every night, into every day, into every night. Sure, you fall asleep, but it's more like using your last bit of energy to crawl into bed, and then passing out for a bit until your child wakes you again...an hour later...and you think you can't possibly continue to function like this...but somehow, you do.
It's not just that babies wake up a lot in the middle of the night. They DO wake up a lot (well, most of them. Some people have magic sleeping babies...I'm praying my next one is magic.), and you find ways of handling that, like mom and dad taking turns, or bringing the baby right next to your bed or actually right IN your bed, or even deciding to let them cry a while once you think they are old enough (no judgment here--each parent gets to make that call for themselves). It's that they wake up for different reasons: they're hungry, they're lonely, they're teething, they're sick, they're not sleepy, they're overly sleepy, they're hot, they're cold, they pooped, they peed...nothing like a guessing game at 3am! It's that they wake up inconsistently--just when you think you've got the schedule figured out, with a wake up at midnight and 4 am, they suddenly decide to wake up once at 2am...but of course you're still up at midnight and 4...and once you finally adjust to the new schedule, they decide to throw in a 10pm wake-up, just in case you considered going to bed early to be more refreshed for the 2am wake-up. And then, when the magical day happens where they sleep ALL NIGHT LONG, you spend the night waking up worried that they are sleeping ALL NIGHT LONG! But then, when it happens a couple nights in a row, you get super excited! Because you will finally feel less like a zombie and more like a human! And you announce to all your friends and the Facebook world that you can accomplish any task set before you because your baby has slept through the night! And you get a few wonderful nights of sleep! And then....that precious little bundle of joy who has proven to be completely capable of sleeping ALL NIGHT LONG decides that's not nearly as much fun as waking up ALL NIGHT LONG....and you want to cry...and you DO cry....into your fifth cup of coffee, because you just took on a whole new load of responsibilities because you thought your were going to be able to sleep again.
Once they are a little older, parents are still on-call at night. Children wake up with bad dreams or with a tummy ache or for help going to the bathroom. Even the children that generally sleep well have an off night, which somehow always seems like line up with when mom or dad are especially exhausted. Even if there's not an off night, parents learn to sleep a little bit lighter just in case someone needs them. There's no popping a Tylenol PM--you don't want to be in a drug induced sleep when your child wakes up covered in vomit.
My son is not quite 2 years old. I assume there will be a day where my sleep schedule won't be completely dependent someone else, although by that point I'll probably be so used to the lack of sleep that I'll have the same sleep schedule of my parents, and frankly anyone over the age of 50 that I know, who willingly stay up until 11pm and wake up at 5am.
I'm not writing all of this for sympathy. Although I'm sure many other parents will relate, that's just a happy accident. I'm not writing this so those without children will realize how good they have it--this is not a "my life is harder than yours" blog. I'm writing this for brand spanking new parents, or those who will become brand spanking new parents in the near future. Wrap your mind around this concept now: sleep is no longer guaranteed. The sooner you accept this, the happier you will be.
Some days you will get a solid 5 hours and feel like that's amazing. Some days you will doze of for a total of 5 minutes during the night and truly question your sanity as you drag yourself through the day. If you stay up late to work or watch a movie, you won't get to sleep in the next morning, even if it's Saturday. You may plan to sleep during nap time, but often will be swayed by the piles of laundry or sticky spots on the floor. Sleep is not guaranteed. You may get it, you may not. Find a way to make peace with that reality.
I spent too much of my son's first year of life waiting and WAITING for him to sleep through the night. I thought that once that started happening, I could get myself together and have the energy to do all the fun mom things I wanted to do. I would get frustrated with my little baby when he'd cry for me at 2am. Even though I knew developmentally all that waking was normal and healthy, I was expecting every day to be the day he started sleeping soundly, and I would get so frustrated that it wasn't. If I had to do that first year all over again, I would have made peace with the sleep thing sooner. I would have accepted that I was going to be tired for a very long time, but that I would survive and it would all be worth it. Basically, I would have had a much more positive attitude, and isn't that the kind of parent we all want to be?
It's amazing what we are capable of. I literally thought I would die during those first few weeks home from the hospital, healing from a C-section, dealing with the hormonal rollercoaster, figuring out what to do with this beautiful little creature who relied on me fully, all on about two hours of sleep a night. But I did it. Each day, no matter how hard it was, I was capable of caring for my son. The sleep would have been nice, but it wasn't mandatory.
These past few months I have embraced my new reality. Among other things, like my friendships looking different, my priorities looking different, my cleanliness standards looking different, and so on, I accept that my sleep looks different. I now expect my son to wake up at night. I go to bed as early as I can in preparation, and when he wakes up at night, I take care of him and go back to sleep. If I stay up late, I will be tired, and I will have to deal with that. It's a routine that I now know and expect. I'm still getting less sleep than I would prefer, and I'm definitely getting less sleep than I did before having a child, but I feel good. Tired, sure. But Good.
And now, those nights where he DOES sleep all night long, it's a nice gift rather than a desperate expectation from a frazzled mother.
So, new parents, understand that sleep is not guaranteed for a while. Don't let waking up at night rob you of a completely positive experience during the day. Ask for help when you need it, have a back up plan for when you've had a rough night, and know that, even thought you aren't sleeping enough, you are sleeping enough to survive. This, too, shall pass. Eventually.
Good luck, sleepy parents!