More than seven years ago, when I first shared the good news of my pregnancy with my cousin, a single mom, immediately after “Congratulations” came the words: “Sleep all you can. Once your baby comes, you will never sleep again!” Naturally I took this to be a kind of hyperbole, a gentle ribbing for a new mom, and didn’t think much more of it.
I was quickly schooled in the accuracy of her wisdom as I reached depths of sleep deprivation so severe over that first year that I barely recognized the stuttering, blank-eyed, person I became. I wish I could say it gets better after the early months, but more likely you, too, are, or will quickly become, familiar with one of these seven stages of sleeplessness:
Stage 1: The Creature That Won’t Stop Crying or Eating
If you haven’t already received the memo about how new babies sleep all the time—but only during the day—leading to hellish nights of constant wakefulness so intense you would pay for an elephant tranquilizer, and fully understand why sleep deprivation is used as a form of torture, well, now you know. For three days prior to my son’s actual birth, I experienced contractions that would come only at night and kept me awake so I barely slept. When I went willingly into the hospital for my induction, I said to the nurse, “I just want to finally get some sleep.” Bless her heart—she laughed. “You do realize you’re having a baby?”
Stage 2: The Toddler Intermission
Don’t fool yourself about the “toddler bed.” Your toddler sleeps through the night, but you don’t get such a luxury. Usually, said sleep comes with an intermission that involves a 20-pound visitor showing up around 2 a.m. and climbing in between you and your spouse with a blankie and six stuffed animals. Said nighttime interloper will usually only stop tossing and turning once he or she has settled into the comfy position of feet in your face. Your toddler will sleep great. You will be lucky to get a few hours in while clutching the edge of your bed for dear life like a cliff-climber in a blizzard.
Stage 3: The Kid is Sleeping, But I Can’t
One of the many things they don’t tell you in all the parenting literature is that when your kid starts sleeping through the night, and even long after, sometimes your nervous system is so out of whack from hormones and waking at all hours of the night, your body refuses to believe the memo that you should be falling asleep. Or, you wake at random hours for no reason. This may test your resolve not to try Ambien after all.
Stage 4: The Light Sleeper
Once you’ve given birth to a person for whom you must assume responsibility for a minimum of 18 years, your body rewires itself so that all noises even slightly resembling a pin dropping, a whisper or a child’s tremulous voice will bring you straight up out of sleep like cold water to the head. In order to get anything resembling a good night’s sleep, I have to put in earplugs, wear an eye mask and take a tiny bit of Benadryl.
Stage 5: The House Is Too Empty
The first time our then 6-year-old spent the night at his friend’s house, we were giddy with excitement. We could do all the things a child had deprived us of: make love in the living room, stay up late with the TV on at full blast, sleep in! In reality, we just felt lonely and weird and talked about how much we missed our kid. And we woke up early the next morning anyway.
Stage 6: The Sick Kid
Sure, your kids sleep through the night. Then they get whatever horrible crud is going around and even though the kid is sleeping just fine—despite what sounds like a smoker’s cough—you spend nights with one ear peaked toward the croupy cough or threat of repeat throw up, so you might as well just stay awake and binge-watch Game of Thrones on Netflix.
Stage 7: The Perimenopausal Night
You fall asleep just fine but then, in the middle of the night, you wake, glued to your bed, heart racing, with the sudden need to get all clothes off. Stripping off your sodden jammies, you will most likely have to sleep on a towel, as there’s a puddle beneath you. But forget going back to bed unless you can sleep with an ice pack.
Stage 8: The Empty Nest
This last one I can’t really speak of from experience, but I’ve heard it from many a mom who saw her child off to college. They’re gone, the house is empty, and you should be able to sleep like a sated vampire. Instead, finally freed from the vigilance of 18 to 25 years, you can’t sleep…at least, not well. You wonder what they’re doing, if they’re taking care of themselves, if they’re sleeping.
But don’t worry. You can sleep when you’re dead.