I’m not the kind of insomniac who goes days without sleeping, although I know people with that problem and I truly feel for them. I have sleep maintenance insomnia. I’m the kind of insomniac who can’t stay asleep for more than a few hours at a time. I’m 34, and I can’t remember ever sleeping through the night.
Before kids, I spent a lot of time up in the night, walking around a dark house, reading, watching TV, until I was ready to fall asleep again. In an eight-hour stretch, I might sleep five to six hours. Now, with three kids, it’s more like three to four hours, which isn’t too bad every once in a while. But every night for years can really wear you down.
Being an insomniac with children feels like two gears out of sync. I wake up in the night for no good reason, and as soon as I finally fall asleep again, the kids are up, crying for a drink of water, or snuggling up against me because they had a nightmare.
When you are a parent with insomnia, you are never really awake, but you are never really asleep. You live your life in a red-eyed fog of loose concentration, dragging yourself from one obligation to another. Sleep is always on your mind. It’s always at the top of your wish list, and yet, you know, in your heart, that it’s like this carrot just outside of your reach, driving you through the day, in hopes that at night, you will sleep again, but knowing that it will never be enough.
When we first had my son, he wouldn’t sleep more than two hours at a time. He only slept if someone sat up and cradled him in one arm, like a football. My wife and I split the night in half, but even during my half of the night, I’d still wake up every couple hours and stare at the ceiling. I was in college at the time. I fell asleep in classes, hallways, and on busses. Sometimes I woke up in strange places.
The really difficult part of being a parent who doesn’t sleep, outside of not sleeping, is that it often means your children don’t sleep. I come from a long line of insomniacs and narcoleptics, and although I know that, percentage wise, passing that stuff down to all three of my children is unlikely, considering how poorly all of them sleep, it seems relevant to say that my genetics are likely to blame.
Now I’ve more or less become dependent on caffeine to get through the day. It seems to be my lifeblood. It helps keep me focused, even though I often hear that caffeine is just making the problem worse.
I blame my kids a lot for why I look so tired. I’ve gotten into the habit of doing that, because it seems more normal than telling people that I can’t sleep. But that’s a double-edged sword because it often invites criticism from sanctimommies, who think that if your child doesn’t sleep well it’s because you are a bad parent. Which is total, and 100%, bullshit. But oftentimes, I’m too tired to tell them that, so I just nod and move forward.
Even right now, as I write, running on little sleep, trying hard not to let my head dip forward, I’m thinking about my daughter, who is 2, and had me up for two hours, squirming and struggling to get to sleep. She needed me, so I was there for her. And as I gave her comfort, I knew exactly how she felt. I knew exactly what she was going through trying to find sleep, because I’ve been going through it my whole life. And even though I want her to sleep so badly, and sometimes it feels like she is coming between me and a day where I’m not in some sleepless fog, I know her experiences, and I want her to know that she’s not alone in the night — because being an insomniac often means loneliness. It means being up when no one else is, feeling like the night is a never-ending test of endurance and bored frustration, waiting for sleep that might never come.
But when I think about that, I realize that my children have given the night purpose. There have been times, when I was a full-time college student and a full-time bartender, that I never saw my kids. Getting up in the night was the only chance I got to solve my kids’ problems, hold them for a moment, or hear the sweet words, “I love you, Daddy.” Although I complain about being tired, I often think back on the way my son used to grip my arm as I’d lie in bed with him after a nightmare, and smile. And I when think about the way my daughter used to curl up in a ball at 2 a.m., crying and shivering, and how satisfied I felt after seeing her stretch out beneath the warm quilt I laid over her.
In the night, I feel needed.
I feel valued.
There have been times when getting up in the night was my only chance to do something more for my children than just bringing in a paycheck.
So to the parents who can’t sleep, I can say, honestly, that you are the most dedicated parents in the world. Because the fact is, giving up what little sleep you get when your children need you, is a true sacrifice. Sleep is so valuable and so difficult to fall into, giving it up when your little one needs you is the reality of dedication.