Mel walked in on me sleeping. It was 2 p.m. on a Saturday and I was supposed to be folding laundry.
“What the crap?” she said. “Why do you get a nap?”
“I’m not napping,” I said. “I just fell over. Then I realized how comfortable the bed was, so I decided to stay in it for a little bit.”
I was trying to be funny.
Mel didn’t laugh.
“I want a nap,” she said.
“Then take one,” I said. My face was in the pillow, so I sounded muffled.
“We don’t have time to nap.” She emphasized the “we.”
“Tristan has a soccer game in 20 minutes. After that, we have to pick up dirt for the backyard before the nursery closes.”
She stomped out of the room and suddenly I felt guilty. Mel and I have three kids under 9, and getting them all to sleep for more than about 5 hours is about as likely as aligning the stars.
It happens, sometimes, but rarely.
One child will be thirsty at 10 p.m., and by midnight, another has had a nightmare. The really difficult one is Aspen, the 1-year-old. She’s the worst roommate ever. She stays up late fussing, and then gets up in the night at least once. In the past few months she has decided that bright and early is a great way to start the day.
I drink an alarming amount of caffeine.
But the problem is, our days are hectic, too. I work full-time plus, and Mel is a full-time Mom and a part-time student. We have a house, and something always seems to be breaking or getting dirty. The older kids are in sports and scouts, and a bunch of other wholesome things that eat up the weekends. It’s all very exciting and very exhausting, and when it comes to naps, there is rarely time.
All of this has caused sleep to become a source of tension and jealousy. It has become a black market item that can be used to buy everything from manual labor to sex. It seems to be the most powerful force in our marriage. If you ask Mel what she wants for her birthday, she will say sleep.
I answer the same.
I suppose we could cast all our obligations to the side and sleep. But honestly, we can’t. Parenting is a demanding lifestyle. Kids never stop wanting, or needing, or asking, or making messes, and there really is no time to just let it all go and sleep. Plus, and this is the real kicker, our kids are in a middle age. Our oldest is old enough to watch himself, but I don’t trust him to watch his siblings, particularly the one-year-old.
Naps can really only happen when one parent watches all the kids, while the other sleeps. Which essentially means that for the parent who is awake hanging out with the kids, doing the dishes, or folding laundry—thinking about the other sleeping comfortably in bed feels like an insult.
That is, unless there’s a trade.
The weekend before Mel caught me in bed when I was supposed to do laundry, I was in the yard pulling weeds. She approached me, told me about the long night she’d had with Aspen, and then said, “If you let me take a nap, we can have sex.”
We negotiated for a little bit. I asked her if the sex would happen before or after the nap. We decided that it would have to happen after the kids went to bed that night. Then we shook hands and Mel went inside. I didn’t feel bad about her napping then. And I assume, in the past, when I’d offered her new shoes, or to clean the toilet for a nap, I doubt that she felt bad about letting me sleep. But it has gotten to the point that, unless Mel or I are sick, no one gets a nap unless there is a trade.
So when Mel caught me in bed, without there being any negotiation, she got angry. And honestly, if the roles were switched, I’d have gotten angry, too. The sad thing is we’ve created this quid pro quo expectation when it comes to sleep, and me getting sleep for nothing felt a lot like I was stealing something.
I got up and walked into the kitchen. She was finishing the dishes.
“I’m sorry. What do you want?” I said.
Mel pushed up her glasses.
“What do you mean what do I want?” She said. “You know what I want. I want to take a nap. I want some sleep.”
“It’s been a long week,” I said. “I had those two 14-hour days, along with my regular days.”
“When you work 14 hours,” she said. “I work 14 hours, too. I don’t get a break until you come home.”
I’d never thought of it that way, but she was right. That’s the funny thing about parenting. This isn’t to say that I don’t love the hell out of my kids. I do. I love spending time with them. But sometimes, it feels like a lot.
Sometimes it feels thankless and exhausting. With Mel being a stay-at-home mom, if I am working, she’s working, too. We don’t have any family nearby. So unless we find a sitter, it never really stops unless one of us lets the other take a break.
“Ok.” I said. “I get it. Let’s work something out.”
And suddenly, we were negotiating. We decided that Mel could take a nap while I took all three kids to the soccer game. When I got back, I could nap while Mel took the kids to the store. None of it was ideal. Taking three kids to a soccer game sounded like hell. And I have to assume Mel felt the same way about taking all three kids to the store. But it would be worth it to take a nap.
By the end, we shook hands, and Mel said, “It’s been nice doing business with you.”
“Likewise,” I said.
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