The Truth About Sleepless Nights

by Caitlin Antonides
Deviant / Shutterstock

Last night, my kids woke up five times between the pair of them. Bed linens were stripped and washed, bottles were refilled, carpets were cleaned (don’t ask), snuggles were requested, and complaints of all kinds were given. Apparently, the threat of death by dehydration or loneliness looms large between 2 and 5 a.m. Who knew?

In the end, I managed to cobble together a few broken hours of sleep despite going to bed early. Nobody was sick. Nobody was teething or in any sort of pain. It just was. And it was exhausting.

The truth about nights like these, no matter how often they occur, is that they are a cripplingly lonely part of parenthood. Even if you are lucky enough to have a partner around to help, it can feel like the rest of the world knows nothing of your pain. Outside, street lamps burn brightly while your neighbors’ windows are annoyingly dark. It’s as if you can hear their carefree snores against the backdrop of your kids’ incessant whining, and in those crushing moments of isolation, it’s easy to feel as though you are failing hard at this parenting thing. Why my kids? Why me? With one in preschool and the other well into toddlerhood, the kind of sleepless nights we often associate with the newborn stage should be far behind me, right? Right?

Apparently not.

As a new mom, I heard a lot of encouragement that helped me tough it through extreme sleep deprivation. And believe me, my kids really pushed the limits. There was also constant reassurance that this phase of life is relatively quick and that sleeplessness would soon be a distant memory.

When you’re in the thick of it, you drink in those words like some magical elixir that powers you through the hard times. And there’s no denying the good intentions behind them. But the truth is, they are often just a placebo, and by the time you realize it, you’re nothing short of an expletive-laced, fire-breathing dragon.

And that’s not just a metaphor, either — crazy hair, smeared makeup, and rancid morning breath can, for a time, become your new normal. Take it in stride. You’re still beautiful, and it’s nothing a hot shower and strong coffee can’t fix.

The thing is, the people who throw these empty platitudes your way were either blessed with freakishly easy kids (rare, but hey, it happens), have blocked out the trauma (who can blame ’em?), or simply refuse to acknowledge it (no one is buying the charade). The truth, though? It’s all a crock of shit. What no one tells you is that the “phase” they are really referring to is parenthood, and sorry sister, you’re already in deep. There’s no turning back.

Tonight it may be a fear of the dark, but in the blink of an eye, it’ll be sleepovers, date nights, and even drinking parties. Don’t kid yourself, your college student won’t be turning in with a warm cup of milk at 9 o’clock. The reality is, your kids will keep you up for the rest of your life. It was in the fine print when you signed your life over to another human being. For future reference always read the fine print.

And while you may, on the whole, get significantly more sleep than you did in the beginning, that doesn’t make unannounced middle-of-the-night parties any less painful. The bar of “normalcy” is ever-changing — for all of us. While three straight hours of sleep may have felt like a godsend once upon a time, when your body has adjusted to a new normal, anything less than six can feel like a punch in the gut.

We like to pretend that night wakings and four cups of coffee kind of mornings are either the stuff of infanthood or have an easily traceable cause, like illness — if you’re a good mom, that is. I mean, reading all the best baby books virtually guarantees the bestowment of “good sleeper” status on your kids forever, right? Their arbitrary standards are obviously a piece of cake to meet, but if your kid happens to fall short, it must by your fault for failing to do x, y, or z.

So (shock!) we don’t often talk about older kids having problems going to sleep or staying asleep. We just yell profanities into our pillow and then walk them to school in the morning like nothing happened. The bags under your eyes may betray your secret, but your lips certainly won’t because discussing it seems to be admitting total incompetence. Nobody wants to feel like a failure, let alone admit it out loud. But if you were to google “why won’t my kid sleep at night?” you would find that you are most certainly not alone.

And that’s what you need to hear. That’s what all moms need to hear. You are not alone.

Whether your kids wake up constantly or just once in a blue moon, it’s okay, and for the most part, completely normal. By all means, check out online forums if they provide a sense of camaraderie. Throw out every four-letter word you know once the door is closed and your little one can’t hear. Break out a 2 a.m. glass of pinot grigio if it helps you relax and put things into perspective. Most of all, talk about it with your friends, your babysitter, your grocery bagger — anyone who will listen. But keep talking. And then talk some more. There’s healing to be had in communication (and commiseration).

Just keep moving, Mama. Parenthood is skinned knees, broken hearts, irrational temper tantrums, and yes, sleepless nights. It’s a bumpy ride, and your journey won’t look like anyone else’s. Just do you — because this shit is hard and that’s okay.