So, how are you guys sleeping?
Issue: Special #2 2009
by Jason Brand
So, how are you guys sleeping?
Maybe both parents don’t have to be deprived of shut-eye for this thing to work, plus, our top 5 needs for baby’s sleep
In the beginning, I was right there. All it took was a whimper from the cradle and I was on my feet. A headlamp strapped to my forehead, I carried out my work with precision. Baby, check. Desitin, check. Diaper, check. Lock and load into the diaper disposer. Deliver baby to mommy for a feeding in bed. Mission accomplished.
I would stand there in the dark, hands rocking at my hips John-Wayne style, relishing my role as night-time dad. Then it was off to bed, to celebrate with three hours of sleep before it started all over again.
Those first triumphant nights eventually turned into weeks. I went back to work, while my wife continued her maternity leave. Conditioned for a short sprint, I became less of a nocturnal team player, while mom and baby seemed to understand that this was a marathon. Half asleep, they got everything accomplished while I was still fiddling with my headgear. All that was left for me was to place the dirty diaper into the fancy disposer, the novelty of which had long since waned.
It finally dawned on me: I was useless. So, I stored those early nights as cherished memories and gave in to the urge to keep on sleeping.
The more I slept, the more effective mom and baby got at working the night shift. As the weeks turned into months, I found that I had become one of those dads who looks completely surprised when asked how he and his wife sleeping. Most new parents can’t stop talking about their lack of sleep, but not these guys. These are the fathers who snooze soundly, as if midnight feedings are just another thing of the night, like moon phases and newspaper delivery.
These men used to make me feel better about myself. I was not them. I’d been there during those first nights. I may have ultimately given up night duty, but at least my first instinct wasn’t to slink off to the couch. In fact, I still would’ve been on call if I hadn’t been phased out like the wipes warmer and the exer-saucer. My status as “dad not afraid to parent after dark” was secure.
Feeling superior was that easy… until a number of factors conspired to complicate my self-satisfaction. New moms get their theories from books, experts who’ve done their research and published the results. New dads tend to uncover theirs via a friend of friend. That’s how I was first exposed to a sleep theory that haunted my dreams and forced me to question whether I was really eligible for any father-of-the-year nomination. The idea loosely paraphrases as follows: Moms need energy to raise healthy kids, so dads should get up all of the time, and moms should stay in bed. If dad doesn’t get up at night, baby gets overly attached to mom, which will result in a mama’s boy or girl. Bottom line: When the baby cries, you rise.
If the dads snoring on the fold-out with earplugs jammed in their ears represented one extreme, this theory represented the other. It was way beyond what I knew I could do, even at my personal best, and a place I did not want to go.
When our baby was around six months, my sleep got two more pieces of bad news (well, actually three, if you count the loud screams coming from the crib in the room next door): My wife returned to work and we started sleep training. No longer was I the only one who had to work the next morning. And no more was “you’re so much better at it” an excuse, because sleep training was completely new terrain. Still, I stalled, learning that if you act tired enough moms and babies will find a way to each other.
The final, lasting blow came in the form of public humiliation. A friend posed the not-so-innocent question on one of our first nights out without baby: “So, how are you guys sleeping?” I answered by waxing on about the ups and downs of going from cradle to crib, sleep training, and the crazy thoughts that come to mind in the wee hours. My wife nearly choked on her wine. “How would you know?” she asked. I was busted.
I licked my wounds for a couple of nights, then decided I would be that father-of-the-year guy, the one who believes that mom getting her sleep is the top priority. That night, I put the plan into action and raced to the crib at the first whimper, as I had done those first nights home from the hospital. But I was completely out of practice. My wife came in to find me struggling with onepiece snaps while trying to soothe a hysterical baby. I attempted to save face by turning it into a fight about our different approaches to sleep training. No one slept well that night.
After a few repeats of this routine, I came clean. I told my wife how humiliated I was when she called me out at that dinner, and how badly I felt for acting involved, but not really being involved. I’d prepared myself for a lack of sympathy, and I wasn’t wrong. I listened to how difficult it had been for her to go six months without a full night’s sleep and how going back to work so sleep deprived had been nearly impossible.
We decided to go about night duty in a different way. We agreed that it didn’t make sense for me to get up all of the time, and realized that we shared a desire to feel like we were in it together, even overnight. So we decided to stop trying to work things out at 3 a.m., instead taking out our work schedules and dividing up the weeknights based on who could handle being tired the next day. We also thought of ways to make midnight bottles less complicated. And this plan worked.
It turned out that the issue was less about which one of us would get up and more about working together. What it took was finding our way back to how we communicated before sleep became so scarce. From there, we remembered how good it can feel to take care of each other. Add in the willingness to be flexible—and honestly facing up to those times when I wasn’t—and we were set. Following someone else’s theories had gotten me nowhere, but getting back in tune with my wife and our mutual needs helped me sleep better at night. When it was my turn to, of course.
Jason Brand is the father of two daughters who rests his head (when he can) in the Bay Area. A family therapist with a technology background, he specializes in bridging the screen divide between analog parents and digital kids.
This story is followed by a page of sleep products, only half of which are shot yet!