Toddler Life, Chapter 24: Sleep Debt

I always used to laugh at my dad. He could fall asleep anywhere, at any time. Thirty minutes in his bed in the middle of the day, a quick snooze in his armchair during a commercial break, passing out during the last act of an action movie. And I thought it was just an age thing.

But it isn’t. It’s a parent thing.

And maybe it’s a male parent thing, because my wife hasn’t inherited this ability yet, but I certainly have.

For much of my life, I had a hard time falling asleep. Thirty minutes in bed before I could drop off was pretty normal. An hour wasn’t uncommon. I’d stay up all hours trying to get tired enough to fall asleep without lying there in the dark counting sheep or whatever… not that that ever worked.

Then I worked in logistics, which is a fancy way of saying I threw boxes around in a store outside of business hours. My shift started at 4 AM. I had to go to sleep at 7 PM. I was also in school at the time, taking classes to teach me how to teach, so I was exhausted all the time. Living your life out of step with the world around you — going to bed while others are just getting off work, waking up when some people have just laid down — it makes you feel a little bit like an alien. I look like these other humans, but I’m not like them. Their lives are normal, but I’m always tired, always thinking of sleep, always wondering if I can catch a quick nap. I learned to fall asleep in just a few minutes, and to make the most of a twenty minute nap like a two-hour siesta.

But then I finished school, got a “real” job, and life returned to normal again.

Until I had kids.

Now, I get up at a ridiculously early time, not so that I can get to work on time, but so that I can get in a quick workout before the kids wake up. Then I distract the oldest while I get myself together for work so that my wife can sneak a few more minutes of sleep. I go to work, come home (sometimes pretty late) and get to bed a lot earlier than most of my colleagues because I know what’s coming in the night.

Because with two kids, you never know what to expect. Or rather, you know exactly what to expect, you just don’t know when to expect it. Our youngest hasn’t started reliably sleeping through the night yet. Our oldest is in a phase where he gets “scared” of little noises or things he thinks he sees in his room. I say “scared” because he’s smart enough to know that if he pretends to be scared he can get my wife and I to come fawn over him without being mad at him, so I know he’s playing us at least part of the time.

So I never know when I’m going to get to sleep through the night. My wife pretty much knows she won’t be sleeping through the night, because the youngest is still breastfeeding, and won’t allow me to put her back to sleep most nights. We wake up to crying, wordlessly one of us will go and see to the screamer, and the kids zip off to dreamland immediately, while we the adults have to pick up the pieces of our shattered dreams. So I’ve developed, out of necessity, the ability, once again, to fall asleep in the blink of an eye.

This infuriates my wife, because she has always taken a while to fall asleep. When she wakes up with the baby, it costs her about an hour. Twenty minutes to deal with the baby, and thirty or better to fall asleep again. It only takes me the time it takes to feed the baby plus about two minutes. And that’s not just when I’m lying in my own bed. I can nap on the couch. I can nap at my parents’ house. I can nap in the backseat of the van while we’re driving across the state on a family vacation, like I’m a five-year-old.

But I can’t help it. My wife will rightly point out that I get more sleep than she does, but I am always living on a sleep deficit. I am burrowing deeper and deeper into debt every day against a collector I will probably never fully pay off. So I pay back tiny installments here and there. And I make the most of my lying-in-bed time.

Truth is, I think she’s jealous that she can’t fall asleep like I do. Then again, I’ve got a couple of years on her. Maybe she’ll grow into it.

Last night, my son woke up screaming about bugs in his room. I went in, calmed him down, and lay down in his car bed next to him. I couldn’t tell you what time that was, but it was definitely before midnight. Next thing I knew, it was after 2 AM and I was waking up next to a three-year-old with his arms flung out above his head like Superman frozen in mid-takeoff and his mouth yawning open, spilling drool on his pillow. I had a wicked crick in my back from sleeping half-on, half-off the frame of a bed built for a miniature person… yet I’d logged a solid two hours of sleep there. I extricated myself from the bed with the practiced stealth that only the parent of newborns knows, stole back into bed next to my wife, and was asleep again within moments of my head touching the pillow.

It’s almost bedtime now, and the nine-month-old is already stirring. Looks like another long night.

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