Tiny hands cupped my face.
“Mama, Mama,” I heard a voice whisper. “I need you.”
“Gah!” I responded.
To explain my somewhat inelegant response, I should tell you that it was about 2 a.m. when the tiny hands cupped my face and the small voice awakened me from a sound sleep.
The little person needed a change of sheets. And a drink of water. And a re-arranging of stuffed animal friends. And a tuck-in. And a kiss.
As I met these needs willingly and then made my way back to bed, I reflected on the fact that I no longer fight the battle of sleep the way I once did.
I remember pacing the halls of our tiny one-bedroom apartment with our first baby – a screeching, colicky newborn, and thinking to my exhausted self, “This makes no sense. Surely someone is going to step in here and make this right, because people need to sleep.”
But no one did step in, except for my husband on occasion. And if the ensuing years have taught me nothing else, they have quite surely taught me this much: Though you might occasionally get one, no parent has a right to expect a good night’s sleep.
Here are some other parenting sleep facts I have learned over the years. Mostly at 2 a.m.
Parents gain new sleep skills.
At a baby shower, it seems there is always some older mom ready to “shower” the pregnant newbie with helpful information, like how she would rather eat glass than ever experience labor again. These are the same women who relish warning innocent young couples that after their baby is born, they will “never sleep again.”
This is ridiculous. Of course they will sleep again. In fact, they will learn to catch their Z’s in all variety of new places – in the dentist chair, in the confessional, in the shower, and while standing at the kitchen sink, washing the dishes.
Never say never.
When it comes to parents sharing their bed with infants and toddlers, anything goes. Once upon a time, I rejected co-sleeping because I “just wanted to get some sleep.” In ensuing years, however, I found myself embracing co-sleeping because, once again, I “just wanted to get some sleep.”
I reserve the right to continue to reject and embrace co-sleeping as much as I need to, for this precise reason. As every parent should. When it comes to making family sleep decisions, you answer to no one but yourself and your spouse. And possibly your employer, if you operate heavy machinery.
It’s all about attitude.
I used to struggle and fight to get eight hours of uninterrupted sleep each night because I thought getting that much sleep was a “basic necessity.” As motherhood helped me readjust my definition of “basic necessity,” however, I lowered my standards just a bit.
Now, when I find myself awake with a fussy baby at 12 a.m., up with a nightmarish toddler at 2 a.m., and changing an older child’s sheets at 4 a.m., I crawl back into my bed at 4:30 thinking, “Maybe no one will need me for another 3 hours. This will be a glorious nap!”
And it is.
There are no guarantees.
Especially with babies, it can be tempting to think you can win the sleep lottery by stacking the odds in your favor. We parents think rational thoughts like, “If I don’t let the baby nap for too long today, he’ll sleep well tonight,” or “If she skips her morning nap, she’s bound to take an extra-long one this afternoon.”
It all looks good on paper, but don’t count on it. There’s this thing grandmas call being “overtired.” If a baby lacks proper rest, he’ll sometimes become over-stimulated and incapable of falling asleep or staying asleep for any length of time.
If your baby gets “overtired,” you might just find yourself standing over his crib screaming something logical like, “I haven’t showered for three weeks! You owe me a nap!”
No he doesn’t. No guarantees.
Nighttime can be nice.
There, I said it. Sometimes, even when my eyes ache with fatigue, some crazy part of me enjoys being awake in my house when no one else is.
For one thing, my living room never looks so fantastic as it does bathed in moonlight at 3 a.m. Dust bunnies, wall markings, un-mopped floors, and fingerprinted windows all blend in with the shadows.
A second bonus is the quiet. Sometimes, when I find myself alone with a wakeful child in the night, I sit still and let the silence run over my ears like a soothing balm. I watch the flames flicker through the window of the wood stove and bask in God’s presence right there, where He always is, beneath the noise.
I do wish every parent a good night’s sleep, but since none of us is likely to get that anytime soon, I wish each of us something even better – grace.
Grace is what keeps us keeping on when there’s nothing left in the tank. It’s what tells us the job we’re doing is important, even if it’s 3 a.m. and nobody remembers to say “thank you.” And it’s what makes me smile as I rock a feverish baby in the dead of the night and sing him the words of a Bon Jovi classic:
“Until I’m 6 feet under baby, I don’t need a bed. Gonna live while I’m alive, I’ll sleep when I’m dead.”
This is an old column of mine that originally appeared at InsideCatholic.