Once, before we were married, my husband pulled an all-nighter driving from Cincinnati, Ohio to Orlando, Florida. That’s a 13-hour drive. I was thoroughly awed at the man’s ability to dispense with sleep. In fact, my reverence of his mental fortitude during that trip was one of the reasons I married him.
So when my husband spent the entire first night of our son’s life pacing the hospital room with a sleepless infant, neither one of us was very surprised that he’d managed to stay awake the whole night. Impressed, maybe – but not surprised. I thought smugly, Golly, he’s going to be such a laid-back daddy. My shmoopsy-woopsies is the BEST. My husband banged on his chest like a proud caveman and declared, “Pfft! That wasn’t bad! I could do that every night!” And thanks to my post-childbirth fatigue, combined with the powerful pain killers I’d been given for my blown-to-smithereens-and-sewn-back-up vagina, I was addle-brained enough to find my husband’s suggestion to be perfectly reasonable, and not insane in the least.
The second night in the hospital went much the same as the first, though with considerably less pacing on my husband’s part, and lots more sitting with his head flopped back in the ridiculously uncomfortable hospital chair, jaw hanging open in semi-sleep, and furiously jiggling one leg to keep baby Lucas in constant motion. My little boy never wanted to stop moving, right from the start.
The next morning, my husband—in spite of having gone two nights with only a few brief naps while I breastfed—remained stubbornly committed to being the go-to guy for all-nighters. He was starting to look tired, but I was still too worn out from the aftershocks of labor to dispute the issue. Or any issue, for that matter.
The third day of my son’s life was our first day home as a newly-minted family of three. By that point, my head had cleared somewhat, and I could look at my husband with a more discriminating eye… he was starting to take on the air of an alcoholic hobo going into withdrawal. There might’ve been some grunting and drooling, some big tufts of hair unknowingly smeared awkwardly to one side of his head.
The shit was about to hit the fan, but because of our inexperience, neither one of us saw it coming. We really thought that because we had pulled an occasional all-nighter here and there in college that we understood the meaning of sleep deprivation.
But it should have been a red flag to both of us that day when my husband cooked me macaroni and cheese and served it to me without mixing in the cheese. He seriously served me noodles with only melted butter and milk. Another red flag would have been that I had to take two bites before I noticed anything was amiss.
There I sat in the family room, trapped and helpless in my new glider-rocker, unable to get up because of a combination of things: my aching, stitched-up privates, the nursing baby that was attached to my boob, and the bowl of hot, flavorless macaroni noodles I was balancing on the side of me that wasn’t occupied by a baby.
So, because I couldn’t get up, and I couldn’t yell for my husband since he was outside doing something so extremely important that it couldn’t wait until my vagina healed… I cried. I cried and blubbered like someone whose dog had just died. I cried right into my cheeseless macaroni noodles and hailed myself as The Most Wretched Person in the World.
I’m ashamed to admit, it never occurred to me that my husband’s forgetfulness was a result of exhaustion. I truly thought he was just being an air-head, like when he threw his socks on the floor next to the hamper (instead of into the hamper, hello), or squeezed the toothpaste from the middle (who does that?).
Likewise, it never occurred to me that I was exhausted too. I might not have stayed up two nights in a row, but I had endured 30 hours of labor, and was waking up every two hours to breastfeed. Still, at the time, I didn’t see our situation for what it was; I thought my tears of self-pity were purely the result of having to tolerate my stupid, airheaded husband.
I did my best to hide my exasperation. With clenched-teeth generosity, I encouraged my husband to sleep as much as he could that afternoon so he could do his “shift” at night. It was probably the only time in our marriage since having children that I didn’t begrudge him a nap. That evening, as per his self-inflicted obligation, my husband took baby Lucas from me and we agreed that he would come wake me up when it was time for a feeding.
Two hours later, as I was sleeping the most profound and blissful sleep any human has ever slept in the history of humanity, I was suddenly, cruelly, jarred awake by the sound of our bedroom door being flung open with such force that it banged into the wall behind it.
“I CAN’T! I CAN’T DO IT ANYMORE! YOU HAVE TO TAKE HIM!” There was so much noise; it was like the Big Bang had just taken place in my bedroom. My husband was near-hysterical, I was shouting “Okay! Okay!” and of course, there was the screeching bundle being thrust at me by my husband as if we were playing a bizarre, late-night game of hot-potato.
But I still hadn’t fully bridged the gap from sleep to wakefulness, so my first thought was, what the hell is THAT SCREECHING THING? followed by oh that’s right, I had a baby, and then HOLY SHIT WHAT DID WE DO?!
“Calm down,” I snapped at my husband, my voice radiating venomous anger at having been so callously ripped from my divine slumber. “You don’t have to come banging in here. No one ever said you had to actually stay up all night with him! You volunteered, remember? All you have to do is ask me, and I’ll take over. Yeesh!” (No, that’s not what I said; my word-choices were much more colorful than “yeesh.”)
My husband threw himself into bed with an angry “HARUMPH!” and was dead to the world before he could even pull a blanket over himself. Of course that only fueled my anger more, because how dare he fall asleep while I was still pissed at him? All the marriage-advice books say not to do that!
If you’ve ever been truly exhausted, you know what a quick and slippery slope it can be to go from irritation to anger to contempt, without even realizing it is happening. Although I can now look back on that night and know our frustration with one another was born purely of sleep deprivation, at the time I felt justified in my anger. I truly believed I was in firm control of my mind. Isn’t that one of the hallmarks of insanity? Any third-party observer could have looked in on us and immediately recognized we were off our rockers… anyone but us.
Yes, sleep-deprivation made us insane. My husband usually manifested his insanity by being airheaded and forgetful. I got super-angry and bitchy. There were days when I flat-out hated my husband for silly, faultless behaviors like clinking his spoon against his bowl, whistling too much, or breathing too loudly. Or breathing, period.
One thing no one ever told me, and I wish someone had, is that those moments of despair and rage would eventually pass. Maybe it would have changed things if I’d known that. I might’ve felt less helpless and alone, knowing that I was normal, that there was an end to the chaos of sleepless nights. My poor husband might not have been on the receiving end of so much misguided wrath.
Or… maybe it wouldn’t have changed anything at all. Maybe the insanity of sleep-deprivation is something that every parent has to experience for themselves. A test to determine the strength of a relationship; a surly indoctrination to the brutal, marvelous roller-coaster world that is parenthood. Because, once you finally do make it through those months (okay, it was closer to a year), you get this feeling like, well, if I could make it through that, I could make it through anything.
That’s how it was for us, anyway. One day, I looked up to hear my husband whistling a silly tune for baby Lucas, making him smile and giggle that adorable, infectious laugh of his. I was flooded with a surge of love and admiration for my husband, the kind I used to feel for him on nights like the one when we made that long drive from Cincinnati to Orlando. Except… better, because now we had Lucas.
We had made it through.