It’s two-thirty in the morning and I am stretched out on the couch, the orange glow of the outside street lamp illuminating the living room curtains, my boy swaddled and sleeping in his baby nest on the arm of the L-shaped couch beside me. I’ve caught maybe forty-five minutes of sleep and my wrist watch is vibrating to tell me that’s all I’m going to get.
I sit up, careful not to disturb my couch companion, tip-toe to the bathroom to splash some cold water over my face, before heading into the bedroom to inform my wife that her breasts are once again required. Sadly, this is not some clumsy seduction but a much more practical application of said breasts. Alex stirs, sits up on the edge of the mattress, head hanging and shoulders slumped, and nods to indicate that the message has been received and that she will meet me in the living room once she has scraped together enough crumbs of motivation. This non-verbal communication is just one of the ways our bond has deepened since having a baby. They say a shared trauma will do that.
We are four weeks in to this parenting game and, at least when it comes to sleep statistics, it’s safe to say that we are losing. One column that is in our favour is the hours of sleep obtained by our tiny cherub, but the columns dedicated to Alex and I are deeply in the red.
When we first arrived home from the hospital, relieved to be in our bubble as a trio for the first time, we were optimistic. Alex and I went about figuring out our tasks and habits for caring for our new roommate, while our new tenant pulled his weight simply by existing. We were high on the euphoria of creating life and feeling pretty good despite the almost complete lack of slumber in the past seventy-two hours. We launched ourselves into our first night at home on the eddies of this high and when morning light broke the sky, we told ourselves that we had done well, you know, given the circumstances.
Our friend/midwife, Christina, arrived for the first home visit, asking all the questions and getting all the cuddles, well-earnt given she had guided the little man out into the world just days before, and eventually broached the question of sleep. With all the casualness and confidence of ripe rookies, we informed her that we had gotten, accumulatively, around two hours of sleep throughout the night. We looked at each other and nodded, reiterating that we had done well, you know, given the circumstances.
Christina was quick to correct us of this preconception.
Apparently sleep is an important component to health, particularly for a woman recovering from spending twenty plus hours pushing a melon-sized baby out of her body, using muscles she didn’t know she had and drawing on resources normally reserved for life or death situations. Not to mention the dinner-plate-sized wound on the inside of her uterus where a placenta was previously adhered and has since been torn away from the force of contracting uterine muscles. All of this is to say that Alex was justifiably pooped and in need of a good kip.
Christina explained this to us in patient and simple words, necessary given our sluggish sleep-deprived minds, and we eventually twigged that the current set-up wasn’t sustainable if we wanted a healthy milk-producing mother able to keep both her baby and herself alive. A large early lesson in parenting is the need to remain flexible, to ditch preconceived ideas and advice if your baby just doesn’t fit that particular mould, and to come up with something new. Our something new entailed Alex walling herself off in the bedroom come nightfall to attempt to get whatever rest she could between feeds, while the boys set up a bachelor pad in the living room.
The need for this separation was due to the fact that a new parent cannot sleep deeply when their baby is beside them. This is because, this early in the game, you are convinced that every squeak and snort the baby makes requires immediate attention in order to avoid fatal consequences. The attention usually involves jerking upright, leaning over your happily snoozing baby, watching for some sign of life before laying down again, only to repeat the process five minutes later when your baby smacks their lips together or farts in their sleep.
The second reason to have walls between Alex and Roo is that babies are damn loud sleepers. Somehow in all our prenatal research we missed the class that informed to-be-parents that their baby will make as much noise as an overweight eighty-year-old who never got around to having their sinuses looked at and is prone to murmuring in their sleep.
And it worked. Mostly. That is to say, Alex went from having two hours of sleep in a night to somewhere more around five or six. These hours were still broken, of course, but at least the times between having an infant suckle at her chest were spent in quiet solitude. Given my lack of mammary glands, my job was as a prep and pack man. I would prepare the environment for the incoming mama, which entailed turning on a glow lamp to its dimmest setting, unswaddling our baby burrito, and running a cloth under water should my other role as awake-keeper become necessary. Alex would take her throne, a single-person armchair bought for just this purpose, and feed Roo, occasionally passing him off to me to burp, a job I knew I had done well when I felt a spill of warmth down my back on the up-chuck cloth slung over my shoulder.
Once she had fulfilled her responsibilities as life-giving-sustenance provider, Alex would attempt to get some much needed restorative shut-eye in the bedroom while I packed away our little man for another stretch of sleep. This involved changing his nappy under the soft orange light of the heat lamp, doing my best to move cautiously and quietly in an attempt to preserve the lazy lasitute that a good feed brings on, and then wrapping him up like a sausage roll, tucking him into his baby nest, and returning to the couch.
If he had perked up during my ministrations, I would stand in the dark and rock him in my arms, a bundle of baby boy, a miracle of life breathing and blinking up at me, and I would stare back in wonder and love at this impossibility, a person where there had not been one before, a child made of Alex and I and surely some magic, because what other word can you use when something is made from nothing, and I would smile and whisper soft reassurances and crinkle tired, so tired, eyes and rock my exhausted limbs back and forth at this stupidly early hour of the morning until my son fell asleep, and I would finally lay down with him, bones aching, and feeling so very very lucky.
This stratadigm of sleep worked in that Alex was afforded enough rest to recover from nine months of manufacturing and then expelling a person. However, at the end of the month the accumulation of broken nights added up and we both knew we would have to adapt yet again if I wanted to be able to function enough to operate important machinery like our car or the coffee machine.
And so with my return to work, I also returned to the bedroom. We had decided that we would split the night, each of us sleeping on the side of the bed with the attached cot for half the night, the hope being that the person furthest away would still be able to get some of that sweet sweet REM. Additionally, all the books said that at this point in his development, three-hour feeds were no longer necessary at night, and that he could be stretched longer and longer, essentially being left alone and only feeding him when he woke.
We were a family reunited, exhausted yet proud that we had summited first-month mountain, sure that the worst was behind us and that sleep-filled nights lay ahead.
It was around this time that Roo learnt to really put his lungs to use, we learnt that leaving a baby to wake on his own doesn’t necessarily mean he wakes any less and, most importantly, we learnt just how truly naive we were.
But that is another chapter in the Sleep Saga and will have to wait for another time. Right now, I’m too tired. I think I might just lay down for a spell.
Next week’s topic: The cost