I can recall a question a teacher asked once in middle school: what would you think of a survival-oriented species that sought out food and protection constantly, but in regular cycles simply stopped and laid down unconscious, completely vulnerable to attack. A chorus of eager tweens denounced the absurdity of the notion until the teacher smugly announced that this was a legitimate description of humans and sleep. We were stunned. It suddenly did seem odd that for vast periods of each day we were completely defenseless. Sleep wasn't something that many of us thought about much, let alone discussed, other than with childish exaggeration. Sleep merely kept us from everything else we wanted to do.
I have spent one year, 6 months, and 18 days preoccupied with sleep. Longer than that if you count the days I spent big-bellied, awakened frequently throughout the night by the movements of my in-utero son and my own attempts to get comfortable. But at the time those wakenings weren't a burden; these were brief periods of dazed consciousness in an otherwise peaceful and deep night. Then James arrived in the earliest moment of Saturday, August 21, 2010, and after 7 or so hours of celebration and settling in, our small family unit collectively passed out in a tiny, warm hospital room. 2 hours later a nurse burst in with a bright "good morning!" and in groggy confusion I had no strength to argue. 12 hours later I made one of my all-time great New Parent Decisions - I rolled James in his little bassinet to the neighboring nursery, and returned to my room for a truly restful night's sleep.
My earliest days with James are a haze of bewilderment. I slept in odd positions in unusual places and with the constant paranoia that belongs to new mothers everywhere. I treated the first few weeks like a college final exam study period - a time of late nights and stress and temporary incoherence. Until I realized that this was only the beginning of something new and lasting. While my strength had returned rapidly and my days developed a semblance of routine, my body ached to its core for sleep. Every few hours of the night my sleep-starved mind, close to entering a rejuvenating cycle of REM, was jerked back to a dark room and the wail of a newborn. Unused to the regular shock of wakefulness, my body was surprisingly adept at returning to sleep instantaneously after attending to the baby. At first. As weeks followed it seemed that my acclimation to the new routine made it harder for my body to trust itself to sleep, to sink into the same depth, knowing that it would shortly be forced to reawaken.
My preoccupation with sleep became an obsession. I counted periods of sleep to the minute, tracking and adding and comparing to nights prior. Without a thought to examining how I actually felt at a given moment, I based my happiness and mental stability completely on whether or not my first shift of sleep was 3 hours precisely or 15 minutes fewer. Subsequent 2.5 hour blocks were adequate while 120 minutes alone was a crisis. I refused to slow down - I cleaned and cooked and hosted social events - but all the while I was tallying minutes of sleep or using elaborate imaginary formulas to predict future ones. The formerly upbeat rhythm of my steps had been replaced with a slow trudge. If the Giants hadn't been on a World Series run-up I imagine I may have abandoned my family one sleep-starved night. Well, technically that did happen, but Great New Parent Decision #2 of throwing the baby into my husband's arms and hailing a cab for my parent's house across town was more a redemption than a crime after 11 hours of peaceful respite.
In the months that followed I marveled at the power of sleep. I realized that, in fact, sleep deprivation stopped me from few things . . . I remained the do-it-all person I had always been. But my core enthusiasm, my sense of joy in the world, was somewhat lost. I resented how I had so taken for granted the restorative powers of sleep. The way in which you can go about a busy or stressful day and then stretch out across a soft cushion, giving yourself over completely to a period of quiet solitude and deep rejuvenation. Months later and with great pain I taught James to sleep more restfully during the nights, and saw in him the sudden and drastic changes that turned him from a fragile, high-strung infant into an ebullient and playful one. I delighted in watching him comfortably embrace sleep and awaken refreshed. With this my own inner warmth had begun to return as well, but I still clung to sleep in an anxious and greedy way, wisened to its transient nature.
18 months later I awoke one morning to a startling discovery. I felt deeply rested. Invigorated. A new feeling had crept into my life over the course of a week or so, and it was a truly sudden discovery that I had been sleeping, uninterrupted, for many nights. For many months James had slept admirably, with very brief nighttime wakings every few days, but the complete absence of them had far-reaching effects, my subconscious keen to the notion that sleep each night would be lasting and full.
The volatile sleep of newborns and their families is a common thread of casual jokes, parenting adages, and the well-intended inquiries of friends. Some of us never lose, or take for granted, our capacity for easy and restorative sleep. But I now see this kind of sleep as a treasure, almost a nightly meditation, something to ritually immerse oneself in and cherish with gratitude. Sleep is something we simply cannot help but do for our bodies. Its absence cannot be diminished with admonishments that this time will be brief or forgotten or overshadowed by other joys. For some of us it is an abiding pain and preoccupation, which, unseen by others, suffocates part of who we are. New parent or not, times in which we are excluded from this strange and precious ritual of daily life are agonizing and even traumatic. Even for middle schoolers who marvel at its strangeness, these seemingly brief periods of unconsciousness are times to move past the chaos of the day and prepare us for another. Maybe sleep, like a religious meditation, is something to which we should bring mindfulness and gratitude or, at the very least, awareness.