Monday, April 20, 2009

Battle Lines

When I was pregnant with Elan, there was one question that most concerned the friends and family members who knew us best. It was usually delivered around 1 p.m. on a Sunday, after we arrived late for a get-together, still shaking off the effects of our weekend morning sleep-a-thon. They would look from one to the other of us, shake their heads, and say: "So, who's going to get up in the morning with the baby?"

In our lives B.C., Mikhail and I were both committed night-people. And even more than that, we were committed not-morning people. If 2 a.m. was a time we regularly saw voluntarily, 6:30 a.m. was usually greeted with moans and curses directed towards whatever force see fit to awaken us at such an ungodly hour. We were the kinds of people who tended to roll in a little on the late side to work, but could still easily be going strong at 6 p.m. It's not that we couldn't get up in the morning. It's just that it left both of us feeling a little - well - ill.

When the question was put to us, we usually made light of it. "We're hoping for one of those night-person babies," we'd say, despite assurances from friends who knew such things that such babies were few and far between. I did have moments, during my pregnancy, of worry about the mornings and about lack of sleep in general. But given the general instability of our lives while I was pregnant, my mind tended to be occupied by more pressing matters like where we were going to live and if Mikhail was going to find a job before the baby was born.

Of course, a part of me knew that the way the Universe tends to work is to challenge you with the thing you are least well prepared for. According to this line of reason, I fully assumed that I was going to have a boy, because I was sure I had no clue about what to do with a boy. Similarly, or maybe because the powers-that-be just enjoy a good joke, I assumed our child would probably not be a great sleeper.

My sixth-sense was probably also rooted in a physical phenomena. Late in my first trimester of pregnancy, Elan's affection for 5 a.m. was already evidenced by the fact that I used to wake up around that time, wide-awake and hungry. Once I could actually feel him move, the hour before dawn was frequently his most active time of day. I would get up, have a snack, and pace around till he quieted. I was practicing early-morning baby soothing before I even had a baby out of the womb.

Oh, if I had known then the months of starting my day at 5 a.m. that were in store for me... I might have moved back to Peru and hired a full-time, live-in nanny who liked to get up in the morning. Hmmm... that still sounds like a pretty good idea.

The reality is that Elan is a marginal sleeper at best, occasionally dressed in the guise of a decent sleeper and frequently showing his true colors as a truly terrible sleeper. And even worse than his overall sleep performance, he is a morning person. Elan is the only person in our house who is cheerful at 6 a.m., even though the rest of us are usually awake at that hour too. This morning was a prime example. At 5:45 a.m., when we heard the first cry (he always wakes up crying and screaming, never peacefully like some children I hear legend of), we both rolled over. "It's still dark out," Mikhail whispered. "Ha-rung-rumph," I muttered angrily, while in my head I was screaming NOOOOOOOO. These days, I put up with 6:20 a.m., but any wake-up call before 6 a.m. that is not caused by illness or a foreign body in the diaper makes me irate. 

After torturing our neighbors - I mean - letting him cry - for fifteen minutes, Mikhail went in and retrieved Elan. The boys came back into the bedroom, where I gave Elan a stern talking-to before handing over his bottle. And then he proceeded to regale us with cheerfulness for the next hour, chatting and banging his doggie against our noses and kicking us in the nether regions as we both continued our denial state, drifting off when the other was getting the brunt of the toddler love.

Elan's sleep issues tend to range around these days. They are difficult to pin down because they change about every two weeks. Just when we think we've dealt with one problem (lack of naps, waking up in the night, waking up too early, not going to sleep on his own), another crops up to take its place. It's not that Elan can't, or doesn't, sleep. In fact, most nights in the last year, he has slept more or less through the night. It's that he doesn't like to sleep. He resists it, and he is stubborn and strong-willed and smart enough to constantly be figuring out new ways to resist.

Unfortunately Elan's sleep escapades don't only affect him. They have a huge effect on the functioning of our whole family, most notably me. Apply the saying when Mama ain't happy ain't nobody happy to our house, and it sounds more like: when Mama ain't rested, ain't nobody happy. Over the course of Elan's two years and four months, I have realized that my mechanisms for dealing with lack of sleep weren't as good as I thought pre-baby. I actually become quite a difficult and nasty person when I am chronically sleep-deprived, noticeably short on patience, energy and sense of humor - three of the integral ingredients to dealing with children, especially ones who are themselves over-tired.

This realization led Mikhail and me into that most difficult terrain of parenting: sleep training. We started sleep training with Elan when he was five months old and had backslid from 3-4 hours of sleep at a time to waking every other hour in the night, wanting to nurse, cry, play, and generally do anything except sleep. Our method has generally been cry-it-out, gut-wrenching and necessary. What I never thought was that we'd have to do it over again and again and again and again and again. My guide through it all has been my dear friend Meg, mom of three good-sleepin' boys, who has put up with more teary, desperate phone calls than I ever imagined I was capable of making. And though I have given advice to a half-dozen other mamas on sleep training, looking at us would hardly inspire confidence in the method. I admit that I often sugar-coat our situation to moms who are starting to sleep-train their kids, and that is because I am keenly aware of how badly we would all sleep if we hadn't sleep-trained Elan. I imagine 11 p.m. serenades, 2 a.m. hoe-downs, and 5 a.m. picnics. 

The truth is that, in our household, sleep is a long-term battle, and for me, the single most difficult part of parenting Elan. There are times when peace reigns over the land. But I have given up thinking that it is ever for good. Inevitably, in a day or a week or (when things are really going well) a month, an incursion will happen. First it looks like a random event, perhaps precipitated by a blanket thrown off in the night or teething pain. We do not return fire. And then another incident. We scramble for a short-term plan. Then a bomb drops in the night. The battle lines are drawn. In the bleary morning, we contemplate the appropriate strategic response to dish out. Review the rules of engagement that have eventually led to truce in the past. Sometimes it escalates to full-out war, as in three nights ago when it took an hour of screaming before Elan finally collapsed into sleep.

More and more, we are attempting to reason with the adversary, appeal to the part of our dear and darling son who knows that he would be happier if he were not chronically over-tired. I'm perfectly willing to try bribery as well. I'll let you know if either strategy ever pans out. In the meantime, I'll be the one watching re-runs of Grey's Anatomy on my laptop at 8 p.m., headphones firmly lodged in my ears, volume turned up high, praying for peace to soon return to the land.

1 comment:

  1. I thought of this post yesterday afternoon when my daughter woke me up from my nap and asked, "Mommy, are you stuck to the bed?" I wish I had that luxury. ;-)