Sleeping in

No one tells you that the profound tiredness you feel in your child's first year of life doesn't go away with the 2 a.m. feedings.

By Anne Lamott
January 8, 1999 7:48PM (UTC)
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No one tells you the really interesting stuff when you're pregnant. No
one tells you, for instance, that your life is effectively over: that you're
never going to draw another complacent breath again, and that the terror of
losing your child arrives within 20 minutes of first seeing his or her
face. No one mentions that whatever level of hypochondria and rage you'd
learned to repress and live with is going to seem like the good old days about
three weeks after your baby's arrival. There are good things they don't tell
you, too, like how vibrational new babies are, how healing they are when they
sleep on your chest, how you let out your breath and rest down into them and
are set free of everything bad for just a moment. No one prepares you for how
much joyousness babies elicit in you, in awful finicky old you, what unexpected
capacities for twinkliness and softness and courage. But then again, no one
tells you that sometimes you won't even like your child. Or that you are
going to discover streaks of self-obsession and neuroses that make your crabby
Aunt Nancy look like Meher Baba. No one, while discussing parenthood, ever
mentions the word "pathological." Or "The Zone," a place of held-breath
twilight terror when you can't locate your child. So when our children got
bigger and we looked back at our expectations -- the Gerber commercial moments,
the slow-motion footage on beaches and carousels, the TV sitcom moments of
adorable mischief and softhearted exasperation, it's no wonder we
decompensated into hysterical laughter. It's no wonder the tears streamed down
our faces.

Because on top of everything else, on top of the Gerber moments playing
side by side with cancer scares, the slow-motion rides on the merry-go-round
in a double bill with your child missing at Safeway, there was a tiredness
beyond all imagining. It's like the last day of a speed binge, but about half
the time. It's almost like combat exhaustion, the all-nighters with a sick
kid, with a colicky infant or a toddler with an ear infection at midnight; a
grind-'em-up endgame battle, the third day of the Battle at Gettysburg with
Gen. Pickett relentlessly charging the Union soldiers. You are the fixed
line of Union soldiers; unrelenting neediness is the Confederate general.


Now, I'm an intelligent woman and I understood that having a child was
not going to improve a lifetime of poor sleep. But I had been led to believe
that maybe for the first year or so you're up every few hours in the
middle of the night, but after that you're only up when they're croupy, or have a

This sense of short-term tiredness turns out not to be the case.

I'd been sleeping poorly long before I had a child. I always had trouble
drifting off, and whenever I needed to get up early -- school, jobs,
etc. -- I went through the day feeling vaguely hungover. But usually if I
couldn't fall asleep, I could at least make up for it by sleeping in. I wasn't
able to consistently fall asleep before midnight until I discovered
barbiturates in my early 20s, although "fall asleep" is
perhaps a misnomer. Let's say they caused awareness to end. Sometimes I was
so drunk when I took a sleeping pill that boyfriends would say incredulously
that I would be in a vegetative coma by morning, drool trickling down the
sides of my mouth, but I'd think, "Gee, you make that sound like a bad thing."


So nine years ago I had this beautiful child, and we survived colic and
ear infections and croup and fevers, and after that first erratic year he was
one of those kids who would sleep in. I couldn't believe my good fortune,
that he was not one of those early risers who want to bound out of bed at 6
a.m. and begin a new day. I really cannot stand that in a child. Often I
stay up writing until quite late at night, and then I'm unable to fall asleep
until 2 or 3 or 4. So I've always needed to sleep a bit in order to
function. The difference between having to get up at 7 and 8 is -- besides an
hour -- the difference between bloodshot flu symptoms and just feeling a little
tired. A little tired I can do; it's actually one of the things I do best. I
found a preschool that started at 9, and a little Christian kindergarten
that started at 9. Then, miraculously, it turned out that the public school
where he has gone since first grade had a Late Bird/Early Bird schedule
through third grade, and Late Birds did not start till 9:15.

So all those years, if I had a horrific night of insomnia, I could at
least sleep until just before 8, and Sam would sleep too, and we'd get up and
have a relatively dopey morning together, which was great.

But this year he started fourth grade, and all the fourth graders are
Early Birds. I guess it's good for them to get up nice and early in
preparation for the factory jobs they'll no doubt hold one day. So I
started getting up at 6:45 to turn on the heat and make a pot of coffee for me
and a cup of cocoa for Sam, and have a few moments of quiet before having to
get Sam up, fed and dressed. It was so disappointing to lose that languid
quality of our first nine years together that I almost considered home schooling, or
plugging Sam into some existing hippie spiritual survivalists out in the
valley, or maybe a nice Christian militia group that started at 9. But
Sam loves his friends at school and has had fantastic teachers every step of
the way, and I believe in public school and know it's where we're
supposed to be.


- - - - - - - - - -

But I'm so tired these days. I am still often awake in the middle of the
night, agitated because I know I have to get up so early. The jungle drums
beat and I flop around on the bed and read and pray, meditate and pray and
read and flop around. When I come face to face with God in heaven someday, I
am going to bow down and then I am going to shout, "What were you thinking?"
In the meantime I'd like to point out that some of the world's worst people
are some of the best sleepers: You show me someone like Tom DeLay, and I'll
show you someone who falls asleep easily and then stays asleep all night -- and
then is mean about it, passive-aggressive, sing-songy: "My head hits the
pillow and I am out. Ha ha ha ha." As if this speaks of some deep, hard-won inner peace.


So. The other night I had a worse time than usual. I was channeling
Edgar Allan Poe till 3:30, tortured and skittish, up every half hour for milk,
or to pee, reading grimly in between. Finally, finally, I fell asleep, but
when the alarm went off at 6:45, I felt like I had tsutsugamushi disease -- dreaded Japanese river fever. Sam came bounding into my room. I said, "Honey, I
didn't get any sleep. I feel awful. Do you think you could make your own
cocoa, put on the TV and I'll get up soon?"

And he said, "Oh, sure." He looked very pleased to be trusted. He knows
how to make cocoa in the microwave, he knows where the whipped cream is kept.
He's such a cool kid, and he's getting so grown-up: He knows his multiplication tables;
he eats salad; he mousses his hair. So I drifted back to sleep. I heard
the TV go on, and I called to him, "Did you get your cocoa?" And he said,
"Yes, Mama. You just sleep. I'm fine."

I slept for half an hour or so and woke up at 7:15.


"How's it going?" I called.

"Just fine."

"Did you drink your cocoa?"

"Yes. You just take care of yourself, Mama." I thought, This is so
great; Jimmy Carter lives at my house now. I also thought about getting up
but didn't have it in me. So I said, "Could you get breakfast, too?"


"Sure," he said. "What should I get?"

I named a bunch of foods he likes and told him where they were. "And
there are pears by the sink, all washed and ready to eat."

"Wow, great," he said. "Can I cut them with a knife?"

I thought this over and almost got up: You have to be careful with Sam,
who loves sharp things. When he was 5, he tore inside one day, yelling,
"Mama, Mama, do we have a chain saw?" But he's careful with knives now, and it
seemed like incentive to get him to eat the pear, so I said, "Sure, a small


"OK," he said. "A small knife. You can sleep a little more."

I have waited a long time for him to talk this way to me. Most of the
time you'd think he was at a truck stop, where I've already introduced
myself -- "Hi, I'm Annie. I'll be your mother today." When he says, "Do we
have any string cheese?" it means, of course, go get me some. Sometimes I do,
because I'm happy when he's hungry for healthy food. Sometimes I bristle,
remembering Roseanne once saying that her husband and kids would always ask
her if there were chips or sodas, as if her uterus were a tracking device.
But: "You can sleep a little more."

I mean, I ask you.

I woke up again around 7:30 and felt like I might be able to get up
soon. I didn't have to make him lunch, as it was Pizza Day, and it was
another parent's day to drive. I called out, "How's it going in there?"


He said, "Just great."

"You are doing such a great job, Sam. I'm so proud of you. But could
you do one more thing? Could you get yourself dressed? You know where
everything is -- and I'll get up and help you get your shoes on."

"OK, Mama."

A minute later, I asked, "Did you find your shorts?"



This was just boggling my mind. He was out there acting like a real,
high-functioning person, instead of like the pencil man who sits outside
Macy's on his dolly. I fantasized about letting him get himself ready on
mornings when I wasn't driving the car pool. I could sleep in two or three
times a week, and, in the bargain, he'd be assuming more responsibility for
his own care. The women or men in his future would thank me forever for not
raising an entitled, wait-on-me guy.

I closed my eyes, then bolted awake at 7:50, 10 minutes before he gets
picked up, and while tearing around my room looking for my pants, I suddenly
stopped. Duh! Why was I tearing around like this? He had eaten, he was all
dressed, it was Pizza Day.

So I smiled and went out to greet the day and my big grown-up son. Who
was sitting on the couch wearing only his underpants and drinking a root beer.

"Hi, Mama," he said. "How you feeling?"

So in the 10 minutes left to get him fed and dressed, I tore around
like the Roadrunner, flinging shorts and a shirt and socks his way, putting
together breakfast he could eat on the ride to school -- a box of juice, the
string cheese and pear I thought he'd already eaten. But then I started
laughing, and he started laughing too, and we had a very sweet, very rushed
few minutes together. He's just who he is; he won't be who I try to get him
to be. And that's (sometimes) so great, and I (sometimes) love that so much.
When he left, I crawled into his bed and pulled his blanket over me. It is
flannel, a Southwestern design in rose, blue and dark green. He calls it his
Moko Koko blanket and -- maybe he's not such a great big boy after all -- does not
like to go to sleep without it. He says it helps you fall asleep, so I
wrapped it all around me and took a little nap.

Anne Lamott

Anne Lamott is the New York Times bestselling author of "Help, Thanks, Wow"; "Small Victories"; "Stitches"; "Some Assembly Required"; "Grace (Eventually)"; "Plan B"; "Traveling Mercies"; "Bird by Bird"; "Operating Instructions" and "Hallelujah Anyway," out April 4. She is also the author of several novels, including "Imperfect Birds" and "Rosie." A past recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and an inductee to the California Hall of Fame, she lives in Northern California.

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