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Sleep: The New Currency of Your Marriage

Do you remember the days when your wife would be happy with a night out, dinner and a movie perhaps? Have kids and you’ll quickly learn that she’ll trade anything for a night of uninterrupted sleep.

sleep_maskSLEEP DEPRIVATION

Sleep deprivation is an actual form of torture. Probably every nation with an intelligence service uses it in an attempt to extract information from unfortunate adversaries. For those who have experienced it, it feels as though you’d do anything to just sleep. Or if you are like my wife you’ll actually become what I call “the walking dead”: an insomniac.

As part of Navy Seal training, candidates have to endure what is called “Hell Week”. It consists of grueling physical trials, cognitive problem solving and… wait for it… sleep deprivation! The Navy knows that out in the thick of things you may not get a chance to sleep, or if you do you’ll be captured or killed all because you needed your beauty rest. On top of the massive sleep deprivation they subject their candidates to, they expect them all to function as close to normal as possible. Sounds a lot like parenting doesn’t it?

For parents Hell Week might almost seem like a picnic. “You mean it would only be for a week?” This is because for parents of a child, or children with sleep problems it can be a year or more of “Hell Week” for them (but nary a pushup will be seen).

OUR FIRST (the “good” sleeper)

With our daughter we experienced roughly 5 months of not getting a solid sleep, she was our first child and as new parents we probably did a lot of things wrong. One of those “wrong things” was waking a sleeping child. My wife had it in her head that my daughter would starve *to death* in her bassinet if she wasn’t woken every 3 hours to feed. What were we thinking!!! I quickly modeled the “first rule of baby club: Don’t wake a sleeping baby!” and she just as quickly amended that rule with all sort of sub-sections (i.e. if she sleeps too long at night, she won’t nap!). At about 5 months we were at our wits end. 5 months of not sleeping solidly makes you into a zombie and you start resenting that little bundle of joy as if it knows the agony you are going through. At about the 5 month mark my wife read some books on instilling sleep habits in children. In just under a week we went from having a daughter who slept a few hours at a time, to one that slept 8 hours, then 12! It was like a whole new light on our parenting experience shone down on us. Sure we still valued our sleep, because once you lose sleep for several months you over value it for months (or years) to come.

OUR SECOND (and consquently our “last”)

With a child sleeping 12 hours a night we were “suckered” in to trying for a second one. We knew that the first few months would be hard, but once the magic sleep habits kick in we’ll be laughing. Instead, for 1.5 years we were miserable. Our son seemed to suffer from colic, there literally were nights where either my wife or I didn’t sleep. I was working full-time to boot and my wife did her best to try and cope but at the end of the day (which tend to blur for the sleep deprived) you *have* to sleep, it’s one of the most basic functions and when you lack sleep it takes a heavy toll on your physical and especially your mental health.

HOW WE DIDN’T COPE

I’ll be honest, we did not cope well with my son’s sleep problems, he would maybe sleep an hour to two hours at a time and start screaming. It got to the point where he didn’t even have to scream, he could just turn over and a shot of adrenalin would be injected straight into my central nervous system forcing me awake from a dead sleep. An adequate depiction of the feeling I would get would be fear, pure unadulterated fear of the unknown amounts of sleep I would be missing. Add on top of this that my son had a built in altimeter that went off as soon as you tried sitting down while holding him. You *had* to carry him, or else he’d cry. Some would say “let him cry, he’ll eventually get tired”. That’s very easy to say, however when you have a sleep deprived spouse and a 2 year old daughter in the house they don’t appreciate that advice.

For my wife and I the sleep deprivation turned us against each other. Our conversations centered around a check and balance comparison of who got more or less sleep the night before, who should have to get up with the kids and who should “sleep in”. With my wife, the whole sleep deprivation experience triggered a control issue: something was chaotic in her life so she had to control it, no matter how irrational it was to do so. For example, if our son wouldn’t nap, which happened often, my wife would force herself or me to take him on what I call “death marches” around the neighborhood with a screaming flailing kid in the stroller. Sometimes I would come back after a half hour and state the obvious: he’s not going to sleep. This would be met with ridicule and “fine I’ll take him” type responses. That really didn’t do much for making me feel like I was much of a Functional Father.

Other examples of irrational sleep control would be when my family would come over to visit the kids after their work day, if they weren’t there precisely at the right time my wife would whisk the kids into the bath and off to bed. It didn’t matter if my Mother would call and say “I’m 5 minutes away, can you make sure she doesn’t put them to bed?”, if that 5 minutes happened to put my kids 5 minutes past their bed time, all bets were off and they were in bed. I can go on and on about other situations, but you get the point, life was as institutionalized as a prison around our house.

For myself, the sleep deprivation caused much anxiety which led to panic attacks and my doctor referring me to a therapist. Anxiety was brought on because I had to function at work on little sleep and then come home to a sleep deprived spouse who was run ragged. I had to walk screaming kids around the block endlessly and because if it were my turn to get up with the kids and they were too noisy my wife would come down stairs and chew a strip off me. That’s how important sleep had become. All of these factors contributed to me piling on a resentment toward my wife and kids. I was now just a parental unit to my wife, someone she could gain sleep from because that’s all that mattered. My kids just became obstacles in my life, I can’t say I enjoyed their baby years! Terrible terrible things to say, but it’s the truth and it all centers around LACK OF SLEEP.

COPING MECHANISMS

Concentrate on doing this *together* not as separate units

The best way to drive a wedge between your wife and yourself is to make the child care responsibilities a binary operation. That is, it’s either you or it’s her that’s taking care of the children, never both. “You take the kids for a walk and I’ll go shopping” “I’ll get up with the kids if you take them to gymnastics”. Doing things together with the kids is something my wife and I are only now (after 5+ years) doing, and it is so much better for your marriage. You get to enjoy your kids together and they get to see you interact with each other.

If you feel like a parental unit and not a spouse, talk to each other or seek help.

Talk to your spouse, tell them if you feel your relationship with them is going sour. If you can’t talk to them, a good therapist can do wonders for your relationship. They act as a third party mediator and allow you to speak to your spouse without knee jerk defensive reactions. They help your spouse realize that although the kids are a very important part of your life, so too is your relationship with each other.

Cognitive Behavioral Specialists

It was by shear luck that my doctor referred me to a Cognitive Behavioral Therapist as these are the types of therapists who cure phobias and, as it turns out, control issues and obsessive compulsive disorders. Since my anxiety centered around me “walking on eggshells” with respect to my wife’s control issues, the therapist was able to help my wife realize that controlling certain situations was irrational to the point of hurting our relationship.

It’s not only you who can take care of your child

I am blessed with a very loving family who adore my children. Both my sister and my mother do 90% of our baby sitting for us, however we have never branched out into the “baby sitter” realm. We really need to for two reasons 1) It’s a lot to ask of my family to always be there 2) It forces us to realize that the kids can function outside of our control. My wife and I haven’t spontaneously been able to go out with friends, or just ourselves since the kids have been born. Having a sitter would allow us to do that.

Don’t become a “sleep Nazi”

Having such a strict and unforgiving sleep plan for the children really limits what you can do at night, nothing past 8pm that’s for sure and when they were younger it was more like 6pm. Five years of Christmas Eve’s where we “have to get home because the kids need to sleep” have taken a real toll on me and my family, my mother thinks it’s so sad that the kids can’t enjoy Christmas to it’s fullest. Don’t go to this extreme, your kids are not robots, they are kids who have to learn that life is variable and not always structured.

Until next time,

Parental Unit

One Response to “Sleep: The New Currency of Your Marriage”

  1. Darryl says:

    Sleep — or lack of it — is one of the biggest things I try to impress upon non-parents who ask me about being a dad. Brutal for awhile and it affects everything during the waking day….

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