Biomythography - Note 22
The Years of Living Sleeplessly
At 11:05 on a November evening, I woke up.
I'd followed my usual routine - go to work, meet with the other hospital computer staff, do my systems programming, leave the office to pick up my kids from childcare, make dinner, draw or read with my son, study, drive to teach a computer science class, come back, put everyone to bed, do homework, and write. My wife Diane had gone through her corresponding routine - take the children to daycare, go to a teaching assignment, come home to make dinner, study for continuing education credits, take care of the children, study some more, and put the kids to go to sleep.
This time, I woke up with my chin in my hands, sitting at my desk. I had been doing that for years. My pattern was, I would open up the novel I was working on and make a few fixes. I'd get to the incomplete paragraph, the one I'd been struggling with all week. I'd delete a sentence and add another. I'd mull over the word choice. I'd consider the rhythm of the syllables. But after a while, I'd blank out. I'd wake up ten minutes later with my eyes unfocused. I'd smell the dirt on my hands. I'd listen to the air coming out of the office vent. I'd hear the joints creak in my desk.
After graduate school, I'd thought things would have to improve. They had, maybe, but not enough for normal sleep. This was my life with a job, a second, adjunct professor job, two kids, a marriage, and a house. It seemed to make sense when I started. The self-help books and advice columns advised me, 'do it all.' It was the right advice. There's not much choice if you want a family. But no advisors talked about how hard it would be to continue to care for it all.
Up to having a child in my life, I thought I had already been doing it all. The reality was that I had only been doing the adult-sized portion of 'all.' I had been living on my own, working, paying bills, writing books, helping friends, caring for my pets, and going to the gym. I was doing all the things, I thought, to be a good citizen. But I'd still had time to sit and think or to go out for a social life.
It turns out there are multiple levels of adulting. Taking care of kids is another level. When you take on handicapped care or elder care in your life, you have to raise your level yet again. In retrospect, it's obvious. But since no one talks about it, no one is ready for the amount of work or the exhaustion. In undergraduate school, I'd prided myself on how I'd been able to get by on four hours of sleep per night, every night, when I was really motivated. And my motivation level could last an entire semester.
Now, while getting five and sometimes even six hours a night, I was wearing down. Keeping the same level of motivation for five years is tough. Maybe it's impossible. You might be able to run a marathon in two hours but does that mean you can run four per workday? I couldn't keep it up simply by using my previous method of being tougher than everyone else.
For a few seconds, I rubbed my face. It was a habit I'd acquired from one of my brothers, I think. I used it when I needed to wake myself up and write more.
As I figured out what was wrong with the paragraph, I started moving sentences around. I could see now that they were in the wrong sequence. The order of the paragraphs on the page was wrong, too. I cut and pasted. But the changes I was making ruined the rhythm of the sentences. They all needed to be fixed.
Partway into the first fix, I heard my daughter start to cry.
She was in the room next to mine. For a little while, I thought I could ignore her. I wrote faster. Still, I thought surely she would fall back asleep. That's how I'd been as a kid, sick a lot. My parents had sent me back to bed each time and I'd muddled through.
"Mommy?" A tired child's face appeared in the gap between my door and the doorframe. Whoops, it was my four-year-old son. He still called me mommy half the time, and more than half when he was sleepy. "Cacie's crying."
"In a minute."
"Okay." He hung limply by one arm on the doorknob. He would probably wait there patiently and fall asleep, like I had just done except while standing.
"Right." I had been fooling myself. Fortunately, my edits had gotten me to the middle of a sentence. That was the best place to stop. I saved the chapter where it was and stood up. "Let's get back to bed."
"I'll take Cacie."
In the darkness of the children's bedroom, which was never truly dark because there was always something glowing, I found my infant daughter. She squirmed in her crib. Her body rocked back and forth and that told me something had made her uncomfortable, maybe a tooth pressing up against her gums. Her cry had grown from a whine to an angry, 'in pain' wail. I put my hand on her yellow onesie. Sometimes the touch of my hand on her back calmed her.
Not this time, though. I bent to pick her up and she squealed. Her hands found my face. I noticed that her grip felt sweaty. Maybe her teething was giving her an infection. She leaned in to put her cheek next to mine. Her head felt warm.
"Go ahead and lie down," I told my son. We were still in his bedroom. I meant for him to go back to sleep there. When I strolled into my office with his sister, however, he followed me. I sat down in my chair. He laid down on the carpet next to me.
Five minutes later, I still hadn't gotten my daughter to go back to sleep. I hadn't even gotten her to stop crying. A shadow fell across the office doorway.
"What's wrong?" my wife demanded. "She's been crying for ages. Why aren't you doing anything?"
"I thought I was."
"Why does it have to be me?" she started to pull my daughter from my arms. For a moment, I resisted. Then my better sense took hold and I helped her make the transition from my shoulder to hers. It's not like I was doing much good.
"Go get the formula," she told me.
Again, I hesitated, not just due to the tone of voice but also because we had agreed not to feed our daughter so much at night. Two months ago, we had stopped breastfeedings between midnight and six. That had been difficult but it had resulted in extra sleep for everyone. Now the rule was bottles only at night, usually with a mix of breast milk and formula.
Our son rose off the floor. He tried to hug his mother's leg. She pushed him away and he sat down.
With a sigh, I headed downstairs. Partway into the chore, I tried to speed it up. I could make the formula warm from the start. That was no problem. But I couldn't heat up the bottled breast milk. It was stored cold and there wasn't any time to immerse it in warm water. I couldn't microwave it. It was precious, too, hardly had any left in our container because it didn't keep. Diane insisted on half breast milk, half formula. Insisted. Our daughter seemed to feel the same way but she wanted it warm.
Upstairs, I heard the crying sounds trickle away to a few stuttered protests. Then the noises stopped altogether.
Did that mean I had more time? Or was it a pause before another crisis? I decanted the breast milk with care, trying to judge how much it was cooling the formula in the process. I tested it, as I'd been trained, by sprinkling a few drops on my wrist.
"Ugh." It was lukewarm at best.
I leaned out of the kitchen to listen and heard movements from the floor above. That decided it. No time to heat the bottle. I raced up the stairs.
There, in my office, I found my wife sitting in the chair. She had our son leaning against her on her left side. In her arms, she held our daughter. But she was breastfeeding her. It looked to me like I had wasted our precious supply of refrigerated breast milk.
"We agreed you wouldn't do that at night." I set the bottle down on my desk.
"Oh god, leave me alone. No, wait, don't leave." My wife waved me back. Irritated and tired, I had mentally started to call it a night. I had turned around as soon as she waved me away.
"Mommy," my son said. I glanced down. He got up and staggered to me. He clutched me around my pants leg. "Will you carry me to bed?"
"No, wait, I mean it. Don’t leave me like this." My wife tried to rise. On her first attempt, she didn't make it. She was too tired. She had the baby in her arms. She gave it another go with the infant cradled under one arm while she pushed on the chair with her other.
That wasn't going to work, either. I stepped forward, my son still attached to my leg, and I held him in place with an upturned shoe. I knew he'd like that. He loved for me to go stomping around the house while he held onto me. It was one of his favorite games.
My wife smacked me on the shoulder. She tried again and grabbed my shirt. With care, I caught her free elbow. I pulled her up and tried to balance my grip by lifting her other shoulder so she could stand with comfort.
"I can't do this," she said. She banged her hand on my shoulder. Tears started flowing down her face. "I can't. I can't. I have to sleep."
"Okay." In retrospect, this part is obvious, too.
It took me years to understand that my wife needed more sleep than I did. I had been raised on the theory that having great will power means no sleep, or at least very little. But maybe not everyone can erase sleep deficits through the power of motivation. Besides, even if everyone can to a degree, there's a limit. There always is. I had gone past mine, really, and so had everyone else. The four of us huddled together, every one of us tired, half of us in tears.
I realized that Diane had wept for a few minutes on most nights of the week. She wasn't crying over any one thing. It was the total. It was the everything. It was an overwhelming workload of searching for a permanent job, rotating through substitute teaching positions, going to continuing education, and raising a toddler. No amount of self-hypnosis routines or motivational tricks could overcome the need we both felt to be making progress for 32 hours out of every 24 hour day. We had been putting groceries on my credit card until Diane had gotten a job during her undergraduate school and we could finally, simply eat. All those uplifting stories about doing it all, of climbing from rags to riches, seemed like maybe, just possibly, naive bullshit when we were living in poverty and tears.
Maybe there was no next level we could achieve. But we wanted to get there. I kept expecting us to make it. I knew it wasn't a guarantee that we'd get through our jobs with side jobs. But we had made it through school. That was something. We had help from our friends and from my parents. Still, we struggled with the totality of it.
At this point in our lives, there was no struggling through to a place we could rest. We only hoped there would be one. We didn't know what lay ahead. What we understood was that it was all too much. And we had to do it anyway.