The past few weeks have been a whirlwind of dirty diapers, spit-up and endless screaming (mostly from the baby, sometimes, maybe, us too, a little). Perhaps our vomit-soaked shirts and glassy eyes have labeled us as in need of advice, but Ashlee and I have been bombarded with tips from just about every side, some of which we’ve heeded and others we’ve politely gritted our teeth and smiled through. Perhaps the best piece of advice we’ve gotten came recently from one of my coworkers, who lamented just how frustrating parental advice can be: “Just do what works best for you three. Everyone else can go f*** off.” For a bewildered first-time parent, that was just the shot in the arm I needed.
Sleep when he sleeps
I can’t even quantify how much we’ve heard this refrain. Babies are known for their terrible sleep patterns (or lack thereof), and Jackson takes the cake when it comes to inconsistent sleeping. Trying to get in some shut-eye when he does is nice in theory, but in reality, that idea was almost as stress-inducing as the specter of sleep deprivation itself.
Jackson sleeps when he wants, where he wants and for how long he wants. Sometimes it’s five minutes, other times it’s three hours and we never know which one we’re going to get. So when he closes his eyes, the pressure for us to hop onto the nearest soft surface and join him in dreamland just isn’t usually feasible. In the first two weeks when I was home from work, I found it impossible to nap at 1:30 in the afternoon with the lawn mowers buzzing outside and the trash truck trundling by — especially since I was bracing for him to start wailing. Add the reality that, even though parents of newborns could desperately use the sleep, the world keeps turning: The dog needs a walk, dinner needs to be made and the jungle of a backyard needs tending to.
For the first month, we took shifts: I would “sleep” (more like get up every few minutes to feed, change, rock, dance with, sing to, read to, make bargains with and try any other number of creative techniques to put Jackson back to bed) from 9 p.m. to 2 a.m., while Ashlee got a few solid hours of sleep upstairs. At 2 a.m., we’d switch spots for another five hours. We felt like we got the upper hand on our tiny tyrant.
That’s not to say we’re not feeling the effects of reduced sleep. During my leave from work, I went to stock up on food rations at the local Shop Rite, about 10 minutes away. An hour later, I found myself still driving, nearly in Doylestown, with zero idea of where I was. A few days later, I was walking the dog down our street and stopped in my tracks when I saw a peacock in the middle of the road. Isn’t that something?! I exclaimed to myself, blinking a few times. There isn’t even a zoo nearby. I fumbled in my pocket for my phone to capture this rare moment and, when I looked up, saw that the peacock was, in fact, my neighbor’s dog.
While shift sleeping helped in the beginning, it did turn Ashlee and me into ships in the night; the loneliness that came with caring for him solo and not sleeping in the same bed for more than a month made an already-stressful situation feel even worse. We eventually moved the whole operation back into our room, dropped way too much money on a Rock n’ Play that some friends swear by, and now take turns taking Jackson into his nursery when he wakes up to eat (now every three to four hours!).
I’ve been surprised by how many online resources, written entirely with a heterosexual audience in mind, advise mothers on maternity leave to seek help from their parents and in-laws when it comes to sleeping, presuming the co-parent is resting up for work. We’ve tried hard to keep things as balanced as possible, which could in part be a product of our being in a same-sex relationship and naturally eschewing gendered stereotypes. Seeing our capacity for teamwork in action has been one silver lining we’ve tried to focus on, while repeatedly telling ourselves that pretty much every parent deals with and gets past this tricky stage. And the more we’ve started existing on a scant few hours of sleep, the more evidence we have to train our minds that we too can get through it. Sleep is overrated, anyway!
Soak it all in
When Ashlee was pregnant, she felt intense pressure to “feel the glow.” But with an aching back, insomnia, the development of carpal tunnel, headaches and nausea, that glow was elusive — she was miserable. But she didn’t feel like she could ever express that, except to me, because of the popular notion that pregnancy is such a beautiful, bonding experience for women. We’ve found similar sentiments about newborns.
Many people have told us to “soak it all in” and to enjoy even the sleepless nights, as, before we know it, Jackson will be off to college and we’ll miss these days. However, in the moment, it feels hard to appreciate the beauty of the sun rising through the window after we’ve spent the entire night repetitively feeding him, changing him and walking the entire house with barely a break in his crying. There are times he’ll vigorously suck his pacifier, spit it into the air and then wail for it, and we’re left to wrestle the dog to the ground for the pacifier, which she’s made her mission to destroy. It never fails that when we change his clothes, he pukes on them within minutes, and when we change his diaper, we hear an explosion that signals it was a wasted effort almost instantaneously. Feeling the pressure to soak in the beautiful experience of being new parents can make all of those frustrations even more frustrating.
What has helped is being honest with each other, and in tune with what the another needs. I know she won’t judge me for calling Jackson a dictator, and she knows I understand if she needs to go sit upstairs by herself for a few minutes. We also have tried to find joy in the small things: Ashlee cried when her breastmilk finally started coming in, and we threw a veritable party the first time Jackson slept for a solid two-and-a-half hours.
Advice-givers are right that the time will go fast, as we’ve already seen how much Jackson has grown during his first two months (he gained more than 3.5 pounds in his first four weeks!). I know it’ll eventually be bittersweet to look back on this time, but seeing the forest through the trees — especially when those trees are covered in baby spit-up and echoing of cries — will be a practice we’re going to have to perfect over the years.
Part 2 of this column will run next month.