Was She Awake?


In those early nights filled with nursing sessions, it was my job to retrieve you from your bassinet and take you to your mother.  With her staples fresh in her belly after major abdominal surgery, getting out of bed to retrieve a hungry baby was against every doctor’s instruction imaginable.  I heroically attempted to stay awake while you nursed, but most times I’d fall asleep slumped against my pillow like a drunkard passed out in an alleyway, only to be nudged back awake by your mother when it was time to return you to the bassinet.  Each time I would ask, “did I fall asleep?” as if not knowing that I’d failed might still earn me credit for the thing I didn’t do.  

After I had formed the habit of retrieving you from your bassinet, I woke up suddenly one night, assumed that I had heard you make a noise, retrieved you, and handed you to your mother.  As your rustled awake during the handoff, your mother asked me, “was she awake?”  It is one of the most extraordinary things about your mother that even in this trying time, she didn’t accuse me or reprimand me.  Instead, she asked a simple question and allowed me to stew on it on my side of the bed, realize my mistake, and after some time admit, “I think I woke her up.”

Tiredness will do that to a person.  In my experience, it wasn’t so much the lack of sleep that burdened me, but the unpredictability of it.  You might fall asleep for fifteen minutes or three hours, and it was difficult to prepare my body accordingly.  Nonetheless, I had been blessed with the ability to fall asleep promptly—anywhere, anytime—and this served me wonderfully through the first several days at home.

Then one night, your mother leaned over in bed to me and whispered, “is she still breathing?”

That small question ruined me forever.  Never again would I promptly drift off to sleep.  From that point on, whether you were in the bassinet next to me or in your crib in another room, I would startle awake to the same question rattling through my head, “is she still breathing?”

When the answer wasn’t immediately clear, I did the unthinkable and impulsively poked you awake to confirm that you were, in fact, fine.  You always were, and then I was left with a startled baby to soothe back to sleep.  It’s one of the worst things of parenting—you can’t sleep while a baby is making noise, and then when the baby goes quiet, you can’t sleep because you wonder if something has gone terribly wrong.  

I also selfishly fretted about my own health.  Google had told me that a lack of sleep contributed to every unfortunate outcome in life—depression, weight gain, irritability, stupidity, and a general suppression of the normal functioning of every element of one’s body.  Of course, to better counter science and facts, I should also add my dad’s advice when he saw me baggy-eyed, disheveled, and raw.  He whacked my back and dismissively told me that sleep deprivation builds character.  I guess you can’t put a price on that.

The lack of sleep affected your mother as well.  One day I walked into the nursery to discover her pumping breast milk while staring at the wall.  She had failed to affix a bag to her breast pump, and I stared incredulously as breastmilk spurted onto our carpeted floor.  I was unable to summon words capable of communicating what I was seeing, so I simply pointed at the floor and made a haggard sound.  The beautiful thing about marriage is that she understood me perfectly.

In hindsight, though, the lack of sleep has its benefits.  It deadens the senses, and the steep learning curve of parenting a newborn baby assaults the senses.