Even when Dylan stopped waking up at night to cry lustily every few hours — a stage I thought was never, ever going to end, by the way — he was what you might call a difficult sleeper. It wasn’t until he was maybe three years old that I could be reasonably certain he’d sleep through the night, and even then it was sort of a crapshoot. Even now, actually. He’s almost five, and he often wakes up late at night with a sort of confused, blurry sound of increasing frustration, and when you go in there to see what’s the matter, he can’t say. I once overheard him talking to Riley about a dream he’d had, which he described, darkly, as “I was going swimming but I had all my clothes on,” so I suspect he’s still having bad dreams on a regular basis. Thankfully, they aren’t the utterly awful-looking night terrors they used to be (a toddler having a night terror is a deeply fucked up thing to observe, as I’m sure some of you know first-hand), and he certainly doesn’t seem bothered by them, but his wake ups happen frequently enough that I lie there, every night, with one ear humming like an amateur radio antenna.

Have you read Catherine Newman’s Waiting for Birdy? I really cannot recommend it enough, without maybe grasping the front of your shirt, yanking you close, and hissing in your face that EVERY WORD OF IT IS TRUTH AND BEAUTY AND JESUS JUST READ IT, but anyway, I particularly love this line of hers about sleep:

Nothing can prepare you for the Sleep of the Parents. If sleep is an ocean, then I used to sleep on the floor of it, a sunken thing among the catfish, bubbles blooping from my dreaming mouth towards the surface. Now I sleep in a little rowboat. In a thunderstorm, during a war, with cannons going off all night long. And also sharks.

God, yes. Sleep seems to have changed forever and ever for me, even though my children are no longer tiny diapered poop-monsters constantly going off like squalling alarm clocks. I jerk and twitch at every sound, despite the earplugs I so dutifully squish into place each evening before turning off my light. Dylan’s occasional dream-murmurs, a gunshot-loud cough from Riley: I float all night from huh? to whew, back and forth in Catherine’s rowboat.

The kids have spent the last two nights with their grandparents, and it’s been a wonderful little break to jump in the car and see a movie (we went to Django Unchained one night and Life of Pi the next, and I loved them both) or go out for dinner or simply relax in the living room without hearing two demented hooligans racing back and forth making that awful GI Joe laser sound, somehow even more annoying than the more sibilant gun noises (pzzzew pzzzew pzzzew!), but maybe the best part has been the sleep. The peaceful, startle-free, guarantee of it.

So, tell me, parents of older kids. Does the roiling war-torn Sleep of the Parents ever change? Or is that the forever of it: the nightly business of ear-craning, breath-checking, and jolting-awake-at-3-AM-because-someone-cleared-their-throat?


57 Responses to “The Sleep of the Parents”

  1. Chaya on January 5th, 2013 11:54 pm

    I asked my in-laws the same question once. They had 6 kids in 12 years, and their answer was “yes, you definitely start sleeping better. When the kids move out.”

    Thanks, in-laws.

  2. Julia on January 7th, 2013 9:45 am

    my kids are 26 and 20. I had a few years there before the oldest was driving that I could sleep soundly. Then he moved out for college and I had a few more before the second son was driving. I sleep fine when they are away. I sleep very little when the 20 year old is home – he is either driving or driving with someone I don’t necessarily trust, or texting me to say he’s staying at a friends because no one can drive. I am not good with a lack of sleep.

  3. Annie on January 8th, 2013 2:31 pm

    My kids are 20, 16 and 13. I’m lucky if they are up before 11am on a weekend with no activities. My two oldest could sleep past noon. They do stay up super late (2am? 3am?). Who knows though? Our bedroom is downstairs and they are all upstairs. I sleep like a baby once again! :)

    There is hope!

  4. Karla J. on January 9th, 2013 11:34 am

    A useful tactic I employed when mine was a teen: Set your alarm clock for the agreed upon curfew. Tell teen that if it goes off, he/she is grounded. Or you can use a different incentive, such as the next curfew is a half-hour earlier, whatever. The idea is that they have to come home and turn off the alarm before it goes off, so you can see/smell them when they come in. No I’m-going-to-be-late calls accepted after 10 p.m. It worked pretty well for us.

    Now when he’s home from college, I just ask that he text me to let me know if he’s not coming home that night.

    Funny thing is that hubs and I have swapped sleeping roles. Now I sleep fine, but he’s up wandering the house at 3 a.m. wondering where the kid is. Karma.

  5. Mandie on January 16th, 2013 10:33 pm

    When my 17-year-old was a baby, he was an awesome sleeper. He slept 12 hours straight at night and never woke before 8 a.m. My now 15-year-old son, not so much. It was not only them, it was just their sounds that would wake me in the middle of the night, coughing, sneezing, rolling over, whatever.

    As they grew older, I was in bed at night for plenty of time, but I would still wake up to their noises.

    Now that they’re 15 and 17, I still wake up to their sounds and also, similar to other parents, don’t sleep when the 17-year-old is out at night and into the wee hours on the weekends. That’s an issue. I now make him come into my bedroom and wake me up so I know he’s home and don’t keep waking up ever hour on the hour.

    As a bonus, I hit perimenopause in my mid 40s, and slowly over the last several years I’ve been dealing with “sleep disturbances.” I seem to waffle between not being able to get to sleep or stay asleep. So, yeah, that sucks.

  6. Naomi in Oz on January 19th, 2013 5:39 pm

    you do learn to sleep again, but just when you get into the habit of it, they turn into teenagers and you stay awake waiting for them to come home (or listening for the tell tale window opening that means they are sneaking out or sneaking someone in)

  7. Mariah on January 21st, 2013 7:46 pm

    Well, sh!t. Looks like I’m doomed. My 1 1/2 year old is a horrible sleeper, always has been. In fact it’s almost 3am and I lie awake after her most recent screaming episode. I don’t know how anyone has a second child?!?

    I’m thinking separate wings for when she’s a teenager. Better start Castle hunting now….

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