Don't be an island

June 25,2008
Professor Mom
Aliki McElreath( )

Aliki is a writer and college English teacher. She lives in North Carolina with her husband, two children (ages seven and ten), a dog, a cat, a rabbit, and too many fish.

Hold onto your seats, everyone--this will be another woeful post about being tired and sleep-deprived, at least in part. Last night, between 1:00 and 3:30 a.m., both kids managed--in their own special ways--to send me back into the days of interrupted sleep; those painful nights where all you are allowed to do is doze, fitfully, between bouts of waking up and tending to needs. And if I ever entertained any nostalgic, fleeting ideas of a third baby, that visit back into time last night was enough to quash them all.

Back when we were new parents to both kids, we discovered quickly that, next to being sleep-deprived, the worst situation was being sleep-deprived AND being around people who were not. They never managed to give us the support and sympathy we needed. When you're a parent and you're sleep-deprived, the best thing for you (apart from sleeping) is to be in a room with other parents who are also equally sleep-deprived, so you can rant and rave about it to your heart's content with people who know exactly what you are going through. This is why, even now, when I hear from childless people about how tired THEY are, because they've burned the midnight oil to meet a deadline, or slept poorly because of a cold, I have almost zero sympathy for them. As my husband once pointed out early on, when you have children you just can't make up sleep deficits. They build and build until you can't even see straight, let alone think straight. Childless people can always recoup sleep deficits on a weekend, or with one solid good night's sleep.

Last evening, before all the middle-of-the-night shenanigans, I went out. Not to some girl's night out with my friends, or to a solo movie, but to our monthly Asperger's Support Group meeting. Usually my husband goes to these because I am often too embroiled in kid stuff by 6:30 p.m. to extricate myself. I also usually have too much work to do in the evenings for class the next day, since I have less time to put in at my office during the daytime hours than Scott does. And, my husband, who is a night-person, can usually go the distance better than I can, working for longer in the evenings. I usually shut down around 10:00 and am not good for much except maybe grading a batch of bad quizzes in front of some crime show.

I really felt the need for some adult company last night, a chance to sit back and listen to shared stories and advice from parents we have come to know fairly well over this past year, and some who are new, who come to the meetings uncertain and alone, worried about what to expect, and still shouldering the burden of a recent diagnosis. I still remember the first meeting we went to, the only one we've managed to attend together. We had felt so isolated, so on our own, until we walked through the door and realized that the exhaustion and challenges and uncertainties that we bore were reflected in the faces of all those other parents. Here at last was that room full of parents we had so wanted, so many times during the rough parts of parenting both children.

I think this is the value of making sure, as a new or old parent, that you seek out support--at least in the beginning of it all. Whether you parent a child with special needs, or a child who just won't sleep right, or a teenager who won't listen, it helps to know you are not alone. Parenting support groups are everywhere these days, and you don't even need to leave your house anymore to reap the benefits of the voices and support. When Scott and I were new parents to L., we were an island of our own, floating amid friends who were childless, and who could offer little concrete support to us. Our families were far away, and our trials and tribulations just too abstract for them to do much about. I suspect there are too many parents out there like this, especially ones who are dealing with the challenges of raising a child with special needs.  

The meeting was worth it tenfold, even if it meant getting home late, finding L. still awake ("I can't sleep without you in the house!"), staying up later to prepare for class, getting to bed late, and thus being extra ill-prepared for a bad night's sleep. At 3:30 a.m., after walking L. back into his room for what felt like the hundredth time, and offering the same old reassurances, I settled back into bed and thought about how much has changed--and how little; about how far we've come and, sometimes (at times like last night), how we seem to be spinning our wheels, circling the same old issues over and over again. But then when tired self-pity creeps in, I just tell myself, We're not alone. We're not alone. We're not alone--and it feels just a bit better, there in the dark, to know that.