Sleep talking

March 04,2009
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.

The other day I was in our local Barnes & Noble buying Scott a CD for his birthday. The friendly cashier lady, whom I like a lot, and who I swear was pregnant with her first child only like the day before, told me tiredly that she had a five-month-old at home, and she was feeling utterly exhausted. "She's not sleeping well," she told me. "I can't wait until she grows out of this phase." And then the cynical, unthinking me did a terrible thing--I uttered one of those gloom and doom things that come out of people's mouths sometimes--especially out of the mouths of seasoned parents who somehow feel it necessary to quash the inexperienced optimism of new moms. "Well," I said with a tone that implied I knew everything, "sometimes they never grow out of it. My eight-year-old still won't sleep through the night." And that poor new mom looked at me with a startled, panicked look that cleaved my heart in two. Because if someone had told me when I was the parent of a new five-month-old that I'd be in for EIGHT more years of night-waking and sleep woes, I think I would have collapsed on the spot in black, bottomless despair. I paid for my CD and left, but I felt so bad that I'd opened my mouth with that dark pronouncement--that I'd let those words tumble forth. Of course, our sleep problems with L. are the exception, not the norm, and I could have launched into a big explanation, but I didn't. I think if I could do it over again, I'd sit down with that nice, hardworking, first-time mom and make her a cup of tea. I might chat with her about how things will get better, and more challenging, too--maybe even more challenging than she could imagine. I'd talk with her about how parenting uncovers hidden strengths you didn't know you had, and weaknesses, too, and that along the way you'll find you can bear much more than you thought you'd ever be able to. I'd make sure she knew that ultimately the bumps in the road, the ups and downs, are mere blips on the screen--small pieces of something bigger than all of us, something more wonderful and fulfilling than the sum of some sleepless nights. I'd also offer to take her shift for about an hour so she could nap a little. And I'd certainly tell her not to always listen to people like me, because I really should know that when you're in the middle of the one long, endless, sleepless night that comes with parenting an infant, you need to know that you'll get some sleep one day – you really, really do.