When Ryan was a baby I became known by the moms at the play center as “the sleep dad.” For months before Ryan was born, his mom and I had cringed at the wrenching saga of sleep trauma my sister-in-law and her husband (Uncle Will, as he’s also known) had endured with their oldest daughter. After listening to one tale of horror after another, we’d reaffirmed with a mutual shudder how fortunate it was that we were childless.
Among the adults in our household, sleep is the most precious commodity: more valuable than money, water, air. Wake one of the grown-ups around here from a sound sleep and you better be packing. Obviously, once small children land in your home, such standards — if you had them in the first place — have to be modified. When we started out, however, we were determined that sleep would be pried from our cold dead hands.
One afternoon, a little after we found out my wife was pregnant with Ryan, I received a single text out of nowhere from Uncle Will. It read: “Teach your kid how to sleep.”
My wife and I agreed. We were resolute. There was not a micron of daylight between us on this issue. Our child may never learn how to read, or count, or walk, he may not know how to brush his own teeth, but he’s gonna learn how to sleep.
I have an autodidactic streak, the legacy of being a persistently terrible student. I also have a sleep disorder myself (hint: there’s a reason why I’m writing this at 1:30 in the morning).
So I read everything on pediatric sleep: journal articles, blogs, as well as every book written by every celebrity pediatrician and sleep expert. If I had to, I could articulate in the corner of some cocktail party the difference between Ferberizing and Weissbluth-style extinction. I could describe “the forbidden zone,” or lay out strategies for phase-shifting. Maybe this is why I have so many friends.
Ryan, it turned out, was a champion sleeper. If there was an Olympics for child sleep, he’d be a 20-time gold medalist. If there was a Hall of Fame for child sleep, he’d get in on the first ballot.
Some of that, I think, was a reward for my efforts and his mother’s efforts. However, a lot of it was due to the fact that we were working with pliable material. Our main job was to create the right conditions for Ryan’s natural sleep talents to flourish. This illustrates, I think, a larger point: parenting research is great, even though 80% of what you learn isn’t going to apply to your child, because you never know what the other 20% is going to be. The trick is to know your kid, and not parent-by-numbers. Usually, this is easier said than done.
At any rate, it didn’t matter why Ryan was a powerhouse sleeper. Parenting is a results-oriented business, and once the moms found out that he slept like the 1978 Steelers played football, and that I had a certain baseline of knowledge on the topic, they flocked to me to talk about their kids’ sleep problems.
I was happy to oblige. One of the challenges of being an at-home dad is that moms regard you with immediate suspicion and/or assume your incompetence at pretty much every step. And since you’re a parent, your incompetence is frequently going to be on display.
Paradoxically, I’ve encountered this antediluvian attitude more often among “progressive” moms who would otherwise claim to believe in gender equality and all that jazz. I mean, come on. Social ideals are fine, but not when kids are involved. They’re too important.
Anyway, so now I had an in of sorts at the play center. I was no longer the presumed creeper sitting near a bunch of children, I was a dad? Who is the primary parent? And whose son’s mother isn’t deceased? Oh.
I’ll admit, I got a little cocky. Began to think of myself as a guide, a guru, a sleep shaman. That’s why creation gave me Jack. To provide me with some exogenous humility. Speaking of:
In terms of sleep, Jack is still a work in progress. He’s obviously had some inorganic obstacles put in front of him, but we’re on it. He also seems to be a bit more social than Ryan was at his age. In terms of child development, that’s great. In terms of sleep, not so much. Around four months of age, many babies decide that sleeping in a boring, dark room is something someone else needs to do. They want company.
Tonight, at the beginning of our evening shift, I was sitting in the living room modeling our taxes for the upcoming year (I’m too tired these days to do anything interesting with my “free” time). Suddenly the baby monitor exploded. The light bars blared red. Jack was screaming like he’d just been notified breastmilk was illegal.
I hustled upstairs with a bottle, put it in the upstairs warmer and scooped him out of his sleeper. He calmed down as soon as I picked him up. Red flag.
He took less than half the bottle before he did his head shake thing that means he’s done. I changed his diaper. On the changing table, he started smiling and chattering and joking around.
“Oh,” I said. “That’s where it’s at, huh. You think Dada’s a dummy.” I zipped up his swaddle sack. “That’s okay. I thought my old man was stupid too.”
I picked Jack up and looked at him straight on. He was smiling and cooing.
“Listen, Munchie,” I said. “I enjoy your company very much. But you need to be sleeping right now if you’re not actually hungry. It’s very important.” I leaned in a gave him a chin-rubbing smooch on his cheek and held him back in front of me.
He looked very serious. Then he pouted, and burst into tears.
“Munchie. No one likes being lectured by their father, but it’s hardly something to cry about.” I gave him a hug. “I’m sorry.” (I’m sorry you’re going to be so frigging sensitive, I thought).
Then I felt my chin drag on his sleep sack, and instantly I knew what had made him cry. It wasn’t my lecture. I’d forgotten to shave that morning.
Turns out the kid was right. Dada’s a dummy after all.