The day I lost my patience
(RBU Join Date: 06/17/2010)
As new parents we quickly learn that sleep is for the weak (or week, once a week is fine, right?). Night after night of the slow tick tock of breastfeeding; the roar of a cry jolting you out of your twilight half-sleep; and lying awake, listening to them breathe. Sometimes, the only thing that gets you through another broken night is the thought that everyday they’re getting a little bit better at the sleep thing.
But imagine if your newborn never caught on. Imagine if they woke 3, 4, or 8 times a night for years. When broken nights start to be bashed up, left-for-dead sort of nights and you’re so sleep deprived that sometimes you don’t trust yourself to drive the car.
Why wouldn’t my child just sleep like other children? Even in the hospital the midwives all agreed. “Get ready,” they sighed. “He won’t be a sleeper. Look at him lying awake as tired as you like. He’s fighting sleep.”
Fighting sleep. Who does that? Who deliberately stays awake until their brain is a whirling jumble and they’re so over-stimulated that they have to scream for hours just to block out the world. Who does that?
I always considered myself to be a rather impatient, full-steam ahead sort of person. But I marveled at the level of patience my child brought out in me. Night after night, month after month, god help me, year after year. Patience was my kind, constant companion, sitting by me in the night, keeping me positive, whispering that this, too, shall pass. And then the thought: is it Patience that’s making him like this?
We read everything we could get our hands on about children and sleep. We set a bedtime routine that didn’t waver (and never has). We gorged on Tracy Hogg, Gina Ford, Pinkie McKay, Richard Ferber, Sheyne Rowley, Supernanny. We failed sleep school twice. We tried ‘controlled crying’ (or ‘controlled waiting’ as I came to think of it), we tried ‘pick up, put down’, we tried leaving them to it, we tried co-sleeping, we tried ‘settle and leave’, we tried hot milk. I became my own sort of expert on child sleep behaviour and still my child did not sleep.
“Just leave him,” everyone said. My mother, in particular, was certain that he could sort this out himself.
“He’s headstrong and he’s getting his way again and again,” she said. “Why not leave him alone and see what happens.”
By this time, he was almost three and his one year old sister was sharing a room with him. Ah, his dear baby sister. Who came into the world with a cry followed quickly by a nap. Who settled beautifully, slept all night from five months old and has never been any trouble in the sleep department. She restored my faith in myself as a parent. Suddenly, it was clear that it wasn’t anything in particular that I may or may not have done with her brother. Some kids are just like that. Some kids fight sleep.
It was really this knowledge that meant that we could never really “just leave him”. For half an hour or sometimes even an hour, maybe; but impossible for us for hours and hours on end. Our child was distressed, no matter how inconvenient, and we felt the need to bring comfort. If that meant he won the battle of wills, then we were okay with that. We figured that he was so unsettled at night for a reason, we just never figured out what that reason might be. By day he was a happy, reasonable (head-strong!) little fellow and that seemed to be the most important thing.
That and the fact that unlike his parents, he never seemed to actually get tired. Once we got past the screaming, overtired newborn stage, he was like a sunny little machine. He dropped the 45 minute day sleep he’d adopted at 9 months when he was 17 months old and he’s gone through the day ever since. He never once fell asleep in a random corner or on a shoulder if we were out late or in the car during a long drive. I was fascinated when I saw children asleep in their prams, on laps or crumpled in a blanket on a couch at a dinner party. My boy wasn’t like that.
After a long day and into bed at 7 pm – always by 7 pm no matter what – he would hang out for hours, singing, looking at books, staring into space. On ‘scary nights’ we would sit with him too, a silent sentry on the end of his bed, guarding against the night. Eventually he would fall asleep close to 9 pm, wake again at around 11 pm then again sometime in the wee hours before springing out of bed with the birds, frustratingly fresh for a brand new day. Like a born super-insomniac. Like Winston Churchill.
Through all this, Patience never left me. The day I finally ‘lost’ it was the day he finally slept all through the night on his own. He was almost five years old and that night I didn’t need my kind, constant, peaceful, lumbering companion. Just sleeping through that one night was all it took to change everything. Of course, he woke many nights after, but usually only once and he was quick to comfort back to sleep.
Eventually he didn’t need us at all and these days he sleeps all the way through most nights. Looking back I sometimes feel like I went to war and I wonder how I ever came back in one piece. But I had Patience on my side, so the battle was always going to be mine.
I’ve never again been able to find the patience I had for my small, needy boy. I suspect I never will. I’m back to my just-get-on-with-it self and I’m comfortable with that. But I often wonder where all that unwavering fortitude came from and I’m grateful it visited me. Forever, so very grateful.