The sleep-deprived parent’s dilemma

photo-364It’s a funny thing with larger families. You always think that one more kid than you have is the definition of madness. I’ve had a few women with 3 kids and seemingly much more difficult careers than mine (I’m thinking of two recent physician encounters here) use the “I don’t know how you do it!” line. My response is that four is not an order of magnitude harder than three. I’m not sure it’s even 33 percent harder, which would be more logical math. One is the lifestyle change. Anything else is just more juggling.

Yet I find myself thinking the same thing every time I hear about someone with five children. So I was excited when Carrie Lukas agreed to send me her time log. Lukas is the managing director of the Independent Women’s Forum (a mostly-virtually-run think tank) and lives in Germany with her five kids and her husband, who works with the State Department. Her youngest child is just a little bit older than my baby.

Her time log showed an admirable mix of work and family time. She worked 30 productive hours, a bit on the low side, but that week featured no evening conference calls with her colleagues in the U.S. (she says she has these most weeks, and often more than one a week). Because these State Department postings are 2-3 years, they always know they will be leaving their temporary homes abroad, and they try to make the most of their time. They went to an outdoor wine festival and a farm. She went on a walk with all her kids in the woods. She watched a school play. There were a few toddler meltdowns, but this is a woman who knows her time: Lukas noted the length (“15 minutes misery”) and moved on.

But in this idyll, there was one sore point: Lukas was not sleeping very much. Not none — she did clock 47.8 hours — but that is less than 7 hours/day averaged over the week. If I compare her to the Mosaic logs, this would put her in the lowest 10 percent of sleep totals.

She knew exactly what was going on, and it’s a dilemma I can sympathize with. “I definitely do feel sleep deprived,” she said. “The problem is that I really have little opportunity to sleep in because of the kids and I’m bad about going to bed at 10 — my husband often doesn’t get home until late-ish and then it’s kids until 9 or whatever, so I often stay up until 11 with him.” One night she stayed up with friends as well. Since their toddler was in a particularly bad sleep stage, and she was often up by 5:30 or 6 a.m., these later nights took their toll.

I have been facing the same dilemma of late. With the baby, it has been pick-my-poison. I’m logging my time and I can see that he has woken up between 3:30/4 a.m. 11 of the last 16 nights, with most of that concentrated toward the more recent days. The upside of getting up and feeding him then is that he will then sleep past 6 a.m. (sometimes until 6:30 or close to 7). If he doesn’t wake up and eat at 3:30, then he’s up by 5 or 5:30 for good. So I can either be up for 45 minutes in the middle of the night and sleep until 6:15 or be up at 5:15. Neither are particularly awesome choices.

When I don’t sleep, I am utterly miserable. On Monday when I did the BBC interview at 5 a.m., after feeding the baby at 4 a.m., I felt like much of the day was shot. I could not think. I could not motivate myself to do the increasingly long list of things that need to be done. So in general, I’ve taken the opposite approach from Lukas. I’ve given myself a bedtime of 10 p.m. Almost every night, I’m hitting that, or within 10 minutes of it. That way, if the baby is up at 5 a.m., I can deal. If he is up at 3:45 a.m., and my sleep after that is fitful, at least I’m getting close to 6 solid hours plus the 60-90 minutes of more fitful sleep after.

Going to bed earlier is the time equivalent of sleeping in, but with one important difference. Sleeping in doesn’t require much discipline. I feel like this 10 p.m. bedtime is requiring an incredible amount of willpower. I don’t want to go to bed at 10 p.m. I want to stay up and read, or finish the work I haven’t gotten to. It cuts into me-time, and is making me more strict than usual about the other children’s bedtimes. At 8:30 p.m., I want to be done for the night if I’m going to have any chance of winding down.

So this is the dilemma: sleep or me time/spouse time. It’s not a fun one. But in any case, it helps to get perspective. Lukas says that her second child was a horrible sleeper and now is great, so she assumes her toddler will grow out of her woes, and the baby will grow up too. “While I am bothered about it a bit in that I do feel tired a lot I don’t feel like it’s a life crisis since I know that it won’t be forever.” That is wisdom gained from having five children: this too shall pass.

Do you choose sleep or me time/spouse time?

Photo: At least someone is getting some sleep around here…

In other news: I’ll be attending the BlogHer conference next week in NYC. Will you be there? I’d love to meet up! Please let me know. My email is lvanderkam at yahoo dot com.

4 thoughts on “The sleep-deprived parent’s dilemma

  1. Hi Laura, thank you for versing this dilemma so well! It is very familiar to me with my three sons. Eldest two (2y10m and 17m) sleep reasonably well; youngest is 13 weeks and sleeps like a normal newborn I guess. Indeed it helps to know that the broken nights (dutch expression) will pass (and so will the very specific cutesies…). I was thinking that foregoing spousetime in the evening by sleeping at 10pm does help to have far less cranky interactions during the day. Am writing this during a night feed at 4:45am 😉
    Have good nights, Marthe

    1. @Marthe – it will pass! Though…for me it passed and then came roaring back again. My toddler has been up in the middle of the night for 5 of the last 7 nights (and I know, because I’m still tracking my time). I’m trying to be good about going to bed at 10, but 10:30 is the best I can manage, and often it’s 11. Because I want to have a life…

  2. Due to chronic fatigue issues (CVS), I have to go to bed at the same time as the kids, which puts a lot of strain on me-time, couple time and worktime…. Gladly, the kids are a bit older, 8, 6 & 3, so the nights are not often broken, since I already need more sleep than the averae person. It does take a lot of self control indeed to go to bed early…

  3. I’m mired in this as well. Five kids, ages 9-2, so it seems like someone ends up needing something every night. Falling asleep early is easy enough as I’m expecting baby #6. Still, the quality of disturbed sleep is so much lower that I feel like I can’t do my best creative or strategic work (I’m in digital marketing) during days after a rough night. It’ll pass and I know that, but it’s been a long decade and it’s nice to see a light at the end of the tunnel even if it’s still a couple years off for me.

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