In three years of wading through the parenthood literature, I have read exactly one piece of writing that comes close to capturing the potential misery of it. It was an article in The New Yorker by John Seabrook, in which the author hunted down a man named Ferber, whose research gave birth to a coldblooded method of training babies to sleep. As I recall, Seabrook and his wife had been made miserable by their newborn’s tendency to holler through the night. Addled by lack of sleep, they set out to “Ferberize” their child. This meant shutting the door and clinging to each other as their baby in the next room shrieked with greater and greater urgency. Ferber extremists believe that parents should leave their infant to learn how to fall asleep on its own, even if the poor creature becomes so upset it vomits. One book even suggests that parents spread a plastic sheet under the baby’s crib to catch the mess. Before Seabrook went this far, he set out to find Ferber. When he found him, he also found that Ferber had recanted. He was no longer quite so sure about his early research. Millions of babies were being tortured without a theory.
Even if we had a theory, we couldn’t abide by it. It’s unnatural to leave a baby to cry alone in its crib; it makes you feel about as humane as a serial killer. And so, in the past two weeks, our lives have resumed a pattern they last had three years ago, when Tallulah was born. Only this time it’s worse because Tallulah is still here. Dixie—who is now referred to by the other three members of her family simply as “the baby”—wakes up every hour between 7 p.m. and 7 a.m. and bleats just loudly enough to alert Tallulah to the possibilities. Tallulah wakes up at 11 at night, then again at 1, 3, and 5:30 in the morning and each time screams a horror-movie scream that sends a chill down the spine of the man across the street.
There is no way my wife and I could function if we each had to deal with both children, and so we’ve split the family in two. I sleep downstairs with Tallulah, Tabitha sleeps upstairs with Dixie. On good nights, we meet for dinner. Essentially, we are both single parents. I reckon that Tabitha averages maybe three hours of sleep each night, broken up into 45-minute chunks. I get more like five broken hours, and while I should be pleased about that, I am, in truth, pissed off. That’s what happens when you don’t sleep properly for long stretches: You get pissed off. At any rate, that’s what happens to me. My wife grows melancholy.
I decided to keep this diary for a couple of reasons. The first was that I wanted a written record for Dixie, who, as a second child, runs a risk of being a blur; and I knew that there was no way I would take the trouble to record her arrival if I didn’t have an editor breathing down my neck for the material. The other was that I noticed a tendency to gloss over the unpleasant aspects of parenthood, in part because it’s unseemly to complain about one’s children but also because there is a natural inclination to forget that there was anything to complain about. But there is. In the first few weeks after a child is born—or at least after a child of mine is born—it is as if someone must pay for whatever it endured when it exited the womb and entered the world.
Here’s what my typical day now looks like, for example, beginning at what used to be bedtime. I awaken at 11 at night, and then again at 1, 3, and 5:30 in the morning, to persuade Tallulah that there isn’t a spider in her bed. At 7 a.m. she rises for good, somehow fully rested, and hollers at the top of her lungs for her mother. As battered as Rocky going into the 12th round against Apollo Creed, I wrestle her to the ground, dress her in clothes she does not want to wear, and drag her out of the house, still screaming, to my office, where I feed her a breakfast she does not want to eat. She demands chocolate; I offer a fruit plate; after tantrums on both sides of the bargaining table, we compromise on an Eggo waffle. Around 9 I get her to school and enjoy a brief feeling of self-satisfaction: I am coping manfully with a great big mess. I’m preventing my wife from further suffering. I am the good soldier who has leapt on the hand grenade, so that others may live.
This cheering thought lasts until I get home and find my wife in tears. Often I try to hide, but usually she spots me, and when she does, she will usually say something poignant. “I feel like I am going through this alone,” for instance. Or, “I don’t know how much more of this I can take.” Whatever she says neatly undercuts my belief that I am carrying far more than my share of our burden; indeed, it makes it clear that I am not a hero at all but a slacker, a deadbeat Dad. Demoralized, I tromp back down to my office and try for a few hours without success to put bread on the table, before retrieving Tallulah from school.
By about the sixth day of this routine, I am as random as a misfiring piston and as raw as an exposed nerve. Driving Tallulah home the other day, for instance, I was cut off by a woman in a station wagon. “What the fuck are you doing, lady?” I shouted at the windshield, hysterically.
“Daddy, why did you say fuckyoudoing?” a voice inquires from the back seat.
“Oh.” Pause. “That’s not what I said.”
“Was she a fucky lady?”
“Funky. Funky lady.”
“You said fucky.”
Once home there is paid help—for which I feel guilty,if you can believe that—and I try to use it to get back to work. In truth, I usually wind up curled up in a little ball of fatigue until dinner, which is my job to throw together. After dinner, I put Tallulah to bed while Tabitha nurses the baby for the twenty-thousandth time. Then the cycle begins all over again.
I know that all of this will soon pass and our family will once more achieve some wonderful new equilibrium. With one more person on hand to love and to be loved, we’ll soon be drowning in finer feelings. But for now we’re drowning mainly in self-pity.
You would think that someone would have come up with a humane, economical method for absorbing a new child into a family. Certainly there’s billions in it for whoever does. As it stands, there are three approaches to the problem, all of them inadequate. You can pretend to believe the books and do whatever you must do to your children to ensure a good night’s sleep for yourself. You can throw money at it and hire squadrons of night nurses to tend to your children while you move into the local Ritz Carlton. Or you can do what we are doing and muddle through as best as you can, grabbing at any old piece of advice that comes your way, less because it will actually help matters but because it offers hope. In the end you tell yourself: Eventually this baby will learn to sleep, just as eventually it will learn to walk and to use the toilet. After all, you don’t see a lot of adults who wake up hollering at the ceiling every 45 minutes, just as you don’t see a lot of adults who crawl around on all fours, or who crap their pants twice a day. So it stands to reason that the problem will solve itself. Here’s hoping.