Sleep and Lies

Sleep and Marriage
Is she faking it?

I’ll start with a confession: when my daughter was a baby, I faked it.

Every night, often multiple times, I faked it and my husband never suspected a thing. No, I wasn’t faking that. Every night? Multiple times a night? With a baby in the house? Ha!

No, I faked being asleep.

The truth is, I’m a really light sleeper and every time she even snuffled in her sleep, I woke up. But I didn’t always get up when she would start to cry. Instead, I would lie there, faking sleep, and let my husband get up to try to soothe the baby. Night after night, through teething and ear infections, I burrowed deeply into my pillow, clenched my eyes, and left my husband on the dark front lines of parenting, all alone.

In my defense, I exclusively breastfed. Consequently, when she was an infant, I was up plenty. There were a few glorious weeks in the very beginning when my mom would special deliver the baby to my side to nurse at 2, 3, and 4 AM with a snack and glass of water in hand for me. But after she left, it was just me “burning the midnight oil.” My husband never had to warm a bottle or persuade a sleepy baby to stay awake for a complete nursing session in the middle of the night. When she was at her tiniest, I alone managed the early morning diaper blowouts and patted her back until she burped and could be resettled for a few more hours of blissful zzzs.

I collected those few hours of sleep I got each night like pearls on a necklace, counting them out carefully, trying to stay sane.  

Perhaps this is why when the nursing sessions could finally be spaced out more, I began my little acts of deception. I’d carried the disproportionate burden of feeding this little person for so long, of keeping her alive, that I maybe felt a little justified in slacking off. At first, I tried to do my share of the wake-up calls. While every noise would wake me, I would get up every other time to comfort the baby. Then, I’d get up every two times. Until finally, I just got up when my husband would shake me and say, “Your turn,” something he only did on nights when the baby was up every half hour. I liked how the burden scale of parenting had equalized and was even now a little lighter on my side.

I had carried her for 9 months, didn’t he owe me?

So in the morning, when my husband would yawn groggily and report how often he’d had to get up, I would nod sympathetically, “Really? I didn’t hear any of that.” Sometimes, to assuage my guilt, I’d tell him, “You don’t have to get up every time you know? Wait and see if she can herself back to sleep. Maybe we should try that sleep training thing…?”

I was shameless and selfish. While we both worked, I was part time, but still I let my husband take charge of getting us through the night. I’d get up maybe one time to his ten. I feigned surprise every day to hear how badly our first-born, and then, three years later, our second born passed the night: “I can’t believe I slept through all of that?” I even joked about my breastmilk to him, “Well, I can’t go in there smelling like cookies and try to get her to go back to sleep!” Or I’d chuckle,“The problem is, it’s just so easy for me to get her to stop crying by inserting Tab A, my boob, into Slot B, her mouth!” And, “We don’t want her to think 2 in the morning is breakfast time, do we?! Hahaha!” Nice, right?

My husband carried the weight of nighttime parenting, not by choice, but because I faked him out. It was amazing actually. Night after night, my sweetheart marshaled on, directing his complaints largely at our oblivious un-Sleeping Beauty. Meanwhile, I lolled in bed drifting in and out of consciousness, moving my cold toes into the warm spot he left behind. I told myself I did more during the day. I told myself I still had to do all the nursing AND I was the one who had to haul around a breast pump to work. I told myself it was more or less equal, or, at least, equal enough.

In the end, we were both sleep deprived, of course. I just managed to pad my sleep a little bit through trickery, my husband’s kindness, and because I was at home more and could occasionally steal afternoon naps when he couldn’t. (Recent studies do show that new dads sleep less than moms.)

The burden of middle of the night parenting was definitely heavier on him, and I knew it.

Slowly, ever so slowly it seemed, the baby started sleeping through the night. We’d have setbacks when yet another ear infection hit, sure. But my husband’s efforts actually paid off and the baby would learn to sleep from 7 o’clock to 11:00, when I’d wake her up to nurse before I went to bed (Thanks, Dr. Sears, for that tip!) and from then until 5. Six hours of sleep felt like a miracle. We felt downright functional during the day!

Another month went by though, and all of a sudden my husband was sleeping more than me. He’d go to bed at 10 while I forced myself to stay up to nurse the baby later because if I didn’t, she just moved up her 5 AM nursing to 4 throwing off our entire sleep schedule. And it was me getting up at 5 to nurse the baby who all of sudden was wide awake and didn’t want to go back to sleep for another couple of hours. And all of a sudden, I found myself glaring at my husband across the breakfast table for getting a full seven and a half hours of sleep compared to my measly five and a half to six.

It wasn’t until my resentment over the sleep imbalance began to spread to things like me begrudging my husband the amount of time he spent in the bathroom in the morning, that it occurred to me that I had a problem. I was tired, sure. I was doing more, sure. But, I realized that raising our kids was never going to be a 50-50 burden; it was, instead, more of a sliding scale. Sometimes I’d carry 60 to his 40, other times he’d carry 40 to my 60.

And yes, there would be times when one or the other of us was carrying 90 to other’s mere 10. This is life. This is a marriage.

I realized I had to stop keeping score. Parenting was not a competition. There would be no winners (I do have a bit of a competitive side I wrestle with) in the end. My habit of putting little tick marks on a mental scoreboard of parenting/household/life tasks wasn’t making me any happier, parenting any easier, or our marriage any better.

These days, happily, our kids let us sleep plenty. There are still burdens, of course, but even when he’s out of town on business and I’m all alone taking care of two sick kids and cleaning up puke, I try to remember that my husband and I are a team. After all, it’ll be his turn next time.

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Mary Beth McNulty
Mary Beth is a Southern transplant to Vermont by way of California, where she taught middle school. These days, you can find Mary Beth still working in education with a local college and as a playwright with the Burlington-based, Complications Company. She likes to write about things that make her laugh, like how her eldest sometimes channels a 50-year-old British man when she speaks; everyday tragedies, like being the only person in the house who seems to know how to change a toilet paper roll; and things that keep her up late at night, like climate change, school shootings, pandemics, and if she remembered to pay her car registration or not. She is a co-founder of Complications Company.



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