By Julie Vick
When my first son was a few months old, I was bouncing him on an exercise ball at 3:00 a.m. to try and get him back to sleep. It was the third time I had been up with him that night, and I was scrolling through an online parenting board on my phone reading posts from others in the same predicament. There were plenty of people lamenting their situations, but one post said, “Just cherish every moment, they won’t be that little for long.”
I understand where such thoughts are coming from, but reading them on a discussion board in the middle of the night only added fuel to my sleep deprived fire. I was going on three months where I had not slept more than a four hour stretch at a time, and even those four hour stretches were a rarity.
The humor and adrenaline that had carried me through the first weeks with a newborn was waning and the reality of my fragmented and sparse sleep was setting in. My mind felt fuzzy and jumbled during the day and my husband and I had both logged enough hours bouncing our baby on an exercise ball at night to earn us a spot in the Guinness World Records book for ball bouncing between the hours of midnight and 4:00 a.m.
I could have arguably stayed off my smartphone during these late night sessions (and one piece of advice I read indicated the light from the screen may be disrupting my baby’s sleep), but I found it comforting to connect with a web of other sleep-deprived parents in the same situation. My friends in the physical world who had babies all seemed to be sleeping just fine, and I wanted to find others who understood. And I did.
But some online commenters would inevitably try to spin the situation into a positive like, “I actually enjoy the few moments of quiet bonding time when the rest of the house was asleep.” This was not my experience. I was not enjoying 20 minutes of cuddle time once a night while my son ate and then peacefully drifted off to sleep; I was up multiple times watching the hours until I had to be awake for work tick by as I struggled with a wide-eyed three-month-old who would cry the minute I tried to lay him down.
In the early days of parenthood, it seemed like so many things were set up as dichotomies: breastfeeding or bottle feeding, bed sharing or having your child sleep independently, cloth diapers or disposable diapers. When I got frustrated, I often felt bad that I wasn’t just enjoying the fleeting moments of my kids’ childhoods more.
Then I heard an interview with the writer Cheryl Strayed. While discussing the advice column she had written, she mentioned that it’s okay to experience two opposing truths at the same time. While she wasn’t talking specifically about parenting, when I relate this advice to parenting it’s one of the most helpful things I’ve heard.
You don’t have to be in just a pure state of thankfulness or frustration – you can feel both at the same time. When you are up with a baby in the middle of the night you can be both frustrated at your current state and appreciative that they won’t be small enough for you to rock to sleep forever.
You can be disheartened when your toddler has another potty training accident, but understanding that it is one of the few things in her life she is trying to have control over.
You can want to pull your hair out when your preschooler refuses to eat anything but saltines with no broken edges on them for dinner, but aware of the fact that he will likely diversify his eating habits as he grows.
Many parenting choices also don’t have to be so black and white. You can feed your kids both breast milk and formula. You can use cloth diapers at times and disposables at others. When you look for a middle ground, it’s often there.
Now when my younger son wakes up at night it’s rare, but my husband or I are still sometimes hanging out with him for a couple hours in the middle of the night trying to coax him back to sleep. When he looks at me with wide open brown eyes that seem to ask, “Why can’t we just get up at 3:00 a.m.?” I can be both frustrated and entertained.
Julie Vick is a writer living in Colorado and has been published in Brain, Child, Washington Post On Parenting, CountryLiving.com, and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. You can read more of her work at: http://www.julievick.com/