Parenting as a Privilege: The Challenge of Sleep

As I was writing the following blog, I remembered an article I wrote a couple of years ago about sleep. Click below to read the full article:

December 2008

I can only imagine how different parenting would feel if I viewed it as a prison instead of a privilege. Parenting is the toughest job on earth, and can push our buttons beyond anything we’ve known. It’s also the greatest privilege, for where else do we have daily access to a living, breathing angel? Where else are we so close to representatives of God, to these beings whose hearts shine with unadulterated purity and grace? And where else do we have daily opportunities to see our growing edges so we can work to expand them?

One of the greatest challenges with our son has been around sleep. From day one, our little guy didn’t like the concept of sleep and resisted it with all his might. Most times he would fall asleep fairly easily only to awaken thirty minutes later crying. This pattern continued all night long, six to ten times a night, for our first two years. There were days when I thought I was going to have a nervous breakdown from sleep deprivation.

The irony is that my biggest fear prior to becoming a mother was sleep deprivation. I was always someone who loved sleep and thought I needed eight solid hours a night to function properly. As is often the case, what we fear most about parenting turns out to be the area where we most need to grow. The mainstream advice in the area of sleep told me that I needed to teach my son the essential life skill of self-soothing and that the only way to do that was to let him cry himself to sleep. While on some level I agreed that my son needed to learn how to self-soothe eventually, for the life of me I couldn’t figure out how that was going to happen healthfully by allowing him to cry, scream, and dry heave until he fell asleep. While I think this method can work for some children without leaving scars, my husband and I knew it wasn’t the right choice for our little guy. Which left us with no other option than to figure out how to surrender to our son’s sleep patterns and needs and ask ourselves to grow to accommodate them.

So we learned to surrender. We learned to find the humor in our situation. We learned that we had immense reservoirs of patience and we realized that our capacity for endurance surpassed what we ever thought conceivable. None of this would have been possible had we not loved our son beyond measure and viewed our parenting job as a privilege. This isn’t to say that over the years I haven’t been challenged repeatedly. As he started to sleep through the night more consistently, falling asleep became harder and harder, and there were nights when, after an hour or two of him squirming and flopping, I had to leave the room for a few minutes to calm my frustration. But those moments are drops in the bucket compared to the overarching sense of privilege I have when I’m helping him fall asleep. Because always, every night, there’s something he says or does that shows me God.

Sometimes it’s the smallest gestures that break my heart open. Like tonight, when I was helping him fall asleep, he casually laid his little hand across my forearm. It was so subtle, but something in his vulnerable touch brought tears to my eyes. He’s so small, I thought, and immediately flashed on a grown-up version of my son, one whom I will hug at hellos and goodbyes but will no longer have the privilege of being so close to physically. I marveled at his tiny fingers, as I have done since he was a baby. I cherished the scent of his sweet breath sending warm drifts of air down my cheek. I whispered in his ear, “You are my angel. I’m so lucky to be your mommy. Thank you for being my son.” I have whispered these words to him nearly every night for four years, words that would have gone unsaid had I “taught” him early on to cry himself to sleep so that he would supposedly learn the skill of falling asleep alone.

I fully trust that, when it’s important enough to either me or him, he will learn to fall asleep without me lying next to him. In the meantime, I’ve chosen to view that precious hour as a privilege instead of a prison. Sure, there are times when I wish I could say, “Goodnight. I love you,” and walk out the door so I could write, spend much-needed time with my husband, talk to a friend, or curl up with a good book. But whereas all of those people and activities will be around for a long time, this phase of my son’s life is fleeting. He will never be this age exact age again. He will only be this small and dependent and needing me to be so close for a finite period of time. I already grieve the day when he will push me away, yet I know it will inevitably and necessarily happen. So for now, I revel in our nighttime closeness.

Tonight, after he laid his hand on my arm, he reached for my hand, then snuggled his whole body into me and pressed his warm forehead into the space above my ear. He fit into me like a puzzle piece, rightfully assuming his place next to his mommy, safe as can be. And then he took a deep, endearing sigh and took that courageous and trusting leap into sleep. One of my favorite moments of the day is watching his face after he’s fallen asleep. The pleasure and challenges, the joys and frustrations of the day are erased and he’s a vision of serenity. It’s in that moment, as I gaze at the face of my angel, that the same prayer spontaneously emerges from lips: “Dear God, thank you. Thank you for bringing me this child. Please keep him healthy and safe. Please help me be the best mother I can be. Thank you.”

Comments >> Parenting as a Privilege: The Challenge of Sleep

  • J.C

    Beautifully written, thank you for sharing this.

    Sleep is the one area where my wee angel has trouble as well, and always has done. Like you, I felt that leaving her to cry was not the right choice for her and so she has slept by my side since birth, snuggled into me, safe, secure.

    We’re just transitioning her out of our bed now, because we have another baby due at the end of June. I get teary thinking about not having her there with me as, like you say, they are only this small once and I will miss that closeness. I stay with her until she is asleep, and foresee that I will for as long as she needs me to also, though Daddy may have to step up and take a little more of a role in bed times when the new baby arrives I think!

    • Thanks you, J.C. Sleep is so challenging, isn’t it? We, too, had to make some major changes when our second arrived, and I was dreading it! Daddy definitely had to step up in that department. That’s a whole transition I have yet to write about – baby #2. Thanks for reading and commenting –

      • J.C

        I think one of the most difficult things was thinking that everyone else had babies who slept well, it seems that it can take awhile for a mother to admit her wee one isn’t doing so well on that front. I felt a lot like I was doing something wrong, or should hide the lengths I would go to get her to sleep until eventually people started admitting that they too had struggled with it.

        I think that a lot of writing about baby sleep is actually pretty damaging to both mother and child, and creates false expectations and instills guilt in those of us who choose not to let them cry. Where as your piece shows that despite the frustrations at times, when we make the right choices for our wee ones (whatever those might be – every baby is different), we’re also making the right choice for ourselves – and valuing both parties more in the process.

  • I totally agree. I think there are so many areas where the expectation interferes with accepting reality. Much of my work in the world of weddings and motherhood involved re-educating and conditioning people about what the reality is instead of the FANTASY. Every child is different and every family has different needs, and instead of honoring those needs and encouraging parents to trust their instincts – even when it’s hard and exhausting – The Books tell us we’re doing something wrong, even damaging our child’s brain if they don’t get enough sleep! Such B.S.! My firstborn hardly slept at all and his brain is more than fine… : ) But it’s so hard to really know and trust that the first time around when “the experts” are telling you otherwise, isn’t it?