Dear Dana is a bi-weekly advice column for humans who engage in romantic relationships. Please send your dilemmas, issues, conundrums, assumptions, conflicts, anxieties, worriments, obstacles, complications, predicaments, queries, questions, and any other synonyms for “problems” to firstname.lastname@example.org.
My wife is pregnant (due in a few months), and we’re stoked/excited/fearful/etc. about the prospect of having a child. It’s mostly positive, but we’re understandably freaked out. Whenever I ask any parents for advice, I hear the same refrain: “Sleep now, because you’ll never sleep again!”
I’m really annoyed with this advice because I already have a chronic sleep disorder! I haven’t gotten a full night’s sleep in 10 years! And yes, I’ve sought medical and psychological care for this, and had some success. But it really annoys me that everyone keeps telling me to bank sleep (as if that were even possible!), since they’re assuming a state of health that I don’t possess. Can you suggest a pithy response that mollifies my need to be self-righteous without pissing people off too much?
Dear Tired Dad:
Your first mistake is asking parents for advice. I understand that, since you need information and they have information, it seems sensible to ask them. But parents are advice-giving machines, just waiting for someone to walk by and put a quarter in. I know this because I’m a parent and all I want to do all day, every day is hand out parenting advice.
I think it’s because parents have a new, hard-earned skill called “how to raise a baby without them or you dying” that’s not really acknowledged. It’s assumed that if you have a baby you’re going to figure out how to raise it — but there’s an enormous learning curve that starts the day your child is born. And when you’ve come out the other side you’ve acquired as much new information as you would absorb during a course of graduate school. But you don’t have a diploma to show for it. All you have is knowledge to apply to a stage of development your child has left behind.
I’m lost when it comes to my three-year-old — but I can tell you all about a three-week-old. Sadly, no one is asking me to give any TED Talks about how I discovered, at 4:32 a.m, how to finally, finally get my baby to sleep (jiggling them back and forth lightly while simultaneously doing leg lunges and humming “Work” by Rhinanna). So when someone asks for our advice — especially someone who really, really wants to know — parents go crazy. Because we’re finally being given permission to talk about the weird, wild, amazing, and mildly traumatic event of becoming a parent.
The advice you’re getting from new parents (“Sleep now, because you’ll never sleep again!”) annoys you because it assumes that you’re currently sleeping just fine. But you don’t sleep. You haven’t slept well in a decade. It astounds me how so many people have silent disorders. We all go through our day assuming that everyone we come across is fully functional, wholly “normal,” that we’re the only ones suffering quietly. Everyone has a burden. Everyone is carrying a secret weight around with them.
These parental advice-givers don’t know that you already don’t sleep. So what they’re saying isn’t about you. It’s about them. It’s a comment about how your world is about to be rocked by a tiny eight-pound human. It’s a warning wrapped inside a joke wrapped inside some schadenfreude.
Ironically, you’re likely more prepared than most for handling the extreme lack of sleep that lies in your near future. When most people have a baby they’re exposed to previously unconceivable levels of sleep deprivation. These parents are trying to warn you. They want to tell you that you’re about to go through the most intense, transformative experience of your life and — and that they’ve already been there.
My mother always said, “A newborn can bring any adult to their knees.” And it’s true. It’s true. Not sleeping for a month was not at all good for my mental health. I don’t remember when my son started sleeping through the night. I don’t remember exactly when I felt like I began to regain my sanity. All I remember is how very, very, very tired I was before then, when I was only sleeping two hours a day — day after day after day.
I received that same warning when I was pregnant. “Sleep now, because you’ll never sleep again!” First off, that’s a lie, because I did sleep again. Once my son hit 12 pounds and started sleeping four hours or more at a time I wept with relief.
But after I had a child and understood how little sleep a new parent actually gets — how difficult it is to figure out how to take care of this small being while not getting any rest yourself, how wholly and suddenly your world just changed — that’s when I began to understand that ‘advice’ was just goddamn mean. It’s meant to be lighthearted, but its subtext is hard and sharp and bone deep. It’s really saying, ‘You are going to have a newborn, which means that you are not going to sleep. That means you are going to suffer as I, an experienced parent, have suffered.’
These parents want you to know that nothing can alleviate your coming suffering because sleeping now will in no way help you when it’s been five weeks and it’s 2:16 a.m. and the baby is still, still, still crying. Sleep now, they say, because your time to suffer is approaching and will surely knock you to the ground. It’s like yelling, “Enjoy that life vest while you can!” to someone who’s boarding the Titanic. You know what’s going to happen next, but they don’t. By making this comment they’re reveling in your ignorance. It’s unkind, and new parents need every single kindness.
If you want a pithy response you could go with, “I actually haven’t slept since 2007, but I’m using sleep I got in 2006 to hold me over,” or “Do you really believe that’s how sleep works?” or “Oh, I read that you can just put in earplugs and let newborns cry all night long. It’s good for their lungs.” Or, you can simply say, “Stop being a dick.”
When we’re asked for advice, parents should check themselves. We should stop telling people to sleep. We should stop telling people what to do altogether. We should not revel in the upheaval to come.
Every baby is different, every family is different, and nothing works for everyone. What we should do is ask, “What are you most worried about?” and speak to that. We should offer ourselves in place of advice — offer to come over, to bring a meal, to do the dishes, to hold the baby so you can take a shower or, perhaps, get some sleep.
Dana Norris once went on 71 internet dates, many of which you may read about here. She is the founder of Story Club and editor-in-chief of Story Club Magazine. She has been featured in McSweeney’s, Role Reboot, The Rumpus, and Tampa Review and she teaches at StoryStudio Chicago. You may find her on Twitter at @dananorris.