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How My Marriage Survived Two Years of Sleep Deprivation

Photograph by Twenty20

When my husband and I welcomed our third child into the world, we braced ourselves for those first few months of sleep deprivation. We’d already done this newborn thing a couple times before. We knew that sleep would be a scarce commodity.

But then, at least at first, we were pleasantly surprised. In fact, our third child had marvelous sleep habits from the time he was two months old. He’d often sleep for eight hour stretches at night. He took regular naps throughout the day. He was happy and well-rested. And thus, his father and I were happy and well-rested.

We sometimes joked that he was our prize for enduring two babies who “didn’t sleep all that well.”

We had no idea what it meant to not sleep all that well.

Because right around when our son was seven months old, everything shifted. What was balanced became unbalanced. All that was predictable became unpredictable.

Our son’s sleep became more fitful and interrupted. He wouldn’t sleep for more than three hours at a time. More often than not, he’d wake up every hour at night. He’d want to nurse every time he woke up. When he didn’t want to nurse, he’d cry and cry.

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My husband and I initially passed it off as a phase—perhaps our baby was teething, perhaps he was hitting too many developmental milestones at once. Then his sleeplessness lasted for weeks. Then months. Then, when he was a year-and-a-half old, we hit the one year mark.

One whole year, where neither of us slept for longer than two or three hours at a time.

We had our son tested for allergies and illness. We spoke at length with his pediatrician and with other parents. We tried gentle sleep training methods.

We cried. A lot.

And it wasn’t only the lack of sleep that was a challenge. Our son also needed to be touching us in order to fall asleep—and to stay asleep. Sometimes I’d have to curve my whole body around him, my neck and back curled like a question mark, just so that he would remain sleeping.

These challenges can put an enormous strain on any marriage. My husband and I knew this, even before we began to experience any signs of a strain. And so we tried our best to make a plan: for ourselves, and for our marriage.

First, we reaffirmed our commitment to egalitarian parenting. When I couldn’t nurse any longer—when I desperately needed a break from my round-the-clock breastfeeding sessions—my husband would carry the baby downstairs, far away from our bedroom, and hold him until he fell back asleep. And when my husband was too tired to do the laundry once he came home from work each day, I took over that chore for him.

This equal division of duties wasn’t just a matter of principle. It was a matter of survival.

I’ll never forget the first night that my husband and I were able to put our son to sleep—in our bed—and then leave him there, without touching us, for an entire half-hour.

We also carved out small moments for just the two of us—even if the baby was right next to (or, more likely, between) us. We had Monday evening “date nights.” We’d get take-out burritos and eat in bed. We’d watch television. We’d hold hands. These moments weren’t glamorous, but they were ours.

And yes, we had to make a special time and place for sex. The Pack 'n Play became a necessity. As did the shower.

Every once in a while, we’d experience some sort of progress. I’ll never forget the first night that my husband and I were able to put our son to sleep—in our bed—and then leave him there, without touching us, for an entire half-hour.

We sat on the floor in front of a pile of unfolded laundry. Our backs against the foot of our bed, we held hands silently. We were afraid to talk, for fear we’d wake the baby. But I’m not sure we knew what to say, either.

I’m not sure we could have strung together a whole set of coherent sentences even if we’d tried.

That didn’t seem to matter to us then. We still had each other. We didn’t need to squeeze every ounce out of the moment in order to enjoy it. We simply needed to be present, together, inside of those minutes.

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I can’t point to the one thing that helped our baby to sleep better—to not wake every hour or two, each and every night. I can’t even fully explain why he slept so poorly for so long. Maybe it had something to do with teething. Maybe it had something to do with his personality.

But I can point to what my husband and I did to survive those years of sleeplessness, together.

We adjusted our expectations of each other. We sought ways to help each other. And we found ways to be together without demanding too much from those moments.

We still eat take-out burritos most Monday nights. We often eat them in our bed, too.

What started out as a coping mechanism has now become a ritual. What began as an exercise in desperation has now become a silly way for us to break the rules—to eat chips and guacamole in bed while catching up on episodes of our favorite TV shows.

What made us stronger kept us together.

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