Without Caffeine, Parenting Itself Would Be Impossible
But Don't Overlook the Many Benefits of Sleep Deprivation

By John Hershey

Becoming a parent is like being on an airplane when the cabin suddenly depressurizes. You can't quite catch your breath. The dishes and glasses fly around and get broken. People get sucked out through little holes. OK, that doesn't happen very often, except to the baby. What I really have in mind is something the uniformed crew members tell us in their preflight speech. In the unlikely event that you don't pay attention to this speech, I'll remind you: "In the unlikely event that the oxygen masks deploy, put your mask on first and then assist your children." This is a good rule for parents to follow generally, not just onboard the aircraft.

You have to take care of yourself so you will be able to take good care of your kids. This means making time for the basic human activities that are necessary to sustain you: exercise, eating right, watching The Simpsons, and most importantly, sleep. With a new baby in the house, you need more sleep than ever. Yet you're probably getting less sleep now than any time since that night in 1982 when you camped on the sidewalk to be first in line for J. Geils Band tickets. To find out if you suffer from sleep deprivation, take this simple test:

  • Do you find yourself nodding off during normally stimulating events such as church services, golf telecasts, or Gray Davis speeches?
  • Have you ever gone to an important meeting at work and then suddenly awoken in the conference room, face down in a puddle of your own drool, long after everyone else has left for the day?
  • Have you ever driven the wrong way on a one-way street for three blocks before noticing that there was a problem?
  • Have you experienced difficulty recalling minor details, like a friend's phone number, the precise location of your car in the parking lot, or your children's names?
  • Have you ever been sitting at your computer, trying to work, when you feel your head involuntarily falling forwggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggg gggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggg

(Note to department of social services: The above question about going the wrong way on a one-way street with the kids in the car is a purely hypothetical example and is NOT based on the personal experience of either my wife or myself. I don't care what the police report says.)

If you answered "Yes", "I don't recall", or "I refuse to answer on the grounds that my answer may tend to incriminate me" to zero or more of these questions, you may have Chronic Acute Brain-dysfunction Insomnia-related Neo-parental fever. My wife and I have a severe case. We have a 3-year-old boy and a teething 7-month-old baby. They sleep in shifts, as if they feel one has to be on guard duty at all times.

Lack of sleep is not just annoying. It can be dangerous. In extreme cases, sleep deprivation can lead to fatigue-induced delusional behavior. Watch for these warning signs: Do you or your spouse find yourselves talking about irrational subjects, like fear of alien abduction, the Denver Nuggets' playoff chances, or having another baby?

But enough doom and gloom. What's the point of telling parents they need sleep, when there is no chance of them getting much of it in the foreseeable future? Let's try to be optimistic. Have you considered the many benefits of sleep deprivation? For instance, my mother-in-law recently told me that lack of sleep magnifies the effect of alcohol by five times. I think she meant it as a warning, but at the time I took it as a money-saving tip. Still, if you choose to ignore the upside of sleep deprivation, there is something you can do.

By making the proper lifestyle choices, you can have all the energy you need even with insufficient sleep. I am referring, of course, to caffeine. Unfortunately, only dads–and moms who have weaned their babies–can successfully organize their lives around this particular chemical. Nursing mothers, I'm afraid you're on your own. Experts recommend that you eschew caffeine while breastfeeding. Besides, these babies are energetic enough without turning the breast milk into a double café au lait.

But remember, dads: when you go out for a venti intravenous latte, you're just following the parenting tip we discussed above. You're taking care of yourself so you can be there for your partner. But it's still a good idea to order a decaf mocha for her, too. Sadly, however, even caffeine sometimes isn't enough. And at $3 plus for a simple cup of grande double espresso caramel skinny vanilla soy no-foam frappuccino, coffee alone may not be an economical long-term solution. But there is hope.

Just when you think you're going to completely lose it, something happens that reminds you why you love being a parent and gives you the strength to carry on. The other night, about 4:30 am, our 7-month-old woke up and started crying. Before my wife or I could get out of bed, our 3-year-old son Henry, who shares a bedroom with the baby, started singing to his little brother to comfort him. Daniel stopped crying and went right back to sleep. I can't describe the joy I felt as I drifted back into a deep slumber.

The next 20 minutes were the most restful sleep I've had in a long time.

John Hershey is a dad, a writer, and a lawyer (in that order). You can read more of his humor columns at www.vershina.com. © 2003 by John Hershey. All rights reserved.



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