This past week, our kid has gotten full-blown sick for the first time in his young life– throwing up, feverish, the whole nine yards. This has introduced us to a routine that is familiar to a great many people but thankfully new to us, the Sleepless Night With Sick Baby. Much like getting married, taking a driving test or spending a night in jail, this is one of the familiar set pieces of human experience– you’ve either heard about it, read about it, or seen Ted Danson do it enough times in sitcoms that it feels like you’re acting out a script even as you’re perhaps having a very individualized experience. The Sleepless Night With Sick Baby scenario has an extra bewildering, gothic aspect compared to these others in the sense that it erupts at sporadic intervals in the middle of the night, but the basic familiarity lingers and makes you feel as though you’re trapped inside a trope while it’s happening.
An interesting part in this bleary drama is the moment when you simply decide to let the poor kid cry, because there’s nothing you can do to help him. This is sad, obviously… but once you make the switch, there’s also weird sense of release: its like the moment of being caught in a rain storm when you eventually get so wet that you stop hurrying to get out of the rain as fast as possible and instead just accept the situation. Listening to it in the darkness last night, the sound of crying began to loose its contours and become this weird formless thing, like when you repeat a word over and over again. As a thought experiment, I tried imagining that the crying was not in fact crying but rather some challenging musical performance that I had paid good money to attend, maybe involving one of those awful, discordant one string Chinese zither instruments. I could half-imagine myself sitting in an auditorium chair, trying to take to accept the music on its own terms but nonetheless getting impatient for the concert to end.
In general, we haven’t been hit too hard by the parenting exhaustion stick… but I’ve had enough spotty nights to notice something interesting about sleep deprivation that I couldn’t have noticed before, which is that there’s a strong moral component in terms of how I experience it. If I’m underslept because of my kid, there’s no way it could have been otherwise, so there’s a feeling of non-responsibility (‘so sue me’) as I’m perhaps stumbling through a bad presentation at work the next day, or delivering a garbled lecture to my students, or writing an incomprehensible blog post. Interestingly, the sense of not being responsible for one’s tiredness makes it much more negligible somehow. It’s the times when I stayed up too late the night before watching the episode of the Wire where Avon and Stringer get into their fight for the fourth time– or any of the other dumb reasons I used to have for not getting enough sleep– that the sensation of tiredness feels particularly impairing–that is, when it comes with the feeling of having engineered one’s own demise.
(Photo: gratuitous-cute-kid shot taken in normal, healthy times– right now, he looks considerably more dazed, sad to say)