The Longest Marathon: How I Survived a Sleepless, Screaming, Crying, Colicky Baby

Photo credit: Pedro Klien, via flickr // CC BY 2.0

A stock photo of a happier baby than our actual baby.  (Photo credit: Pedro Klien, via flickr // CC BY 2.0)

My daughter rocked a killer tan when she was a newborn. It was actually jaundice, but it made her look all devil-may-care bronzed. Strangers would peer under the hood of her car seat and remark on her golden complexion. “Hello, precious!” they’d say. “She’s such a beautiful color!”

“Thanks,” I’d say, wanting to add, “It’s bile, people. Would-be turds.”

While jaundice is nature’s sunless tan, it’s also exhausting. My daughter slept almost nonstop for 10 days after she was born, soundly as a hobo. In fact, there were times my milk came tumbling through the ducts like pointed rocks, painful because she’d slept through yet another feeding before it. Dutifully obeying hospital orders, I’d rub the nipple across her mouth to roust her. Her eyes fluttering, she’d root for a few seconds. Then she’d conk out again, lunch spraying all over her face or, worse, toward someone who probably didn’t want breast milk on their shoes.

“She’s a good sleeper,” we got to say. At least there was that.

When she finally woke up, she really woke up. That’s when we met the real her, the one with plans to undertake an eight-month project of crying us crazy. Naps? She could take or leave them. She just wanted to nurse, and she stopped taking a bottle. She’d bite on its chewy nipple and cry. The sleep deprivation became ungodly, enough even to make my husband nearly snap. And he’s a retired Green Beret, people. They train for that shit. Part of me felt like a rock star for enduring more than eight months of soprano crying and shattered sleep—an hour here, 45 minutes there—but another part of me started to grow a phantom second head that looked like Edvard Munch’s The Scream. It deserved a green beret of its own.

I see people with those 26.2 marathon decals on their rear windows, and I wonder where my decal is. Try a marathon that lasts 5,800 hours, give or take a dozen. Nobody tells you if the finish line is at 6,000 or 287,000, and you have to do it in your fat pants. Your main fuel is Whatever Food Items Fit into a Mouth Hole in Seven Seconds or Less. That’s the approximate time it takes before a tiny dictator starts screaming at you like her arms were just hacked off until you nurse her. Oh, and instead of a cheering section, there are assholes on the sidelines who never ran the same marathon, telling you you’re doing it all wrong. Yeah, I need a decal.

My daughter is nearly eleven now. I’m remembering back to those days because of a tent I came across in our basement. The connection? When she was old enough to crawl, I once set up that tent in our den and lay down topless inside of it, zipper shut, presenting myself as a living buffet. As I tried to sleep, my daughter latched on every few minutes for a sip. She did 180s with her body, using her teeth as anchor. And while it wasn’t the greatest sleep, I actually caught a few winks through the pain.

That tent reminded me of all the time I spent agonizing over what to do. It reminded me of endless Internet searches, looking for ways to get some sleep or at least stay awake with my sanity intact. It reminded me of all the second-guessing I did about my mommy skills. So many books, people, and websites offering conflicting advice. A horizon that looked dark as ink. I always told myself that once I got out of those woods, I’d go back and leave my own mark on the interwebs, letting other pooped-out parents know exactly how we survived. But once I got out of those woods, I couldn’t stand to look back and wasn’t even sure how we managed. Even today I’ll sometimes see a tired mom with a new baby, and I get this primitive urge to flee, afraid she’ll grab onto my ankle and drag me back down to that black hole where you can think of and talk of nothing but your baby NOT SLEEPING and CRYING ALL THE DAMN DAY LONG.

The truth is, we survived because of ridiculous things like that tent stunt. We survived because we were willing to try anything. We survived because I curled up inside the 38×24 space of a Pack-n-Play with my baby on my boob just to keep from losing it on her at 3:45 a.m. We survived because I learned to coast my car through stop signs on country roads, knowing that even a few seconds at standstill would ruin a nap. We finished the marathon because it took place on a narrow bridge over a bottomless canyon, with all the rungs and planks falling apart behind us. What else were we supposed to do but just keep going?

I have no formula for success to share. It was too complicated. I’m just here to say to tired parents: You can come out relatively sane on the other side of this thing. For me, it took nearly nine months to begin seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. When naps finally ended just a year later, I felt free as a bird. Instead of screwing up nap after crappy nap, we had blessedly early bedtimes–think 5:30 p.m. Gone was the question of getting enough sleep. No more was the tent used as a nursing depot. Instead it was restored to its rightful place as a bedroom-in-the-woods. We can doze there now well past sun-up, birds chirping loud enough to wake the dead but not loud enough to wake my daughter, who again sleeps soundly as a hobo.

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