If you’ve ever wondered why your parents are crazy, I happen to have stumbled across the answer: They are all suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. In one of those deliciously wicked twists of design, appreciable mostly by those of us who collect and consume irony as if it were artisan cheese of the most rancid and pungent varieties, the source of that trauma is in fact children themselves. The execution of this assault on parental sanity occurs upon a child’s arrival into the world and lasts basically as long as children are incapable of forming any lasting memories thus ensuring that they emerge from the ordeal basically amnesic while their mothers and fathers remain haunted shells of their former selves. As such, children are left to wonder what force on Earth could have made their parents such complete lunatics, fully unaware that the madness that plagues their own existences is in fact self-wrought.
The techniques employed by the welcomed invaders are classic, really. Sleep deprivation is a legitimate form of torture but it really is just a softening tactic in this particular application, a way to pave the road for the true torment yet to come. I mean, you can set off a bomb in a building but if you want to bring the whole thing down, you need to first weaken the foundations. What happens with babies is not a sort of constant annoyance the way you might expect where they, for example, cry for protracted periods of time. After all, the goal here is to inflict psychological damage rather than merely focusing on brute force sleeplessness. Instead the assault comes in the form of a series of intermittent wails which vary in volume, duration, and pattern such that you can perpetually be lured into the false notion that relief is imminent.
Being sleep deprived is a state I’m familiar with. Large portions of my life have been spent with self-inflicted exhaustion due to my disinterest in ceasing whatever interesting activity engages me so that I can rest. Then there was the whole graveyard shift debacle of ’07 though I’m not sure I want to pick at that scab too much just yet. What strikes me about the sleeplessness associated with newborn skirmishes is how oppressive it is, comparatively. It is all-encompassing and creates obsession in the strongest-willed combatants. Normally if you get behind on sleep you cancel an appointment, wait for a weekend or take a prescription medication to knock yourself out for a couple of days. But in this case there is no reprieve and no amount of chivalry on the part of your squadmates can rectify the situation since the one thing—the only thing—that you could not sleep through is the cry of your beloved foe.
Nik and I used to gripe before the baby was born about new parents we’d run into who would examine Nik’s pregnant belly and say something like, “Get ready to never sleep again.” We regarded these people as plankton: Unfeeling sociopaths who were menacing a pregnant woman who had experienced one failed pregnancy already and lived still in mortal fear of having complications in another. At least, she would seethe, your baby is healthy. Our sympathy for these veterans has waned considerably over the past few weeks since we realized that the problem isn’t a lack of appreciation but one of all-consuming weariness that borders dangerously on narcolepsy. At no point is a new parent unaware of the triumph and blessing their child represents, but it becomes impossible to fathom anything else except sanity-violating tiredness. “Sleep” becomes the answer to every puzzle, it is the epitome of every desire, the chalice placed out of reach that contains the magical elixir of happiness. At one point deep in our daughter’s third week of life Nik and I were watching Jeopardy! and we shouted synonyms for slumber in the form of a question, with all sincerity, for 21 out of 30 questions in the Double Jeopardy round. I heard my wife, typically the paragon of reason, attempt at one point to bribe our daughter to sleep with such untenable promises as ponies, castles and luxury cars.
Once the parental psyche has been rent under the spine-crushing weight of enervation the true damage is done via a series of carefully coordinated clandestine assaults on several fronts: There is a physical component where a series of thrashing, uncontrolled movements batter even an adult male in such a way as to not leave any discernible marks but, like tapping a sack of light bulbs with a wiffle bat, the invisible damage is extensive. There is also a more direct psychological aspect to the strategy employed which is almost criminally devious in its subtlety. It plays on the dark corners of fear in your mind by placing a sudden, almost violent responsibility on an unsuspecting civilian, tormented by the other tactics explained above and then cruelly demands that one heap atop this responsibility a freighter of concern and worry. Because the most vindictive tactic unleashed is white-hot love and devotion invading every pore with each screech and every holler. Unjustly the parent is forced to adore their invading force, to pledge undying allegiance to their captor such that instead of resisting the conquerors they welcome them, cater to them and weep to placate them.
I found myself at one point standing in the shower, broken like a once free-spirited pony and staring blankly at the soap scum encrusted wall and thinking I might let the water run cold before I could face another moment of the exhaustion, the abuse. I steeled myself, shut off the water, dried and re-donned my pajamas that had become my uniform and returned to the front where I found it eerily quiet. I relieved my wife of her watch and prepared to flirt again with sheer madness. The moment was fleeting but I gazed down at my baby girl, defiantly refusing sleep, I saw the corners of her eyes crinkle. I braced myself for the tears I knew were coming, steeling for her siren call to cleave my skull but then—suddenly!—an unexpected smile crossed her tiny lips and at once broke into the most beautiful toothless expression of contentment, purity and joy. In that instant, a lifetime of treaties were signed.