I don’t know about you other parents out there, but I am exhausted. Now, I absolutely get less rest than I need, but it is more than that. Even on days when I get tons of sleep, I still don’t feel fully rested. I can sleep well for three or four days in a row and not feel like I used to feel before I had children. And I never really thought about why this was. I guess I just figured that it would take me months or even years to catch up on all of the sleep that I had missed since the day my first child was born. Now I’m not so sure that’s the reason anymore.
A few days ago I saw an article circulating around the internet that said half of your brain stays awake all night when you sleep in a new place. This was very interesting. Ever traveled somewhere, gotten a full night’s sleep, and woken up groggy and tired anyway? This is because you were only half-sleeping. Thanks to the fact that you were in an unfamiliar place, your brain only went half to sleep, the other half remaining alert to detect threats. Even in a place you pretty much knew was safe, the newness of it triggered an instinctive sleep pattern to protect you from any saber-tooth tigers that might be lurking under your cousin’s futon.
This got me to thinking; could it be possible that parents undergo a similar sleep pattern change when they are sleeping near their children? How many times have you been awoken by a noise from your child’s bedroom that you had no business being able to hear from a dead sleep? How is it that we parents can detect the rustle of a branch on our child’s window and snap to attention in the middle of the night, ready for parental action? I’m no scientist, but if my primitive brain functions can keep me unrested at a motel, I’m willing to bet they can ruin my sleep when my children are in the next room.
And come to think of it, the only times I have felt truly, sincerely, completely rested since becoming a parent have been when I have been either traveling for an opera job, or vacationing with my wife with no children (except for the first night, obviously, when I was in threat detection mode). When my children are staying at my mother’s, it isn’t just that I get to sleep longer, it’s that I get to sleep deeper. I get to fully shut myself down without worrying that someone will have a medical emergency across the hall. I get to actually sleep! And it feels so good.
I would like to propose a study. I would like those sleep doctors who figured out that half-awake-new-place-brain-thing to conduct another series of experiments on parents. Test out the nocturnal brain activity of moms and dads when their kids are there, and when they are not. See if there is any change. Because I’m willing to bet a sizable amount of frozen chicken nuggets that the findings will be very conclusive. It isn’t just the lack of rest that makes parents crazy; it’s the low quality. So when do they leave for college again?