Wednesday, October 04, 2006

The Science of Sleep

There's an idiom in German that describes the state of being alone when your partner is away: Strohwitwe-- literally, Straw Widow. I always liked this turn of phrase, though I never knew exactly the image it was meant to conger: A bird sitting on an empty nest? Perhaps a reference to the days when beds were made of straw, and the woman woke with a clenched handful, rather than her partner's warm side?

I find that when my husband is away I stay up late at night putzing around. At first being "up late" is liberating. I alone control the computer. I make myself full meals and sit down at 10:30pm to eat them while leafing through trashy magazines. I sprawl in the bed and toss his pillow into the corner where it mutters quietly to its allergen-inducing self. I revel in the novelty of it all. It is amazing how quickly that novelty wears off.

After a summer of displacement (a month in a sublet, one month in California, two in Germany) all either of us want to do is be in our own house, together. We've even found a babysitter (Hosea!) and actually have money to pay her. All of our attachment parenting and sleep training has paid off, and we have a well-adjusted and well-sleeping young boy.

Yet my husband is in his first year of a tenure-track position (committees, teaching,...) and our lovely new house needs a whole lot of inventive childproofing. Often by the time he comes to bed I'm already in there, having fallen asleep with my NYT Crossword puzzle book on my chest, and am in some form of drooling, snoring, or some other unseemly mid-slumber state.


For almost a week mid-September there was an article about sharing sleep in the NYT that was consistently at the top of their most-emailed list. I found the article itself relatively unremarkable in terms of what it said.

But somehow the subject matter is so intimate and yet so banal that apparently nearly everyone was rapt.

This article is hovering again in my consciousness as I fight sleep with the thousand things I have to do tonight before retiring to my bed. Not just because my husband is away at a conference (see Strohwitwe, above), but because sleep is one of the primary topics of conversation amongst newer mothers.

In recent days I've had multiple conversations with other moms of kids younger than mine about how to convince their children to sleep, as well as the various creative sleeping arrangements that have come about in order to accommodate all the household beings that must sleep in some constellation or another (mom, dad, baby, cat, dog).

At one time or another almost everyone has resorted to someone sleeping with the baby-- in the parents' room, in the parents' bed, in the baby's room. Then there's the tale of the displaced-- of the partner or the animal who becomes jealous or resigned.

It seems that sleeping defines primary intimate relationships for human beings. (I assume it comes from our primate selves, though I can probably elaborate more on this once I read one of the 10,000 books on my nightstand, one of which is titled "Our Inner Ape: A Leading Primatologist Explains Why We Are Who We Are").

That's why sleeping is also such a divisive issue. I know that for the first six months after my son was born, our sleep revolved around his sleep. He slept in a bassinet attached to our bed, often migrated into our bed by morning, and by the time we hit six months, I needed him to leave my bedroom. Not because I didn't love the sighs he made or his little scrunched up face when he sleeps. (I still love those things and often have to fight the urge of checking on him at night just to watch him sleep).

I needed him out of our room so that we could have our own sleep again, just my husband and I. There are so many wonderful things that happen in bed- goofy conversations, cuddling, holding the other to help them fall asleep, and, of course, the other things one does in bed, not the least of which is sleep.

Sharing a bed is sharing a life. Wrinkled sheets and all.

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