There is something about 3 a.m. It’s the loneliest hour of the night — after last call but before even the earliest risers stumble out of bed. The streets are empty and quiet, the sky thick and black.
Nine years ago, after having my first baby, I became intimately acquainted with every hour of the night. In fact, I developed an utterly useless new skill: upon being roused from sleep, I was able to predict, with stunning accuracy, exactly what time it was. I knew by the weight of the air.
At 3 a.m., the air was at its heaviest.
My husband, by this point of the night, had usually been exiled to the living room couch, his snores uninterrupted by our baby’s cries. Our baby was either having herself a nighttime snack, wriggling in my arms as I paced the hallway, or wriggling in my bed as I gave up, yet again, on putting her back in her crib.
When my daughter had first wormed her way into our bed, nudging my husband out onto the couch, I shared my nighttime adventures with another new mom over coffee.
She said brightly: “Oh, we co-sleep, too!”
“You what?” I asked.
“We co-sleep, too!” she said with the same exclamation mark, thrilled to have found a co-co-sleeper.
“Does co-sleeping just mean that the baby is in your bed?” I wanted to know.
Her face fell slightly. Clearly, I hadn’t read up on all the latest research on the benefits of co-sleeping, given that I hadn’t even known it was a thing. I hadn’t even known the term to Google to find testimonials from bright-eyed parents who seemed suspiciously enthusiastic about having a baby in their bed.
I joined the co-sleeping movement unwittingly and out of desperation.
Later, I unwittingly joined the baby-led-weaning movement because I didn’t feel like making or buying baby food.
I had also unwittingly signed up for night duty. Like so many mothers, I had fallen into the role of default nighttime caregiver because my body provided the midnight snacks. My baby also had a nurse-every-hour-on-the-hour kind of appetite.
It became a difficult role to break out of, even after she stopped nursing during the night. For one thing, I was now attuned to wake up at every perceived moan or whimper, real or otherwise. Even when my baby achieved the sleep-through-the-night nirvana that is the subject of so many bestselling books, nowhere did the books mention that my ability to sleep through the night would be utterly ruined. I needed sleep training, too.
I have always adored sleeping, and for most of my life, I have approached it with gusto. The heavy, hard sleeps are the best, those ones from which I emerge with a string of drool dangling out of my mouth and a vivid scene from a dream rattling inside my head. But now my sleep had become skittish, restless, shallow.
My husband, meanwhile, still managed to sleep with gusto. Throughout the 14 months during which our daughter claimed my nighttime hours, he still fell hard and emerged with difficulty. I tried hard not to hate him, with various levels of success.
It was my first inkling. At age 31, I didn’t believe that we had actually achieved gender equality, despite the fact that much of society seemed to operate on that pretense. But it was only just drawing on me how much distance women, and particularly mothers, still had to travel.
It was at 3 a.m. that I initially peered over the precipice of that chasm in my own home. My husband snored blissfully on the other side.
While the concept of babies “sleeping through the night” might not be uniquely American, I have a hunch that we are uniquely obsessed with it. Once we go back to work, well before the average baby sleeps through the night and well before most of our female counterparts in the rest of the world, certain things are expected of us, like how our brains function.
Optimistically, I bought The No-Cry Sleep Solution, which advised that every time my baby cried, I attend to her, but that I make my appearance brief. I pick her up, comfort her, then put her back down. I begin by doing this as many times as it takes for her to eventually accept that it’s time to go the fuck to sleep. The first time she fussed, I removed her from the crib, briefly patted her, and put her back down. Her bottomless eyes were still wide open and they gave me a look that said: Seriously, mom?
I started to walk away. The whimpers commenced. I returned, picked her up, then put her back down. My daughter was highly amused. After 25 consecutive pick-ups, my arms were starting to ache and sleep was nipping at the corners of my eyes. I blinked and consulted the book to make sure I was doing it right. I saw the night stretched out in front of me like a hot, straight, treeless road, grueling and unending. My daughter continued to smirk. I consulted the book again.
It asked: Am I willing to be patient and make a gradual, gentle change for my baby if that means no crying?
No, I finally admitted to myself. No, I am not. If I had slept once, just once, for more than three consecutive hours over the last 14 months, maybe I would have an ounce of patience left to squeeze out of this tired mind, but patience these days was a scarce commodity. Plus, nowhere did the book tell me when I would have time to recover from my new nightly calisthenics routine.
I was averse to the “Cry it Out” method, partially because it seemed cruel, and partially because we lived in a condo with 25 neighbors in close proximity.
But desperate times call for desperate measures. On the first night, my daughter cried for 20 minutes straight. It was a long and tortuous 20 minutes. I swore I could hear the keyboard clicks from next door and across the hall as our neighbors furiously composed emails to the HOA.
After 20 minutes, the crying stopped. My husband and I sat on the couch without moving a muscle, ears pricked like creatures of prey trying to ascertain what danger might lurk in the shadows. Our baby then proceeded to sleep through the night. She did it again the next night and the night after that.
For about a year and a half, I tentatively reclaimed ownership of my nights, though rarely did I sleep with the same unfettered enthusiasm as I had in my pre-baby days. Plus, I knew there would be a Baby #2 on its way in the near future and I didn’t want to get too comfortable.
Before Baby #2 was born, before he even had a name or gender, I made the decision that he would cry it out at four months old. That was the earliest recommended age, still a full month after I had to return to work, but it would have to do.
This time around, I was older, wiser, and less empathetic.
The doctor gave me the same warning I vaguely remembered from three years prior — on the first night, my baby might want to sleep for up to six hours and it was important to wake him up for a feeding. I thought, “Hell no.” I was no doctor, and I wasn’t particularly religious, but I was 100 percent certain that God had seen to it that babies sleep for six hours during their first night here on Earth so that mothers could get a rest. The Last Rest. Kind of like The Last Supper, but with less feasting.
Sure enough, my new baby slept for six glorious, consecutive hours and sure enough, he survived to tell the tale.
Upon returning from the hospital, I exiled my husband from the bed from night one. We had recently purchased a futon, which we set up in the future playroom. In one month, my husband would be starting a demanding graduate program, and my reasoning was that one of us had to sleep. And since the milk vessels were attached to my body, it sure as hell wasn’t going to be me.
My second baby was just as hungry as his sister had been, and our nights were just as adventurous. When I headed downstairs each night to “go to bed,” Max’s proclamation to the Wild Things buzzed in my head: Let the wild rumpus start!
My husband, meanwhile, complained about the futon. I told him he was welcome to join the wild rumpus anytime. Maybe he could lend a hand during our baby’s 3 a.m. yoga sessions, during which I pumped and stretched and folded his legs to release trapped gas. And of course, there was diaper changing and spit-up cleaning and oh! the squirming. So. Much. Squirming.
Though my husband continued to complain, he never took me up on my invitation. Meanwhile, I listened to his snores through the bedroom wall and imagined a reality in which I could lie parallel to the ground, all by myself, for seven or eight uninterrupted hours. Once again, I tried my best not to hate him.
At four months, it was time for my son to cry it out, but it took another two months to commit to a specific day. Raising your hand to be tortured is a difficult thing to do; it’s easy to make excuses. Finally, as MLK weekend approached, I marked it on my calendar. Friday, January 15 — Cry it Out.
The day dawned cold, gray, and gusty. As we approached bedtime, the knot of dread in my stomach pulled tighter and tighter. Here goes nothing, I thought. Outside, the winds howled; inside, my baby howled.
Then… the chandelier in the living room started flickering. Then… it dissolved into blackness. The steady hum of the heater abruptly ceased. The howls became all that much more pronounced against the backdrop of utter silence and darkness. My husband and I waited for the lights to once again flicker, for the hum of the heater to resume. Nothing. I imagined my baby downstairs, already frantic because his parents seemed to have abandoned him, and now by himself in a room gone completely dark and rapidly growing cold. I could feel my resolve, which I had been tightly clenching like a fist, start to slowly unfurl.
I tried the cry-it-out method on two more occasions, but blackout or no, my son just wasn’t having it. Being left alone in a crib for the better part of 10 hours was a reality he just wasn’t willing to accept.
Eventually, my husband moved back into the bed, and I now had the pleasure of contending with his snores not through a wall, but from arm’s length away. Every time I was summoned from my bed by a certain baby who demanded a breast and a cuddle, I then had to re-enter The Chamber of Snores and lie there in the dark, trying not to feel resentful that the snoring had not once abated or ceased throughout the entire 3 a.m. battle that had just left me utterly wrecked.
When I got desperate, I woke up my husband, but it never went well. If I were to ask him for help with something at 3 p.m., particularly if I seemed somewhat frenzied and desperate, he would rush to my side and immediately offer his assistance. But 3 a.m. was a different story. My 3 a.m. husband was delirious and combative, and the more frenzied and desperate I was, the more combative he became.
“Baby,” I’d whisper, gently patting him on the arm. “Baby, I need your help.”
“Baby, wake up,” I’d whisper-shout, nudging him with a little more force.
“BABY!” I’d all-out-shout, shaking him now. At which point, his eyes would bulge open, and he’d bolt upright in bed.
“What? What? WHAT?!”
“I’ve just been trying to get the baby back down for the last hour, and I need some help.” At which point, he would sit there and stare at me blankly as though trying to piece together why this frazzled woman was waking him up at such a godforsaken hour, and who this “baby” was who wouldn’t go “back down.”
I’d spend 10 minutes debriefing him, after which he would stumble into the adjoining room, spend a few minutes there, and then stumble back into bed while the baby still howled.
I would beg and plead for him to help me and he would tell me, in no uncertain terms, to “stop freaking out,” and I’d tell him I’d be more than happy to stop freaking out if a certain baby of ours (emphasis on ours) would stop freaking out, and if he put an end to the freaking out that was transpiring in the next room, then the freaking out that was transpiring in this room would instantly cease.
It was a difficult, lonely time.
I put on a good face every morning. I applied concealer to the circles under my eyes kissed my husband goodbye dropped off my kids at daycare and said “good morning” to my coworkers.
But everyone was always mad at me. My husband was mad at me for not paying enough attention to him, my coworkers were mad at me for not paying enough attention to my job, and my kids were mad at me for paying too much attention to the other kid. Meanwhile, I stumbled around in a fog.
If I hadn’t had to go back to work so soon. If the abundance of resources out there for pregnant women had spent less time condemning deli meat and comparing my fetus to fruits of different sizes. If they had spent more time preparing me for the gender disparities that motherhood would bring into sharper focus — in the world, in the workplace, and in my own home.
If all my physical, mental, and emotional energy wasn’t tied up in just getting through each day. If any doctor, anywhere, had ever looked me in the eyes in the months after I gave birth and asked, “Are you okay?” If they had cared about my answer. If the financial strain of childcare had not been like a weight against my chest, flattening the space I needed just to take a full breath.
If I could have once, just once, slept for more than three consecutive hours.
It was at 3 a.m. that it all first dawned on me and at 3 a.m. that it all came crashing down. I would have to pick up the pieces and start the perilous journey across the chasm, fighting to be seen, shouting to be heard, pleading to be understood.
In the next room, my baby howled at the injustice of it all.
Kerala Taylor is an award-winning writer and co-owner of a worker-owned marketing agency. Her weekly stories on Medium and Substack are dedicated to interrupting notions of what it means to be a mother, woman, worker, and wife.
This article was originally published at Medium. Reprinted with permission from the author.