Mental Health Nature or Nurture: Insomnia and What We Pass On to Our Children
“How do I teach her letting go, when my hands are still gnarled in the shape of everything I’ve ever lost?”
The worst thing about trying to sleep is pretending you’re not trying to sleep. It’s like walking in circles around a house you want to enter, but the door will only open after you forget the house is there. If I think, even for a moment, about how tired I am, or how late it is, or what time I have to get up, I am transported back to full wakefulness and the clock restarts.
Although it’s probably an anxiety thing, I’ve had trouble sleeping far longer than I’ve had a mental health diagnosis. As a child, I used to stay up way past my bedtime reading under the covers, but when I tried to break the habit, I just lay awake, wondering if I’d somehow atrophied my ability to fall asleep. Sleeping over at my best friend’s house, I lay awake staring at her Kurt Cobain poster. We’d stayed up way past midnight watching Insomniac Music Theater on VH1, but after tossing and turning for an hour while she snored peacefully, I sneaked back downstairs and turned the TV back on. That’s when it occurred to me that “insomniac” didn’t just refer to late-night music videos, but to me.
My racing mind doesn’t shut off properly. I distract myself by reading in low light until my eyelids are heavy curtains, but when my head hits the pillow I remember that I’ll only get seven hours of sleep if I lose consciousness right this second, and I’m back where I started.
My daughter doesn’t sleep easily either. She was born near midnight, after a solid thirty-six hours of trying to induce my partner into active labor, first at home and then in the hospital. Totally fucked up on adrenaline, bliss, and exhaustion, we spent ages carefully swaddling her and lulling her to sleep, but when we finally laid her in her bassinet around three a.m., she wailed. I took off my t-shirt and rested her on my chest, skin to skin. She smelled like heaven even though there was still blood in her hair. I sat up in the armchair, half-awake, holding her until my arms ached from her nearly nonexistent weight so my partner could get a few hours of sleep. I thought this would be a one-time event, that I should savor every moment of it.
But back at home, she still wouldn’t tolerate being set down. We built nests of pillows to prop ourselves up in bed so she could sleep on one or the other of our chests, taking turns throughout the night. The beautiful crib my partner’s mother gave us as a baby present became a convenient place to keep stuffed animals when she wasn’t using them.
“Is she a good sleeper?” people ask. Even when you can only physically do two things, eat and sleep, they still want to know where you rank. “No, she’s not,” I say with a rueful laugh, apologizing to my daughter, now two, in my mind. I’m not a good sleeper either, it’s just that people have stopped asking about me. You’d think that by age thirty I would have acquired the skill, but there’s no practicing sleep. It doesn’t get easier. I’ve paid money for an online class promising to instill good sleep habits and gotten nothing out of it but less money. To be good at sleep is not mastery, but luck.
At night, my partner nurses our daughter to sleep, but during the day, it’s just me and her, and I’m milkless. Like me, she has to be tricked into sleeping, distracted from her goal until she stumbles onto it. I used to rock her to sleep in my arms, singing every song I could think of, low and slow. Now it takes a dark room, a stack of books. I breathe slow, try to relax my shoulders so hers will slump by sympathetic magic. I stare at her eyelashes as they flutter, flutter, drop. Or don’t. Sometimes we read for hours and she never drifts off, and eventually, exhausted and disheartened and a failure of a parent, I open the window shade again. The sunlight falls across our bed like a reproachful glare. This is your fault, it murmurs. I am teaching her to do exactly what I do: toss and turn and do everything except simply go to sleep.
I don’t believe in sleep training. Not in the way I don’t believe in guns, but in the way I don’t believe in God; I know it’s worked for some people, but I can’t imagine it working for me. I have no faith in sleep. Much of the sleeping advice suggests children learn to “cry it out,” that once they get over their fear of being alone they’ll realize how easy and wonderful it is to just close your eyes and drift off. But I know that being abandoned to the emptiness of a wakeful night is an incomparable loneliness. Insomniacs don’t cry ourselves to sleep, but to an emptied-out, dry-eyed consciousness that lasts forever. “She has to learn how to self-soothe,” people say, but how can I ask of her what I don’t know how to do myself?
I’m not sure if there is a genetic component to insomnia, but even if there were, there is no genetic component to my parenthood. Whatever my daughter has inherited from me did not come through DNA. Instead, it comes through my behavior, my choices, whatever she, at two years old, has already absorbed about me. My partner and I, treading water in oceans of debt, joke that if we really wanted to punish our child we’d write her into, not out of, our wills. I have nothing to hand down but my burdens.
The plan was always to get work done while she’s napping. Writing, cleaning, catching up with friends, all the things people expect you to have time for when you’re home with a child all day. Then I spend an hour with her in my arms, reading stories in a sing-song whisper, smelling the top of her head, the fake vanilla of her shampoo mixed with sweat and sunscreen. When she finally sags, heavy against my shoulder, I lower her with painstaking slowness onto the pillow, exhausted, drained, my eyelids heavy, and I curl my arm around her and lay my head beside hers, my lips close to her forehead. And then I still don’t fucking fall asleep.
Sometimes when she won’t sleep any other way, I put my daughter in the car seat and drive. We circle the neighborhood listening to quiet music, an act that’s three parts desperation, one part selfishness. Driving soothes me, too: It’s one of the only times my anxiety permits me a break from multitasking. If my daughter is buckled into her car seat, I don’t have to divide my attention between what’s in front of me and keeping her out of trouble or danger. I watch the top of her head in the rear view mirror as it lists toward her shoulder. Some of the tension goes out of my neck. Moving without going anywhere tricks us both into stillness.
I am a hypocrite. I tell my daughter things I don’t do myself. Every parent does, I’m sure: “No sweets before dinner” while stashing cookies in the freezer; “Look where you’re going,” with our eyes on our phones. I want my daughter to be better than the example I am capable of setting for her. So I tell her, Settle down, you need to rest. And I drink coffee and stay up too late. I have terrible dreams and try to fall back into them on waking, because I crave sleep even when it feels like an affliction. Be careful. Don’t hurt yourself. Blood in my mouth from chewing the insides of my lips. How can I expect her to be wiser than I am?
Everyone knows that parents want their children to have more. It comes up when we talk about poverty, about hunger—those whose childhoods were defined by scarcity want their children to have full bellies, sturdy furniture, enough material things to ground them in the world. I grew up solidly middle-class, wearing thrift store clothes so my parents could save for my college education, not so we could eat. What I covet for my daughter is different. I want her to know, not that she has enough, but that she is enough. I don’t want her to lie awake at night counting all the ways she’s failed that day like rosary beads. I want her to have moments, not just once in a while but every day, when no part of her body is tensed with dread.
I know it’s dangerous to impose my own dreams onto my daughter—to try to live vicariously through her well-adjustedness like an emotional pageant mom. I know if I push her too hard in any direction she’s likely to rebound off into exactly what I hoped to avoid. I know I can’t give her all the pieces to build herself into a self; so much of what she is will be what she finds on the way.
It amazes me when parents are self-righteous, when they reject unsolicited advice with comments like “I know what’s best for my child.” One-liners like that are a way to set boundaries against the onslaught of conflicting wisdom all parents become subject to, but I know they must be bluffing. Who would believe they truly know what’s best? What does it feel like to not second-guess your every decision, then second-guess your second-guessing because if you’re not confident enough you might undermine your baby’s sense of stability?
Apparently there are people in the world who think, I am so good the way I am. I want to raise my children just like me— or at least who can claim to think that with some degree of credibility. People who don’t wear their insecurities as close to the surface as I do. My greatest fear is that my daughter will turn out like me. If I knew what it took to make a person healthy, confident, resilient, brave—all the things I hope she will be—I would have tried those techniques on myself first.
How do I give her what I do not possess? How to instill a sense of calm over the sound of my own panicked heartbeat? How do I teach her letting go, when my hands are still gnarled in the shape of everything I’ve ever lost?
All these metaphors are crumbly and numb. I am afraid of my fear. That’s all it is. I’m afraid that being afraid will teach my daughter to be afraid.
In the morning, after a long night of bedtime struggles, bad dreams, and what felt like hours of trying to soothe her back to sleep, I watch my daughter’s peaceful face and wish I didn’t have to wake her. Every moment of precious rest is so hard-won that, like me, she resists letting go. Insomniacs like to sleep in. “It’s time to get up, sweetheart,” I whisper too softly to be heard. I want a few more minutes in the dark and quiet, too, watching my child breathe. There are so few moments when we’re both simply still.