A Catholic Parent Takes on the Challenges of Parenting

Every day, the cross, with joy!

Monday, January 20, 2014

On Sleep Deprivation

Ever since I became a parent, I've been particularly struck by the way the Desert Fathers - those early Christians who lived extreme ascetical lives in the desert - embraced sleep deprivation as a spiritual practice. And indeed, I think it is a good idea to be a hermit in the desert if one of your key spiritual practices is sleep deprivation. Because, let's be honest, without adequate sleep it can be very hard to interact patiently and kindly with other people, even (gasp!) if those people are your children or even more so perhaps (gasp! gasp!) your spouse.

And yet, those of us aware of Catholic tradition cannot deny the fact that sleep deprivation or sleep interruption are a part of our history. Aside from the Desert Fathers, we also have the example of religious communities who interrupt their sleep to pray during the night hours. Then there is also long-standing traditions of vigil and midnight Masses that are truly vigils lasting until the next morning.

I've jokingly suggested in the past that maybe the origin for those night hours of prayer came from the knowledge of the lives of parents and a desire to match those sacrifices.

The truth is that parenting involves a 24 hour on-call shift, pretty much seven days a week. My first ever all-nighter was the 5:40 a.m. birth of our first child, and we've been on call ever since. Nor was that first night the last time that being a parent caused sleep deprivation. It is easy to list possible causes of parental sleep deprivation, beginning with the nighttime care required by a newborn. Then there's changing a toddler's wet bed sheets or hearing a five-year old fall out of bed. Later on, there's lying awake in bed waiting for a teenager to come home. And, as a final example, there's that rare (although not rare enough) combination of vomit and sleep deprivation (St. Anthony of the Desert would be envious!).

Sleep deprivation is a real mortification, a genuine death to self that can become an opportunity to grow closer to God, uniting our own struggles to the passion of Jesus Christ. And this is why the Desert Fathers embraced it. That nighttime opportunity to praise God is why the monks rose out of bed in the darkness to shuffle into the chapel and chant psalms.

Of course, for the Desert Fathers and these monks, this was an active mortification; a sacrifice that they knowingly and willingly made and embraced in following their vocation. For those of us who are parents, we often find ourselves unwillingly thrust into situations of sleep deprivation. For example, exhausted at the end of a long day, you drift off to sleep quickly...then wake at the sound of a crying baby at midnight, who you pick up just in time for him to vomit on you...and then, after cleaning up yourself and the baby, and possibly the crib you finally drift off to sleep again...only to be awakened by your husband informing you that your toddler has just vomited on her bed...and then your kids all wake up promptly at 6:00 a.m. as usual, begging you to get out of bed to make them breakfast...after mumbling something incoherent you stumble out of bed, stepping barefoot onto a misplaced toy car...making you angrily snap at whoever is near you. And you wonder when you signed up for this part of parenting and if there's any possible way to revise the contract.

Well, there isn't. So another approach is like that of the Desert Fathers - we can embrace it as part of our vocation. Fortunately, for us it's not an active mortification; we're not purposely depriving  ourselves of sleep on a regular basis. Sometimes we may even sleep all night uninterrupted - hooray! But when our sleep is interrupted, we may as well make the best of it spiritually and accept it as a passive (involuntary) mortification.

Here are a few ideas that might help:
1. First, get to bed at a decent hour. If you hit a rough patch of nighttime parenting, you may need to cut out your relaxation/social time in the evening and turn off your lights an hour earlier than usual. Sometimes this is the hardest part, but it is crucial preparation for making sleep deprivation spiritually meaningful rather than the natural cause of anger and occasion for sin.

2. Say a Night Offering, so as to offer all of your nighttime parenting to God and prepare yourself for the possibility that you will be awakened that night.

3. Use nighttime wakefulness as an opportunity for prayer. If you aren't coherent enough to think of much, it may help to repeat some memorized prayers. The Memorare is a good one because it enlists the help of the Virgin Mary. So also, you might turn to the Rosary. If you are feeling more penitential, you could recite an Act of Contrition or Psalm 51 repeatedly. And of course, there's always the sturdy "station," that is, an Our Father, Hail Mary and Glory Be.

4. Enlist the help of your spouse when necessary. Have clear expectations as to who is responsible for what, e.g. one gets up during the night, one gets up with the kids in the morning.

5. Do your best to try to rest when you get the chance during the day. If you're feeling sleep deprived, avoid taking on overwhelming projects or tasks. Pray for supernatural rest and patience with your kids and others around you. Remember that this stage of parenting is temporary.

6. If there's a sleep deprivation pattern akin to that practiced by the Desert Fathers, do an evaluation of the situation so as to address the problem before you end up sneaking off to the desert and becoming a hermit simply so you can get some shut-eye in your private cave. If the situation is caused by babies or toddlers, I suggest Elizabeth Pantley's No Cry Sleep Solution books.

Jesus was awake all night in the Garden of Gethsemane prior to his passion. He prayed, "Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done" (Lk 22:42). So we might also think of him and not be afraid to ask God to remove the cup of sleep deprivation. But if that doesn't happen as we would like, we might as well sanctify our night hours, rather than miss an opportunity to grow closer to God.

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