A few months ago, I had a baby. Since giving birth, suddenly everyone seems extremely interested in my circadian rhythms: "How much are you sleeping?" has been the main line of inquiry — from friends, acquaintances, and family. Even strangers seem eager to know how tired I am.
At first, I thought this was a benign concern from people who were genuinely worried about my well-being. But I've since learned this is a loaded question, just like "Are you breastfeeding?" And there are no good answers. That's because the sleep question is a proxy for so many personal corners of our lives, from money to interpersonal dynamics with one's partner. And even when it's asked out of innocence and concern, it can end up inadvertently shaming parents for whatever choices they are making at bedtime.
There are legions of assumptions, implicit and explicit, about baby sleep patterns and the parenting decisions that beget them. For example, if your child isn't sleeping, people might assume you're a lax parent, or that you just don't have the fortitude for sleep training. And if your child is sleeping, are you that monster who lets a baby wail for hours in the service of learning to self-soothe?
If you say, "My baby sleeps through the night," you could sound smug and condescending. If you answer that you are bleary-eyed and not sleeping at all, in the age of co-parenting and equalizing gender roles, this opens the door to follow-up questions, like: "Why isn't your partner getting up more? Why are you doing all the nights?" If you divulge that you are getting a solid seven hours because you hired help to do the graveyard shifts, that elicits gasps about how extravagant it is to have a baby nurse. "Are you really parenting if you aren't waking up every three hours?" a scandalized friend might ask.
And heaven forbid a mother admits to co-sleeping with her child to catch a few more winks.
Before you have a kid, sleep is a private matter. But once you have a child, it suddenly becomes public information. And there are so many other previously taboo topics that seem acceptable to ask new parents about — some of which are personal medical and health decisions: Did you get an epidural? Are you breastfeeding? How much weight did you gain while pregnant?
Shouldn't some of these topics — sleep included — be off-limits?
What are people really asking when they ask how much are you sleeping? They are asking about your parenting philosophy — are you a cry-it-out Ferberizer, or a New Age, indulgent child-pleaser? They are asking about your finances, since a good night's sleep is something you can literally buy. They are asking how miserable you are, because among new parents, schadenfreude reigns supreme, and self-doubt and shame are rampant.
Recently, a friend said to me, "We can talk about politics, but please don't tell me how late your child is sleeping in the morning." This touched on a fundamental truth: Sleep is a competitive currency among parents. Whether or not your child is sleeping is a fraught issue; it cuts to the core of so much of what we expect of parents. We use it as a barometer of how "good" our babies are, or how "natural" we are as caregivers. But really, as with so much in parenting, some of it is dumb luck. Some babies are just better sleepers than others, and no matter how many books you buy or hours you dutifully devote to sleep training, your kid still might not sleep.
It's time to cut parents some slack. Please, don't ask them about sleep, or any other yardstick of parenting and early childhood achievement. Conversely, if your new parent friend looks particularly well-rested, don't tell them how good they look. Instead, might I suggest you try a little harder and find something else to talk about? Try to remember what made for fine conversation before your interlocutors procreated. I'd venture to guess that it didn't revolve around nocturnal patterns.