Few things in life are certain: death, taxes, and for parents of small children, sleeplessness. Parental sleep deprivation is a right of passage—passage from childless freedom to the tight and unrelenting bonds of parenthood. A passage, yes, but it is no journey for it happens too quickly. One day you’re footloose and child free, the next you’re responsible for every bodily function of another being. It’s an impractically brief transition of almost incomprehensible consequence. But it is inevitable and you must adapt. The rapid transformation required cannot occur without a metamorphosis of the self and any metamorphosis of the self worth its salt includes sleep deprivation. It’s nature’s way of deprogramming. It helps you forget what you think you used to be before you have time to realize what you’ve become.
What you’ve become is a zombie—not the window-smashing, flesh-eating sort but a zombie nonetheless. Something in you has died, yet in some sense you live on. You have a pale complexion, bloodshot and twitching eyes, and a lurching gait. You communicate with grunts, wear rags, bathe infrequently, and shield your eyes from the glare of daylight. People bring you food when they visit hoping you’ll eat it instead of their brains. Though you look and feel like a monster you are not. All the beauty and virtue that is parenthood is within you. A new sort of kindness has blossomed in your heart—and sent runners upward to make prune dip of your mind.
This process of transformation imposed on parents by a newborn can seem like suffering but it isn’t. It’s not suffering because when it comes to suffering intent matters and the newborn’s intent is wholesome. She seeks fulfillment of basic needs to which we’re all entitled: sustenance, warmth, cleanliness, and eructation. If parenting includes suffering then it comes later when the intent is bellicose and there is rage, and wailing and the slamming of doors that speak of hormones and homework and boyfriends and the yearning for acceptance by peers and an out-of-state college. Or it is later still when the intent is at best benign and indifferent and there is payment of painfully exorbitant sums to an out-of-state institution renown for erudition and insobriety to which acceptance was mercifully granted.
Mercy, even for and by zombies, isn’t hard to find if you aren’t too proud and you know where to look. Nature robs new parents of sleep but also provides several measures of defense and remedy. Even when the host body is awake most of the parent-zombie brain shuts down to rest. In turn one or another brain function remains alert and is charged with operating the whole parental unit even though each function really only has expertise in one specific activity like watching television or weeping or eating carbohydrates. Like the poor, forgotten Secretary of Agriculture ordered not to attend the State of the Union in case disaster befalls the rest of government, this solitary brain function really isn’t capable of governing the whole, which is why new parents seem so distant and emotional and are always eating so much pasta and ice cream.
Sleep deprivation can induce strong emotions. In part this is due to the fact that being awake at night can be painfully isolating. It’s the adult equivalent of the nerd in the locker room of popular jocks. You feel as if everyone else is having fun and sleeping around but you are having none of it. Naps are of no psychological solace. They’re not real sleep. They’re the postcards of sleep, cruel little notes from the cool kids: “Having a blast! Don’t you wish you were here?” You can clutch that postcard tight to your chest, close your eyes, put on the right music, and for a moment feel like one of them. But it is just for a moment because this is a nap and soon you will be jerked back to the reality that zombies, like nerds, don’t run with the cool crowd. The baby might as well be screaming, “Wake up! Time to get your braces tightened and pick up your corrective shoes.”
You are in a club though, just a different sort. Most people don’t notice this club of parent-zombies until they’re in it. Once in it, you see members everywhere. When you venture out among the living you notice them and exchange grunts and winces. Those disheveled dads with three days of beard growth juggling lattes and infants and cell phones and those moms in sweats, sunglasses, and baseball caps hauling purses and infant car seats and shopping bags—they’re zombies too. There are also zombies who’ve escaped their domestic shackles and are out sans infant. They’re easily identified as the ones who look like they should be having a good time but really aren’t because instead of going to dinner and a concert what they’d really rather do is drive deep into the woods, recline the seats, and get four consecutive hours of sleep. But that wouldn’t be cool so they’re out and about, falling asleep in their $30 dishes of pasta and checking their watches.
You may also observe that there is mercy in the heart of the parent-zombie. Some possess a sensitivity to the needs of their fellow club members, an awareness that the undead spirit within them has undied in others too. Zombies who are moved by such compassion will perform acts of kindness for their zombie friends like home delivery of pasta and baked goods. This benevolent nature even exists in some recovered zombies who may reach out to those they do not know but sense are in trouble. For example, you may see the mother at the grocery store pushing the cart with the crying infant with one hand and pulling the wailing toddler with the other. She may say an unkind word or two to the toddler in tow as the tantrum escalates. The uncharitable judgment of nearby shoppers is palpable as the toddler goes limp and collapses to the floor. Much writhing and shrieking and beating of tile ensues. Mercifully, one shopper emerges from the crowd and offers, “Would it be helpful if I pushed your cart to the checkout?” The mother, thankful for the assistance, scoops up the maelstrom of limbs and spit and, over its emanating cacophony of indecipherable and surely unreasonable demands, expresses her gratitude for the assistance. “No problem. I had two these ages once,” is said in reply but what is meant is “I understand for I was once a zombie too.”