It happened at my son’s soccer game, one day last summer. We got there early, and as he was warming up, I dozed off right there in the front seat our minivan and woke up halfway through the game.
This was not intentional.
Moments later, I staggered out and took my position on the sidelines. But that’s when I made eye contact with my 10-year-old, who gave me a twisted-lip look of disgust.
As we drove home after the game, Tristan turned to me and said, “I can’t believe you fell asleep at my game, Dad!” My heart sunk.
In that moment, I wanted to explain it to him — that I have insomnia, but not the kind where you go days without sleeping like the narrator in Fight Club. My problem is that I can’t fall asleep easily, and I don’t stay asleep for very long.
I wanted to tell him that the night before I was up at least four times, probably 30 minutes to an hour each time, wandering the house, getting online, reading a book. It’s all pretty normal for me because it’s all I’ve ever known. But at the same time, it isn’t all that normal to be the dad in the van dozing off at his son’s soccer game, as if he’s nursing a hangover.
And sure, if the roles were reversed, and I caught my father sleeping during one of my games growing up, I’d probably be pissed too. But I also know that if my dad explained to me that he couldn’t sleep at night and it caused him to sometimes drift off during the day, I wouldn’t care; because that’s ultimately the way 10-year-olds operate.
I think that’s one of the hardest parts of parenting with insomnia. Kids don’t really care because they don’t get it. They don’t slow down, and they don’t give you much slack; they just keep on moving along, living their little kid lives without a care for the fact that your eyes are bloodshot most of the time, and you sometimes agree to things a well-rested person would never in a million years agree too.
I know this because I’m pretty sure my father had the same problem. I remember him up in the middle of the night, wandering around the house, getting snacks from the pantry, or watching TV. I remember thinking it was odd, but it wasn’t until I was older that I began to wonder if him being up in the night was the reason he often fell asleep in the daytime. And when I’ve thought about this in recent years, I’ll often get this pit in my gut, wondering if I’ll pass my insomnia on to my own children one day.
The thing is, I was pretty good at managing my sleeplessness before having kids. If I went to bed at the same time, and got up at the same time, and gave myself a good enough window of time for sleep — say, 10 hours or so — I was pretty functional. But now, with three kids 10 and under, nighttime feels like two gears turning in different directions; my insomnia moving to the east, and my kids to the west.
Sometimes, I swear, as soon as a fall asleep, my 3-year-old is leering over me like Michael Myers, eager to inform me that her sock fell off. Or my 7-year-old needs a glass of water. Or my 10-year-old is afraid of something he can’t quite describe that’s lurking under his bed.
I get up with them, then I fall asleep again, and wake up once more for no apparent reason. Back and forth, up and down. That’s what it’s like for me in the night.
And you know, my wife and I, we split the night shifts. We take turns. And although it feels like double the ups and downs between getting up for my kids and getting up for my insomnia, the reality is, I refuse to put the full burden of nighttime childcare on my wife. Which is why I slog through it.
So yeah, I fall asleep when we watch movies sometimes. And sure, I’m not always, 100%, fully focused because I’m in a fog between being awake and being asleep. I have a heated love affair with diet soda, which I am aware can make the situation worse, but at the same time, it makes the days go so much easier.
And while I wasn’t sure how to explain this all to my son that day, while driving home from his soccer game, I have surely discussed it with my wife. There have been times when I couldn’t fall asleep for the life of me — and then, the moment I did, one of the kids woke me up. And although it was my shift in the night to take the kids, I’ve explained the situation, and she’s gotten up instead. Because even though she doesn’t fully understand what I’m dealing with, my wife has enough empathy to crawl out of bed and pitch in.
Now don’t get me wrong, she isn’t always happy about it. And I can’t say I blame her. I mean, no one enjoys getting up in the night with their children. (Seriously: NO ONE!) But she’s there for me when I need her, and that makes a huge difference when it comes to marriage and partnership — particularly when you’re struggling with something that is simply out of your control.
I thought about all of this as I drove Tristan home from the game. He was looking out the window, not speaking to me and I hadn’t yet tried to explain myself. The truth is, I didn’t really know how. We were almost home when I finally asked, “Have you ever noticed me up in the night?”
He tugged at one of his shin guards and thought for a moment. Then he nodded.
“I don’t sleep well,” I told him. “I’m up a lot in the night. I can’t stay asleep. I’ve always been this way. It kind of sucks.”
He turned when I said that, his big blue eyes looking directly at me. By now we were parked in our driveway.
“That happens to me sometimes,” he said. And when he said “sometimes,” it seemed obvious that he really meant “a lot.”
“I just lie in my room and look at the ceiling. Or I look out the window.”
What he described sounded pretty familiar. It reminded me of when I was his age.
“I had a night like that last night,” I said. “I was pretty tired. I didn’t mean to fall asleep at the game, but it was an accident. I’m sorry.”
He let out a breath just then and said, “It’s okay.”
And although I felt a pang of nervousness when he said it, I was also struck by something unexpected in that moment: I felt a connection with him about something few people I know truly get.
I don’t want my son to struggle with insomnia like I do, but there is something about having a shared struggle that made me feel closer to him, and I felt hope that I’d help him understand that what he was going through is manageable, and provide him with something I didn’t have when this all started: a loving guide.