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The Hallucinatory Hell Of No Sleep And A New Baby

08/05/2011 07:04 am ET | Updated Oct 05, 2011

For the first two months of my daughter's life, my wife and I never had a real conversation. Everything revolved around our child. Sleep came in 2 - 4 hour increments. Days went by in a haze. Shopping did not happen, and we had to remind each other to brush our teeth. One evening, Annmarie was making pancakes (in this alternate sleep-deprived universe, time shifts so that breakfast and dinner trade places). She had cracked the eggs, and went back to the fridge for milk. All gone. Then she had an epiphany. We were not, technically, out of milk. She grabbed some stored breast-milk from the fridge and was about to stir it into the eggs. Her sanity returned just in time.

Lack of sleep does this to people. I have been tired before, but nothing like what I experienced as a new father. Going through survival school as a Navy pilot, I once went four days without sleep. It was the first and only time I hallucinated -- the ground seemed to be pulsating with glowing silver spiders. The exhaustion one experiences as a new parent is less trippy, but more insidious. It creeps up slowly, making you do crazy things without realizing it, like mixing human breast-milk into pancake batter, or thawing a frozen turkey in the back of a hot car to save time, then forgetting about it for a whole weekend.

Theories abound, but science still has not explained why we spend one third of our lives almost entirely idle. For some researchers, the way we dream holds the answer. Sleep may be our way of processing the day's experiences. Under normal working conditions, the human brain burns more calories than any other part of the body. That is why the head is the warmest. Sleep gives our brain time to rest and catalogue. It is as if our head is a giant filing cabinet that needs to be sorted every night or it will overflow.

At least that's one theory. I have my own idea, and it has nothing to do with filing cabinets. It derives from the observation that of all the fauna that surrounds us, only a few organisms require brain rest. Sharks and bugs may slow down, but they don't really sleep. That adaptation is reserved for us. For higher mammals, sleep is a gift. I am not talking about our personal sleep, though I like a summer nap on the couch as much as anyone. What I am referring to is our children's sleep, those blessed moments when our young finally pass out.

Rearing one's offspring is the most important, and most demanding, job on the planet. This makes perfect sense -- evolution dictates that the only imperative in life is to pass on genetic material and ensure one's progeny survives long enough to do the same. But as reasonable as this seems in biology class, it makes no sense at 3 am when your child won't stop screaming and you cannot figure out why.

Sometimes, parents need a break. I have tried to imagine what life would be like if Katie never slept. Even if my requirement for sleep disappeared with hers, I would go crazy. Sleep is the only time that human babies do not need attention, and therefore the only time parents get for themselves. After her first few months of life, Katie's sleep began to stretch out. Annmarie and I began to talk again. We found time to shop, to get a babysitter and catch a movie, to brush our teeth. I stopped worrying about breast-milk in the pancakes. Sleep, if this theory holds, is evolution's gift to parents, a chance to set their children down and forget for a moment that genetic continuity is at stake.

As theories go, mine seems as good as any other based in science. That assumes, of course, that biological rules apply. When I see Katie sleeping, I know beyond any doubt, and utterly without proof, that science withers in the face of love. The reason Katie sleeps is not to rest her brain or to allow my wife and me time to talk. It is so I can watch my little girl at perfect peace and lay my head down to feel her warm breath. If evolution has any power here, it is only to make me love her so much that I might stay awake for all eternity, just to keep her safe.