The Miracle of Enough Sleep


It is a breathtakingly beautiful early summer morning – sunny, cool, dry – and for once I do not have mixed feelings about being awake to appreciate it. I am not a morning person. Never was, never will be. I am awake because I have to be but I can also say that I have had enough rest. This is new.

Last Friday night I slept for 12 hours. I don’t think I’ve done that in the 20 years since I had my first child. We had an early dinner and I fell asleep on the sofa, moved upstairs to bed at 1am and then woke up at 8am. I was aware of bedtime routines and kisses good night but everyone seemed to know what they were supposed to do and follow through. After a week of 5-6 hours a night, that sleep was not only needed, it was transformative. I faced a busy weekend not with fantasies of a nap but with energy and enthusiasm and a sense of emotional flexibility that often just isn’t possible.

SONY DSCI thought about the parents who have gone for years without even those 5-6 hour nights I’m whining about, and I am thinking about them again this morning. Sleep deprivation plagues many people for many reasons. For those who are awake because they have a sleepless child who requires constant supervision, the exhaustion is complete and relentless. Even on nights when the kids manage to sleep through the predawn hours, parental eyes pop open anyway, expectant of the footsteps that may or may not patter down the stairs. Knowing that the child is asleep doesn’t mean going back to sleep for another hour or two. Usually, worry fills in until they do wake up. It’s a hard pattern to break.

For those of us who face the day bleary eyed and worn out, I hold out for the promise and possibility of the restorative power of sleep. We don’t create sleep deficits on purpose – many children on the autism spectrum have intractable sleep issues and keep parents up until all hours, and we use the few hours while our kids do sleep to do things they can’t get done when the kids are awake. It’s just as important for our kids that we are rested as it is for us – people who’ve had enough sleep have more patience and make better decisions. If you can find a way to accomplish that magic 7 hours of rest, it is worth striving for.  Jane Brody wrote an informative essay on the health risks posed by sleep deprivation – it’s good tool for advocating with family and caregivers to let you cobble together a longer night or a decent nap.

SONY DSCI can’t blame autism for my sleep problem entirely. My boy is a better sleeper than most; it is the other obligations (obsessions?) and the worry that keep me awake.  I enjoy the quiet, peace and dark of late nights. I love being awake when everyone else is asleep. Books and movies are more fun in the dark. For years I sat in the dark on the floor of my boys’ room, waiting for them to go to sleep. As much as that process was driven by necessity, worry and confusion, I genuinely loved those moments sitting (sometimes writing) by the glowing night-light and waiting for the steady breathing and gentle snoring that arrived with their slumber. By the time I tiptoed out, no matter how crazy the day had been, we were all in love again. I wanted to savor that feeling and not go to sleep right away myself. I needed some time to wallow in the normalcy of sleeping children and talk to my husband uninterrupted. Still, there were times when I konked out on the floor before they did.

One gift of adolescence is that it brings kids who sleep in, when school allows it. This break in our summer program leaves my boy in bed at 9am still asleep. I never dared to hope there would be a time when he would master a self-directed bedtime routine at reasonable hour and sleep in on a sunny morning, even with sun streaming through the skylight directly on his bed. It might not sound like a miracle, but in its way it is. It gives me time to write this, time to think up some structure for this unstructured day, time to appreciate the breeze though the open windows after a week of hot and humid weather.

Peace of mind and enough sleep – I don’t think I can have one without the other, and having learned this lesson (again) I am going to try not to forget it.

PS: This is my 100th post. Woot.


Saturday Moment: “Is THAT the Holy Child?!” The Pieces Fall into Place at Mass.

The Scene

Our church as it looked in January 2013

For many reasons going to Mass is a production for us (I documented some of our more memorable visits), and so we do not attend as regularly as I would like. The politics of the Vatican in recent years did little to stoke my religious fervor but we do make frequent trips to the empty church to say prayers for those we love, and in particular to remember the young friend my son lost to leukemia last year. The choice of Pope Francis I last week led us to venture to Mass this past Saturday afternoon, in honor of the forgiveness, renewal, and the promise of a fresh start his papacy and this Easter season may hold for all of us. It didn’t hurt that our boy, after a sigh, seemed willing to brave the crowd if it meant a chance to recall his friend. So off we went, arriving early so we could get a seat with a good view of the altar and the Blessed Sacrament.

We usually sit in the front section a few rows back. Hanging from the vaulted ceiling high over and in front of the altar is a massive crucifix with a fairly graphic representation of Christ. It has always been there, in that spot. There we sat, with my boy and his iPod open to a picture of his friend. He had used the paint app to put a yellow halo on his head, and he held it up high so that it faced the Blessed Sacrament. As I reached up to lower his arm gently he looked at me in alarm, pointing to the crucifix as if seeing it for the first time.

“Is THAT Jesus?!” he said in a stage whisper. I nodded, two fingers presses to my lips to remind him to speak quietly and to keep myself from smiling.

“Is THAT the Holy Child?!” Suddenly, the connection between Christmas and Easter began to forge in his mind.

“What HAPPENED?!” I told him we would talk about it later but the questions kept coming.

“Is he dead? Who killed him? See the blood?” He turned the iPod so his angel friend could see, too. That almost did me in.

Finally, in the car I did my best to tell him the full narrative, Christmas to Easter, promising him that we will go back during Holy Week and see the stations of the Cross that tell the entire story of the Crucifixion. He was wary, and raised his hand, palm toward me.

“I’m good.” Then he thought for a minute, playing something in his head. I mentioned that we have a movie at home that tells the story of Jesus.

“Wait! I get it!” And then he did a perfect imitation of the announcer’s voice on the preview from one of his Christmas videos:

“JESUS of NAZARETH!! That’s him!” It only took, like, fifteen years.

When we returned home he bounded up the stairs to say hello to his sister. She came downstairs, laughing.

On this visit in January he didn't even notice the crucifix.

At that point he didn’t even notice the crucifix.

“What happened? He came up to my room, jumped on my bed and said church was AWESOME. He never does that when he comes home from anything, ever.” I told her everything, and she went up to his room and hugged him. A while later he emerged and called down to me, standing at the railing where I could see him.

“Mom, does Jesus make our hearts happy?”

His smile, his voice, and the way he had his hands clasped over his heart told me it wasn’t really a question.

Saturday Moment: What Are You Going to do With Me?

Dinner out earlier this week

Dinner out earlier this week

It’s the end of one crazy week and the start of another. We’ve had almost every kind of moment – panic attacks, unrequited love, dancing for joy, teenage rebellion, violations of personal space, bursts of creativity, and early morning hugs before school that reset our relationship from whatever happened the day before. And today an exchange – scripted, yes, but genuine all the same – that is both typical and necessary following transgressions large and small:

Me: “You need to stop ______, please.”

Him (hands on hips, smirk on lips): “What are you going to do with me?!”

Me (deadpan): “Love you forever.”

Him (nodding): ” That’s what you’re gonna do.”


When they were handing out Christmas Spirit, he got in line twice

We volunteered to throw the class Christmas lunch at our house and found ourselves in major prep mode. The light snow that had been falling all day put us in just the right spirit. When walked into the supermarket they were playing a snappy version of Jingle Bells. Our boy started to bop a little as he walked in time to the music; I did, too. We bumped shoulders a little and headed toward the bakery, bopping together. I was lost in the moment, having fun.

“Hey there!” Busted, dancing in the store, by the mother of a classmate of my daughter – someone I know well enough to be a Facebook friend but not so well that I didn’t feel sheepish. I threw up my hands.

“Okay, you caught us dancing the supermarket! We are modeling good holiday behavior!” He was bopping off without me so I had to move on, but we left her smiling. When I caught up with him he was very busy at a table piled high with Christmas cookies.

“We have to move these cookies to allow the train to go through!” Among the piles of cookie boxes there was indeed a buried train setup. The cookies were encroaching on the tracks and had dislodged the train from its proper spot. He worked quickly and efficiently, keeping the cookies in neat piles but reorganizing them so they would not interfere with the train setup. He was the spitting image of his father in every wonderful way, so I took a picture to e-mail his traveling Dad and tell him how we’d been caught dancing.


When I finished sending the mail on my phone I looked up and the teenager who works in the bakery was standing a few feet away, watching us in bewilderment. She had come out from behind the counter to watch us warily and I saw it dawn on her that he was doing a good job, and was improving on what I assumed to be her cookie arrangement.


He finished up and surveyed his work with folded arms, pleased as punch.

“There! That’s better!” I looked at the girl.

“Is this okay?” I asked.

She nodded slowly, “Oh, yeah.”

And then he was off.

“C’mon Mom, we have to track down that sneaky pizza crust!”

If there is a future in holiday cookie displays, we are in great shape.

A Different Kind of Storm

Hurricane Sandy may have passed, but clouds remain on our horizon. I’m not yet ready to post about our boy’s ordeal over the past couple of weeks, but as we stumble through the second day of weather-related school cancellations I see a furrowed brow and a short temper that prompts me to warn my younger son to cut his older brother a wide berth. Other families face much greater challenges from aggression than we, but I am so conflict-averse that even the rough and tumble of typical adolescent boys sets me on edge. We are all off kilter from too much TV storm coverage and howling wind and pouring rain, followed now by creepy cloudy silence and listless lack of routine. We know we are fortunate to have the power on and the trees intact – it wasn’t our turn this time but who knows what the winter will bring now that we have used two of our snow days.

We read on Facebook about some families taking delight in the drama of storm prep and others – the ones with kids on the spectrum – wary of how no power or school might unsettle their kids. We are somewhere between. My boy slept in the basement last night to protect his trains and animals from the perceived threat of the storm – his strong protective instincts run from cutting trees with Dad to carefully tending to his stuff: the Thomas trains stored in their sheds and Playmobil animals in the barns – even the portable DVD player that is the Sodor Drive-in theatre tucked safely away. Camping on the couch in his sleeping bag is part of what makes him such a beast today even though he came upstairs at dawn and finished his rest in our bed after Dad went to work, his feet looking for mine while he fidgeted in his sleep.

And as I write I hear the boys talk in warm tones and the sun emerges to cast a brighter, wintry light on wet fallen leaves and bare branches. The clouds are expected to come and go with maybe one more wallop of rain from the backside of the storm. We’ll proceed cautiously through today and look forward to the routine of tomorrow – which, I now realize, is Halloween. Oh boy.

Free Us From All Anxiety

I went to Mass alone yesterday.  I usually have someone with me but I decided to go at the last minute; I needed to sort some things through.  It had been the kind of week that gave us a preview of things to come and some reminders of things we hoped were over.  At such times I like to go to Mass and check in with my parents in heaven.  I am grateful for the link they created in the common experience of going to Mass, back when the Church was a haven and when you felt guilty for not going.  Now I feel guilty when I go and when I don’t; betrayal weighs down both sides of the scales. The Golden Rule remains, though, and it is enough to bring me back.  I pray – head down eyes closed most of the time – through every Mass and wait for my favorite phrase:  “Free us from all anxiety as we wait in joyful hope…”  I hang on those words as I have ever since I can remember and they never fail to comfort.  I tell my children this; I do not know if they listen.

And so yesterday I prepared to lay my questions before God and family, knowing that the simple act of unburdening them in this way would bring some measure of peace.  Unlike many other Sundays, I was more confused than desperate. In fact, my issues were pretty typical: I wanted to come to terms with what it means for all of my children to grow up – dating, college, driving, cooking, cleaning, banking, living without me.  My job is to make them independent and if I succeed they leave me and if I fail they stay and drive me crazy.  Lonely versus crazy.  This was the problem du jour.  I needed a plan.

I listened to the priest make a reference to the movie The Exorcist, which I still have not seen because my mother – on the instructions of the Church – forbade it in 1973.  I imagined every kid in that church going home to stream it on Netflix.  I wonder if my own kids would be more terrorized by Linda Blair’s spinning head than they were the first time they saw the bleeding crucifix suspended over the altar.  It made me smile to think of that as we stood for the Profession of Faith.

I looked across the church and up at the balcony (the building is shaped like a cross with the altar in the middle) I saw a father with three boys and the one next to him was clearly autistic, fluttering his fingers and chattering away (but not audibly to me).

Several times after that I saw the Dad forcefully put this hand over the boys’ mouth and whisper in his ear, sometimes enveloping him in his arms as he spoke to him.  They boy did not seem upset or to resist his father’s embrace (the deep pressure probably felt good), but he didn’t appear to comply, either.  The other two children looked away.  The father was losing his cool, unaware that this was playing out in front of dozens of people, focused only on quieting a child who, compared to the toddlers and babies holding forth, was making very little sound.  Feeling both angry and empathetic I wanted to tell him that it isn’t worth it, that if being successful in church requires such physical restraint then maybe he needs to redefine success.  I recalled earlier times when my favorite thing about that cross-shaped church is that it has nine exits – nine ways to escape if (when) things go south.  Sometimes – rarely – we made it all the way through, but the plan of action was the same for Mass as everywhere else we went: don’t go anywhere that you can’t leave, and be prepared to leave at a moment’s notice.  Sit near the door.

The last time we went to church as a family was this past Christmas Eve, and for most of the Mass I stood behind my son – who is taller than me – trying to persuade him to keep the Kermit the Frog he had smuggled in his coat from making an appearance. The conversation went something like this:

“Why did you bring Kermit?”

“So he could hear the singing.”  He shows me that he is holding Kermit’s hands together as if he is praying.  He looks at me and then uses his other hand to clamp Kermit’s mouth closed.  With some effort, I give him a stern look.

“He needs to stay in your coat.” His eyes widened.

“Is it because he is naked?”

Tears of mirth and joy welled up in my eyes to know that he enjoyed the singing and that he was trying so earnestly to understand the impropriety of bringing a large stuffed frog to church.  I remembered how we tried to get him accustomed to the routine of the Mass, but it was never predictable enough – he was constantly startled by people suddenly bursting into song (and I noticed that not everything is sung at every Mass; it is pretty random as far as I can tell).   For him, if it wasn’t a wedding or a funeral, each of which clearly have a purpose, Mass was something to be survived.   With the help of many lovely people, we managed to get him through religious education and to make his First Communion but it was clear that the very stress of going was draining the spirituality out of the whole experience for everyone.  I prayed that the man in the balcony would learn the same lesson, and soon.

Mass with Kermit means progress, albeit the kind I never expected, and I guess that’s the point.  Drawing a map of other people’s lives as a way of defining my own will only take me so far.  Sometimes the most you can do is sit near the door.

Tyranny of the Snowflake Plates

We have plastic plates with white dots on them that look very much like snowflakes, and this morning my boy came in and said, “Mom, you need to put these snowflake plates away.”  All of the holiday stuff was stowed last weekend, but I usually keep these plate out because, well, it’s still winter.  “They are TOO Christmassy.”  he says. “How about we just think of them as polka dot plates?” suggests my clever girl.  Nothing doing.  “Put them away,” he says, “they make me worried.”

Everything its place at its proper moment; this how he keeps from being overwhelmed and thus he structures our lives for us by compelling us to manage the details properly. Sometimes, just so he knows that change is doable, we will do something really crazy like have hamburgers for lunch at home (“It’s not dark!  They are only for dinner!”) or ask him to take a shower in the morning (“HMPH!”).

But this time, on this subzero no school Monday holiday (“No PJs all day, right, Mom?”), I will store the plates away until the day after Thanksgiving, when he will undoubtedly ask for them.

I should probably take the Christmas wreath off of the front porch, too.


PS  The cookies in the photo are salted shortbread cookies and the recipe can be found here.