Co-Sleeping Destroyed My Marriage

Among the many things I should have told my younger self on the eve of his proposal to his future wife, would be to inquire about her stance on co-sleeping.

by Jonathan Daniel Stern
illustration of man sleeping alone on a bed

It’s autumn, the early days, but the sky is darkened by 6 p.m. Bedtime at our house, a modest two-bedroom in New York, is low-grade war. My wife and I have two kids, ages 2 and 4, who sleep in their own room in adjoining beds: one twin-size and one smaller. Next door, we have the smaller room but the bigger family bed. I say “we,” but in actuality, that room is referred to as “Daddy’s Room,” the mattress as “Daddy’s Bed.” My wife co-sleeps with the kids.

Until a few months ago, my wife slept on a twin mattress at the foot of the children’s beds. There was a brief moment of seeming detente — unrealized, in the event — in which that mattress disappeared and a momentary attempt at conjugal co-sleeping was made. But as it has been for most of the past four years, tonight my wife spends her night either sharing our 4-year old’s twin bed or origami’d into the just-larger-than-a-crib mattress of our youngest son. Or, sadder and probably better, she sleeps on the floor of their room on a pile of sheets.

Three-fourths of my family disappears from view around 7 p.m., 7:30 at the latest.

So I putter around. I clean obsessively, watch Outlander and Penn & Teller. I listen to a ton of podcasts. Around 11 p.m. or midnight, I trundle to bed, nursing a single-malt Scotch and deep-seated resentment. This is not how I imagined my life would turn out.

Among the many things I should have told my younger self on the eve of his proposal to his future wife, the mother of his future children, would be to inquire about her stance on co-sleeping. But we were young, in our 20s, in New York City. We were more interested in where to eat that night than imagining the difficult decisions of years to come. But even if I had managed to Outlander my way back to that moment and get the point across, neither young me nor my young bride-to-be would know where to begin. Some things, like co-sleeping or what you do in a street fight, take form only in their moment of fruition.

Seven years in, two kids, and balls-deep in the marriage, co-sleeping has become the climate change of our ménage. At the root of the problem: I am on the side of sleep training; my wife is a proponent of co-sleeping.

First, some context. I am American, born and raised outside Philadelphia. Until 6 p.m. every day, when my mother returned from work, I was left in the care of a babysitter, a woman named Joanna who had a strong Northeast Philly accent, polyester pants, and Brillo-like gray hair. I do not recall my first few years on Earth, neither the days nor nights, but I’m told I spent a few weeks in my parents’ bed — and then quickly transitioned into my own crib and, soon thereafter my own room. I have a sister. My parents divorced when I was 8 years old; I have no memory of them together.

In my household, self-sufficiency was held in high regard. As a toddler, as a child, as a teenager, my sister and I were taught — or rather, made — to understand that one must strenuously advocate for one’s own interest and soothe oneself if those interests are unmet.

My wife’s upbringing couldn’t have been more different. She moved around. Born in South America, she lived there, in Turkey, and the exotic suburbia of New England by the time I met her. Her mother didn’t work; her parents stuck together. According to the stories my mother-in-law tells, she would sit sternly in the children’s room at night, tsking silence, until they all slumbered.

To the best of my knowledge, actual co-sleeping — being in the same bed — was not involved. But, I see now, my wife’s home was infant centric. In my family, the kids were just more planetary bodies.

When our eldest was still a newborn, co-sleeping had not yet become the seismic fault line it is today. Well, the fault line was there, but it was merely a fracture; the tremors were not yet audible underfoot.

Naturally, I supported my wife’s decision to allow the boy into bed with us. For the first few months, it was a delight. For both of us — and, in fact, most new parents — a new baby is a brilliant, blinding flash that stops every cognitive function other than joy and a sense of being overwhelmed. We were first-timers. Everything was already up in the air — why would it matter that our sleeping arrangements had exploded?

Moreover, being green at fatherhood (and relatively green at husbandry), I wasn’t entirely clear on how I felt on the issue. Eventually, my thoughts grew more solid. As other young parents spoke gratefully of children sleeping through the night after difficult but necessary transitions, one thing became clear: Something was amiss in our house.

To be clear, I wasn’t advocating that we throw our son to the sleep demons while we gallivanted about town. We had dutifully moved the boy from our bed to his crib and kept that in our room. (I suppose that is, in some sense, co-sleeping, and, honestly, I had no problem with it. Definitions of co-sleeping range from sharing a bed to sharing a room.) Eventually, when he was 8 or 9 months old, we moved him into his own room, in his own small bed. Visions of watching rom-coms on Netflix and eating paella with friends danced in my head.

This is where the trouble began.

An ancestral instinct awakened in me: The boy should learn to sleep alone. I read the French pediatrician Dr. Michel Cohen’s book The New Basics and, of course, Dr. Richard Ferber’s updated version of Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problems. I found Ferber’s approach the most palatable, though it is somewhat unsettling that one ferberizes a baby as one might vulcanize rubber or pasteurize milk.

The hardcore Ferber Method dictates that parents comfort their crying child at decreasing intervals until, ideally, he slumbers blissfully for hours at a time. This is also called “gradual extinction,” and it is often mistaken for Cry It Out (which is a bit extreme even for me). In fact, Ferber goes to great lengths to explicitly rebut this conflation.

In any case, Ferber posits that a child’s night-waking is normal, but that he or she must learn to self-soothe. Being rubbed or fed back to sleep can inhibit these self-soothing mechanisms. I found myself agreeing completely.

My son must be allowed to find his own way back to sleep, I decided, and my wife should not dash into his room — in blind terror and with high dander — every time he made a sound. But, every night this did not happen, and visions of our blissful family dissolved into a dystopia. Ours became a needy, high-strung brood suffering in a sleep-deprived household.

My wife, meanwhile, claimed my fixation on sleep training was peculiarly American. In her culture, co-sleeping was the norm. And you know what? She happened to be completely correct. In many parts of the world, co-sleeping is the norm. Those kids, largely, turn out just fine. It’s also true that the fixation on sleep training in particular — and self-sufficiency in general — are national fixations. She, in turn, marshaled studies that proved cry-it-out led to infant PTSD.

We each had a thesis, and we defended our own with gusto. It wasn’t fun, but it also wasn’t torture. I look back almost ruefully at those early days when we thought the other person would simply accede to the facts.

Facts, of course, prove futile in the face of conviction. For us, as so often seems the case, they seemed actually to harden the other’s resolve. I vowed to never spend the night in the children’s room (and certainly never spend the night in their bed). My wife, for her part, rarely showed her face in Daddy’s Room; she held my stubbornness against me, just as I held hers against her.

The middle ground, though fertile, was left unoccupied and, unused to human traffic, grew wild and unnavigable.

If phase one of our dispute was marked by exposition, phase two was laced with hot rage. It was also the most destructive. It has just now ended, after three-and-a-half-years, but that’s not necessarily a good thing. Hundreds of emails still clutter my inbox in which my wife linked-to articles supporting her theory that co-sleeping was natural and right. “Parent’s Misled by Cry-It-Out Sleep Training Reports” and John Seabrook’s stellar New Yorker article “Sleeping With Baby,” to name just two.

Her inbox, too, surely must contain the dusty digital bones of my own proffers of evidence. It didn’t matter, not a whit. As each exhibit was dismissed or ignored, the fissures grew deeper between us. At a certain point, it ceased to be about co-sleeping and very much became about how much we valued each other. At least that’s what I think happened. Did I love my wife enough to engage in an activity I thought was deeply unhealthy for her, for our family, and for the children? Did she love me to do the same?

Reduced to its essence, we were two people shouting in a room, each unwilling to come out of the far corner. It occurs to me now, one shouldn’t ask, “Do you love me?,” but rather “Do you love me enough to…” In the financial services sector, that’s called mark-to-market. It’s a reckoning with the real value of an asset.

Did I love my wife? Yes. She, me? Yes. On the scarce occasions we find ourselves alone together and in good enough temper to avoid the minefields, do we have a good time? Yes. But do we love each other enough to acquiesce to co-sleeping? The short answer, sadly, is no.

I end up thinking about oysters a lot. It’s not just because I love oysters. (Though I do. So briny!) Oysters take an irritation and make it into a beautiful pearl. If only my struggles with co-sleeping could have been thus transformed into something shiny and pearl-like. I contemplate this, and then I drink more Scotch and get darker. Though we find pearls beautiful, no one ever asked the fucking oyster what he thought about them.

Years ago, when she was still alive, my grandmother kept some needlepoint on her wall in West Palm Beach: Reinhold Neibuhr’s “Serenity Prayer,” famous in AA meetings and in marriages. To refresh your memory:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change

The courage to change the things I can And the wisdom to know the difference.

This is generally assumed to be a path to a happier marriage. But is it? By now, the hot rage of our co-sleeping dispute has cooled; we have accepted that we’ll never see eye-to-eye on the matter. So yes, regarding the first line of the prayer: I do accept the things I cannot change. But let’s get to the second, the courage to change the things I can.

Had I been wiser, I probably would have realized, as Dr. Ferber eventually did, that whether a child sleeps with his or her parents is immaterial. “What’s really important,” he told Seabrook in The New Yorker, “is that the parents work out what they want to do.” But I was young then, more sure of myself. I should have been more flexible with my wife’s point of view.

I wasn’t, and she wasn’t to mine. It’s those night sorties that spill into daylight battles, turning to total war that darkens the bright skies of marriage, lending it a terminal sickness. Co-sleeping was the casus belli — but the resulting chaos proved fatal.

Do I still believe co-sleeping is a mistake? I do, profoundly. I think it harms the child and bombs the family. But had I realized sleeping together as a family surely beats sleeping alone forever, I might have surrendered my position before it was too late.

READ MORE: How to Move a Co-Sleeping Toddler to Their Own Bed