Sleeplessness & Survival

“How I finally fixed my sleep problems.”

“The secret to a goodnight’s sleep.”

“15 reasons you keep waking up in the middle of the night.”

Should I continue? Our society is obsessed with sleep. From all of the research on the ill effects of not getting enough sleep (or getting too much!) to the tips and tricks for solving sleep problems, it can be endless and overwhelming. As a (still fairly new) mom, I waver between annoyed and angry every time another groundbreaking study reveals that my current sleep patterns are unhealthy and may even lead to an early demise. I’m not one to leave comments on articles, but if I was, my sleep-deprived brain has conjured up many retorts in the late (or early) hours of the night along the lines of: “Middle-of-the-night wake ups are harmful for my REM cycle? How interesting. Let me tell that to my 18-month-old who can’t sleep with the slightest hint of a stuffy nose.”

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Of course, sleep is important. But when you tell a bone-tired parent that rest is within reach with a few easy tips, Mr. Whelan from Reader’s Digest, we’re probably not going to take it well! The natural progression during this sleepless time, then, is to research a more probable solution. And by that, I mean fall into a Google wormhole of community message threads with desperate moms and blog articles about other people’s perfect babies. Both of those nosedive quickly from helpful to hysterical. In fact, I found most blogger’s posts about baby sleeping habits to be just as hopeless as the mainstream tips. After all, what works for one baby will rarely work for another.

It took a while to accept that truth, as logic often requires a clear, rested mind. When our sleep problems were at their worst last year, I read an assortment of sleep training methods. I tried a few, but nothing seemed to work. My son never calmed down enough to soothe himself – instead, he’d just become more angry that I was ignoring him. He didn’t take a binky or like to be swaddled. What was I doing wrong? The only thing that brought me peace, and perspective, during that time was this article from Jennifer Batchelor: “Sometimes Babies Don’t Sleep.” It beautifully outlines the truth that you can’t always train or schedule away these difficult aspects of parenthood. Sometimes, babies just don’t sleep. Sometimes, we aren’t in control. It’s so simple, but it felt groundbreaking to accept that in the midst of exhaustion!

Before having my son, I had never stayed awake for an entire night. I went to bed when I was tired, even if that meant missing out on all-night study sessions or bowing out of a social event early. Then, at exactly 39 weeks and six days pregnant, I started having contractions. Instead of sleeping, I watched movies all night and counted the time between contractions. At 4 am on my due date, it finally seemed like it was time to wake up my husband and head to the hospital. Griffin was born that night around 10 pm and then, between tests and vital checks and everything else, rest still alluded us. I went from 0 to 60 when it came to testing my ability to function without sleep. My sometimes sleep-challenged child was sending me a sign right from the beginning!

Now that he’s 18 months, there are plenty of nights when he sleeps well and I almost forget what we’ve survived to get here. And then he’ll get a cold and his response to the discomfort of a stuffy nose will give me terrifying glimpses into his “man flu” future (mostly joking!). Even so, we’ll have a night without sleep that takes us back to the beginning days of our family of three. I’ll gripe and groan the next morning and add a few more cups to my usual coffee lineup, but I’ll press on.

Because within the harsh frustration of not being able to sleep when it’s all you want to do, a tiny light is flickering to flames. A growing wisdom is replacing my initial motherhood frustrations and insecurities. I’m beginning to recognize how incomprehensible and extraordinary the foundation of trust and selflessness is that results when you are the caregiver of a tiny human; when you cater to their every need. Not sleeping sucks, there’s no denying that. But it shows you how strong you are; how much you can still accomplish when your brain is pounding and your eyes are hazy. And it also demonstrates the limitless love of parenthood.

 

Mom, why didn’t you tell me your job was so hard?

Wine bars, weekend getaways and … diaper wipes?

Hi, I’m a millennial mom. According to the internet, I should be backpacking around foreign countries and writing essays about self-care. I should be posting Instagram photos with mimosas on exotic beaches or so focused on my job that I’m researching freezing my eggs.

Instead, I had a baby in my twenties.

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We’ve all seen the headlines about women shifting away from marriage and waiting longer to have children. Now, I’ve experienced it in the lingering loneliness and disconnect as friends counter my sleepless baby woes with hungover stories of calling in sick at work. I’ve laughed but felt the distance grow as people comment “I can barely take care of myself – much less another human being!” Because that’s the core of it, right? Why would I purposely choose to give up my comfortable life; to hand over my freedom to an irrational tiny human?

I didn’t go into motherhood naively – or so I thought. In fact, I laughably even felt confident. I was the oldest of four and I’d babysat plenty of little ones. I was excited to follow in my mother’s footsteps and add more joy into the family. But even so, I was blindsided by nearly every situation and every emotion that resulted (and I’m not even going to get into the hormones, oye!). About a month after my son was born, I was still recovering physically and emotionally. I was getting sleep only in increments of a few hours at a time. The extent of my brain activity was wondering things like “is it possible to die from a lack of sleep?” and “is it normal that he cries so much?” I was struggling with nursing and my baby was struggling with reflux. I was like most new mothers out there: completely overwhelmed, exhausted and anxiety-ridden.

“Why didn’t you tell me it was so hard?” I accused my mom, who had always made it seem effortless. Why didn’t anyone warn me? How were we possibly going to survive this? She laughed and said she’d asked her mom the same thing after having me. The reality is that everything worth anything in life is hard. And yes, as a millennial, I recognize the humor in even saying that. My generation is notorious for wanting life to come easy; for normalizing immediate gratification, digital dating and one-day shipping. We’re an impatient culture. And there’s nothing that tests your patience more than a newborn.

In our society, we either seem to avoid motherhood or over-glorify it. If you don’t have kids, you’re going to spin class and brunch and making backhanded comments about those who do. On the flip side, if you do have kids, your social media persona includes perfect hair, babies who somehow smile on command and sickeningly sweet captions. What about the rest of us in real life? What about the moms who try to meet for coffee only to slink out after a meltdown or blowout? Or the moms who rush home from a meeting only to be met with a grumpy baby because it’s the afternoon witching hour? We fuel debates between moms vs. not moms or working moms vs. stay-at-home moms, but all we really need is to give each other grace – there are hardships down every path.

I got just as caught up in my preparation for motherhood. I read the books. I imagined life as an Instagram mom. I wanted to puree all of my own organic vegetables but also embody the carefree French mother figure I read about. I decided that my baby would be flexible and he’d love “adult food” and traveling. He’d respond perfectly to sleep training — or maybe he wouldn’t even need it! I created the perfect vision of myself as a mom before I was actually a mom. And then it all changed. My baby was born and he annihilated everything I’d ever known in the best way. He immediately tested my patience, filled me with love and anxiety and every other emotion in the world.

So, Mom, why didn’t you tell me it was so hard? Because it wouldn’t have made a difference. I still would have chosen motherhood over backpacking adventures or boozy brunches. I can enjoy all of that later – but now, I have a toddler to run after. And that’s the shocking, awe-inspiring secret of motherhood: There’s no way to prepare and there’s nothing anyone can say to actually describe it. It alters your concept of time and your purpose. There’s nothing more simultaneously scary and beautiful. It’s so hard because it matters.