The answer was always no. It was no for a very long time indeed. I won’t tell you how long because I don’t want to scare new mums — years, it was years!! Oh I’m sorry, it was YEARS and YEARS!!!
Enough! Your baby will sleep through really soon; maybe tonight. Max was just Max. My second baby ‘slept through’ at four months (which is to say she slept six hours through the wee-small hours – 11pm until 5am). My third baby was eight weeks the first time and about a 11 months the second time. These things can’t be rushed.
But for you, new mum, maybe tonight. That was always my mantra, always. Either ‘maybe tonight’ or ‘maybe tomorrow’ – both worked okay. Optimism is often the only thing that keeps the sleep deprived awake.
The torment of sleep deprivation is something that really needs to be experienced to know. Unless you’ve slept far less than you need night after night after night for years on end. Unless you’ve been woken up two, three, four, five times a night for months. Unless you’ve slept for no longer than two hours before being woken again, over and over. Unless you’ve truly battled through sleep deprivation, you honestly wouldn’t know. It’s not something you can know.
Most mums know. We know what it’s like to half be in the world. A hologram, dispensing breast milk and snacks, unable to button up a blouse, or walk to the shops, or sit upright, really. The world is hazy around the edges and life is, ironically, all a bit of a dream. Twilight-life is how people who don’t sleep get to dream.
It’s just being a new mother, right? Sleep deprivation is just what you get when you have a baby. Something to put up with and soldier on against. Welcome to Motherhood – rally, good mum, rally. Do not go gentle into that good night.
Ha! Gentle. Good night. Ha!
You know what? The toll of sleep deprivation should never, ever be taken lightly. The smudgy eyed mother with her shirt buttoned up wrongly might be a bit of a joke, but the doing of life is the least of a new mum’s worries. Sleep deprivation makes you sad. It makes you angry. It makes you hungry. It makes you impatient. It makes you lonely.
It makes you exhausted. Just utterly, endlessly, fucking exhausted.
Sometimes, in the thick of it, I wondered if I had PND. I was so blue, so wretched and overwhelmed. The fog of depression seemed an apt description for how I felt on any given day. Getting through the days rather than living them. So, maybe.
But I knew this was sleep deprivation, not PND, not really. That rallying cry was always in the back of my mind: Rally, good mum, rally. And up I would leap, busy doing all the things, laughing off the sleep thing, my thoughts on an endless, hopeful, yearning loop “maybe tonight. Maybe tomorrow.”
Looking back I wonder why I didn’t just somehow demand more sleep. In the early days I was so concerned with Bart not getting up because he had work the next day (little knowing that months down the track we would both have work the next day and still sleep was nowhere in sight). I didn’t want to trouble my mum by asking her to come stay for a while longer – she had already done so much. I didn’t want to knock myself out with a pill or a herb. There would be no lifeline for me, because mothering was the job I signed up for. And mothering meant I was permanently on a double shift. Day followed by night followed by day followed by years. And throughout it all, I barely acknowledged what sleep deprivation was doing to me, let alone did anything about it.
If I could go back, if I could do it all again (and, oh my god, don’t make me), what I would do differently in those early years — what I hope every mum would do differently — is to simply acknowledge the debilitating effect of sleep deprivation. Acknowledge, embrace and forgive. “The floors are not clean because I am too tired.” “I can only come to a cafe if we can walk there because I shouldn’t drive the car today.” “I am being the bitch from hell because I can’t even see straight today.” “Don’t talk to me, I have not got the energy required for conversation.” “I can’t come into work today because I need to stay in bed.”
I would be less likely to laugh at sleep deprivation and more likely to cry about it. To sit quietly and have a little sob, instead of punching through it by keeping busy, busy, busy. I would give up the battle and just surrender to it all. There I would be, curled up fast asleep in the coat pile at weddings. Out cold under my desk on a pile of A4 copy paper. Taking my pillow as a passenger on every car journey. I see myself lying down on the lounge room floor a lot more regularly. Baby and toddlers crawling all over Mount Mama. Just lying there, calmly letting babies and life wash over me, gently dozing.
Did you recognise what sleep deprivation was doing to you at the time?