Naturally, I knew having children would change things – I expected a different lifestyle and imagined welcoming it – I was ready. I was geared up for less trips to the cinema (none), quieter evenings (passing out in front of the TV) and the biggie – some sleep deprivation for the first couple of months (Ha. Ha. Ha).
Tiredness was definitely the thing I heard the most about when I was pregnant, which as a smug, well-rested human didn’t really get the obsession with. I remember one acquaintance with a slight tendency towards the dramatic telling me she still woke at 4 AM every morning, because she had become so used to doing this nightly in the first three years of her son’s life… her son is now 38.
I’m slightly ashamed to say I outright didn’t believe her, and may have actually scoffed in her face a little bit – I’m blaming the rudeness on my pregnancy hormones. But you know what? She was probably telling the truth. I have forever been altered by motherhood, and not just in the heart-filling, life-altering, I-will-never-see-the-world-in-the-same-way-again sense.
That is to say I probably won’t ever see the world in the same way again, because I am always looking at it through either bleary or caffeine-pinned eyes. Loss of sleep, as it turned out, was not just a temporary eight week endurance test to wave me into motherhood with a pat on the back and a ‘You did it!’ badge.
I’m just – well – always a bit tired now. Even when my son sleeps well, it doesn’t necessarily mean I will, and when I am sleeping well, it doesn’t necessarily mean he won’t suddenly get a sickness bug at 3 AM and four minutes after shooting awake I won’t find myself scraping vomit off his sheets and my pyjamas, followed by co-sleeping (not sleeping) with a toddler head resting on my bladder. Or, when everyone is resting soundly, what’s to say he won’t give a random piercing sleep cry, and though he may settle back – sometimes – it doesn’t mean I am not awake for the next 40 minutes because my mind is an uncooperative pest that won’t switch off even though there’s only ONE MORE HOUR UNTIL THE ALARM GOES OFF.
I fear until the teenage years – when my child better not buck the trend for sleeping ‘til noon – that my relationship with sleep will remain largely on hold; bar our broken, illicit stretches in which neither of us know how much time together will be granted.
Of course, none of this compares to the early days, where even knowing that you will inevitably be tired cannot prepare you for how the lack of sleep makes you feel. It’s like an illness; only you can’t go to bed and sleep it off, ironically. I had could never have envisioned nights with stretches of under an hour, broken by urgent screams, leaving my heart racing and my befuddled head completely confused as to where I was and what I’d done to upset this person so terribly.
My entire brain struggled to focus on anything other than making it through each day – and night of course – with both me and my tiny loud human in one piece.
It helped to drink a lot of tea, and also talk to other new mums about how we all felt like we’d been hit by a train and were completely unprepared despite all the book reading and the ironing of baby grows. Funny that.
I didn’t sleep when the baby slept in the day, not because I felt too guilty to or would have rather got on top of the housework, but because my son would only sleep on me, despite my best and desperate efforts. Yes, I was too scared to co-sleep at the time and yes, I now know it would have made life so much easier and could have been carried out safely – probably a lot more safely than me crashing around like a zombie whilst in charge of a fragile little baby on barely any sleep. If there’s a next time, I will be all over that path of least resistance.
People said things would get easier though and of course they were right. I began to think more lucidly and even used words like ‘refreshed’ and ‘decent night’ on more than one occasion. Of course these were soon replaced by ‘Sleep regression’ ‘Teething’ ‘Virus’ and ‘Shouldn’t we have all got the bloody hang of this by now?’
It seemed like every time we fixed something, another wheel fell off.
But of course, it changed again – it is always changing and now – it is so much easier. We made it through and there are thankfully now many more good nights than bad. Things are still full and demanding, but so much less intense – for me at least – than the worrying days with a newborn I didn’t understand. Plus, I think it is true that you learn how to be tired, letting strong coffee replace a full night’s sleep, and I now don’t really think about it. I guess we all have to alter our mindset about the importance of sleep (it’s overrated you see).
This is a far cry from previous child-free years spent whining pathetically through a work day on a mild hangover and “only” six hours in bed. Being a parent makes you a tough cookie in that department, although it may also rob you of your ability to make it to the second wine glass… or half of a film.
Parents find what works for them, and for their children. It might be sleep training, it might be co-sleeping, it might be learning every creek in the house off by heart to avoid disturbing a light sleeper. There will be tough days, where the routine you worked so hard to put into place falls apart because your baby or toddler has changed… or the weather has… or the stupid clocks have gone back. There are days where you could cry at work because you have so much to do on so little sleep. And then there are days when you all nail it and everything goes to plan – and that is of course most sweet – while it lasts.
So to all the worn-out parents: from days starting too early to nights ending too late, to all the walking, working yawners awake more than you rightfully should be. Let’s remember that at least we are in good company and if things are bad, it’s just a phase, and if they’re brilliant, well – we just need to keep it to ourselves and cross our fingers.
On uber-knackered or busy days, I can forget everything from making dinner to locking my car, and as for remembering to pay a bill or sort out the home insurance – forget about it. But I’ve accepted that it is what it is. It’s okay to not be on it all the time, it’s alright to crave a year in bed and sometimes feel a bit crap. Every day can’t be a winner, so the lowering of some standards (and letting go of others completely…) can only be a good thing. Otherwise, there would be no room to bask in the magic and fun moments – all the stuff that makes the sleep deprivation worthwhile.
I am working on the theory that the rest of it – the boring necessary stuff – will still get done eventually. I’ll let you know how that pans out, as all around me lies chaos and I realise I’m not even sure I closed the car door today, let alone locked it.
We will all be sweetly reunited with sleep one day, and that will be lovely. But I am quite sure the hours we look back on most fondly in our lives – especially as parents – will have nothing to do with soft slumber and deep dreams, but rather all this time spent awake, being happily exhausted by these strange lively creatures we are so privileged to call our own. Though we will still enjoy cashing in those extra sleep chips, obviously.