A few years ago I was asked to contribute a piece to a forthcoming anthology on mothering. Since publication, several people have asked me to include the piece here on my blog. After discussion with the publisher, I am pleased to publish it here for the very first time.
The Other Side of Sleeplessness
I can still remember the initial shock of it. Being woken repeatedly, night after night, never quite getting into a deep sleep cycle, never quite grasping that complete relaxation that goes with perfect rest. Without regularity or apparent sense, my baby frequently and piercingly woke me from sleep. She woke to be nursed, to be held, to be rocked, to be changed. She woke for comfort and for company. She woke because she needed me, and my role as her mother did not stop when the sun dipped below the horizon. A 24-hour job, I was on call all the time. But the sleep, oh the sleep. I needed it, it needed me, and yet we were kept apart by the ceaseless needs of my newborn baby.
I stumbled through my days, feeling as though I was walking through treacle. I felt defeated, frustrated. Usually an organized, clear-minded, thinking woman, I became foggy-headed, repetitive in my speech and limited in vocabulary. I struggled with simple tasks and limited car journeys to just a few miles for fear that I might put myself and my baby in danger. We took to walking in all weathers. My dreams of taking up new hobbies during my maternity leave seemed laughable as I found that all I could do was care for my baby, and where possible, look after myself. Each day I wondered whether tonight would be the night: would she let me sleep a little more tonight?
Sleep is a favourite topic of conversation among new mothers. How much a baby is sleeping, or not, can even become a way for mothers to compete with one another — the length a baby sleeps somehow becoming a sign of a mother’s competence. Or conversely, the one who has had the least sleep somehow receives a badge of honour. Especially in the early months, sleep can be an all-consuming subject. At the behest of babycare books or other advisers, mothers may spend countless hours and endless amounts of energy trying to mould and manage their babies’ sleep patterns, trying to achieve the coveted holy grail of “sleeping through the night”.
Few people stop to consider that not only is there a biological reason babies wake frequently in the night, but actually this sleeplessness has another side. Being woken at night is exhausting. Sleeplessness can feel like torture, can make a mother sensitive to the point of bursting into tears over a mere trifle; it can make every molehill seem like Everest. But there is more to being woken in the night than being tired. Although it seems absurd to say it, to some extent those moments can be re-framed as an opportunity rather than a trial.
I have asked mothers, ‘What’s nice about being woken in the night?’. After an initial shocked silence, mothers talk about the timelessness, the stillness, the peace of being alone with their babies in the wee small hours. While the rest of the house and the world snoozes, mother and baby are together, alone, curled into one another like jigsaw pieces. Some mothers talk of loving the chance to listen to nighttime radio, of having time to meditate or be alone with their thoughts. Others roam the house, check emails or write letters. I sometimes say, ‘I’m too tired to be inspired!’ but I know several mothers who find the nighttime to be a particularly creative space. Other mothers relish the singularity of being alone with their babies. One mother explained, ‘When he’s awake at night, it’s just me and him, you know? There’s no one else there.’ No one else to tell a mother what to do, no disapproving looks or comments, nothing else to divert the mother’s attention — at night she is there for her baby and nothing else. All she needs to be is a mother rather than the thousand other things she is expected to be during the day.
Those are the quiet moments. A baby’s night waking isn’t always peaceful: sometimes the baby is screaming and a mother is at her wits’ end to comfort her baby. What could be special about those gruelling nights of struggling to latch the baby on or pacing the floor with an unhappy, crying child? I believe that these times are essential — a golden opportunity, even — to building an authentic relationship with our children. As many people will have experienced, when our friends tell us only the good things about their lives we feel somewhat shut out: the relationship doesn’t feel real. It’s only when a person really opens up to us and reveals their own pain and struggles that we begin to connect through empathetic understanding. The relationship develops a new texture that was not previously there. In much the same way, our unending presence for our babies in the night allows us to reach out to them with compassion. No one likes to be alone when they’re unhappy. Human presence helps, and we can give this to our babies even if we cannot solve the problem that is at the heart of the crying. Through sharing his unhappiness we develop an unbreakable bond. Later we can reflect on the times we shared, and a mother who has comforted her baby during his misery knows that she has done all she can for him and given him the gifts of company and empathy. Developing my relationship with my baby in this way is worth more to me than a few hours’ sleep.
Sleeplessness isn’t easy, but it also has its unexpected reverse side. People often refer to the first weeks after a baby is born as a “babymoon”. It’s a special time, where the minutes seem to have elongated and nothing else matters except the family. When my third baby was born, I stayed on or near my bed for the first week. I called it my “John and Yoko” period — it was my opportunity to totally hunker down and focus just on my baby. I happily received guests and presents from the comfort of my bed and relished the care my husband and other children gave me as I bonded with and cared for my newborn. In a similar way, a bad night (or several) can have the effect of focussing a mother’s priorities. When I’m tired I have to decide whether I really need to keep that appointment on the other side of town or can it wait for another day? I can happily accept the invitation to lunch at a friend’s or an offer of dinner dropped off at home, guilt-free, because I know I need it! If we have the flexibility to clear the diary, have a “duvet day” and spend the day quietly in the house, a bad night can be a great excuse to dispense with the rest of life’s responsibilities and concentrate completely on the baby and self-care.
In the midst of tiredness it’s easy to forget that this is a short phase in a child’s life and in our lives as mothers. Even if, like me, your babies don’t sleep through the night until around the age of four, it still is only a fraction of their lives. Three children later, being woken at night now feels routine to me; a full night’s sleep is a shock. But I say to myself that it’s all part of the experience of being a mother, and one day I will look back and miss those soft warm bodies cuddled against my own and wonder where the time has gone.
LISA HASSAN SCOTT
© Lisa Hassan Scott, January 2010
This piece was first published in the La Leche League GB fundraising anthology Musings on Mothering (Mothers Milk Books, 2012). For more information, and to order a copy of the book, go to http://www.themothersmilkbookshop.com/