Essential, healing sleep. Parents need it. Babies need it. Advice about it is abundant.
I’m not going to add to that advice by telling you what worked for me. Instead, I’m going to tell you a story. One that leads me to question why we talk so much about sleep in the first place.
I married an officer in the Navy. Two years later, I gave birth to a beautiful baby girl, Sofia. We were typical rookie parents–sleepy, navigating new roles, tag-teaming for diaper changes and bath-time. We were also euphoric, and in love with our unique little one.
Moving from “woman” to “mother” is a significant life change, period. In addition to that, I experienced several other life changes my first year of motherhood. Some of those I had no control over. Others, I did.
During the first few months of my daughter’s life, there was uncertainty. We didn’t know where we would be stationed next, or when my husband would deploy next. But we knew change was coming soon. When Sofia was five months old, he deployed to the Persian Gulf.
This is a common scenario in the military community. But separation is always significant to a family.
It was lonely to be apart from my husband for seven and a half months that year. The one person in the world who loved my baby as much as I was far away, reachable only by email and the infrequent phone call. The care of an infant is unrelenting–especially to a rookie mom–and I didn’t get those little breaks that make a big difference in the life of a caregiver.
Then, a few weeks after my husband deployed, the task fell to me to put our home on the market and relocate us into base housing. It took me months to recover from the upheaval and exhaustion of that move.
In order to complete the degree I’d worked on the past few years, I still had to write a thesis. This task loomed larger in my mind with each passing day. I wondered how and if I would complete it. I worked on it every chance I could. If I wasn’t working on it, I worried about it.
In the middle of this, I cared for my firstborn baby.
The loneliness, anxiety, sleep deprivation and upheaval caught up to me, in the form of joint pain in my neck and back. The physical pain exacerbated everything. I was stretched to my physical, mental and emotional limit.
Because I was maxed out, I looked to sleep training in hopes it would help me bring more predictability to my baby’s sleep and my life. If I could better manage her sleep, it would make what I had on my plate more doable.
It was what I had on my radar screen that year, more than my baby’s needs, that influenced my approach to sleep.
I don’t think I’m alone here. For a variety of reasons, parents of young children feel stretched too thin, distracted, squeezed too tightly. The sleep advice industry supplies solutions to the “sleep problem” for a steady demand of overwhelmed (overcommitted?) parents.
When we talk about the “sleep problem,” do we talk enough about how we parents set the tone for our kids, their sleep, and our own wellbeing?
I remember the night that, rather than get up to feed and soothe my six-month-old baby when she woke, I let her “cry it out.” She was waking up only once in the night by then. Something I read informed me that as long as she were getting enough nutrition during the day, that last nighttime feeding was probably less of a need than a habit. A habit she could easily break if she were allowed to “self-soothe” a couple consecutive nights. That’s pretty much how it happened. The first night was the hardest, the second easier, the third she slept right through. Textbook, I suppose.
If I could go back, I wouldn’t let her cry it out. Not at six months. Not at sixteen months. Maybe never.
Sleep training basically worked in the sense that it established structure and predictability to my child’s sleep. It wasn’t all bad.
But here’s the thing that makes my heart ache. The way I viewed sleep during my first year of motherhood I see as a missed opportunity now. A missed opportunity to connect more deeply with my daughter by meeting one of her simplest needs in more gentle, reassuring ways. Babies are completely dependent upon us. Their little brains aren’t even close to being developed. They need comfort, reassurance, closeness. They need it before they go to sleep. They need it when they wake–for whatever reason. They need it at odd times that don’t conform to our orchestrated schedules.
When I look back on that first year, it’s the feeling of being squeezed tightly by my to-do lists that I recall easily. It’s like my baby’s sleep was another item on those to-do lists. When I try to remember specific things about my baby Sofia–her little infant ways, bonding with her–it’s harder than I want it to be. There was joy in motherhood that first year, but too many of my memories are blurred by my distractions. I want to call what is really important to me more sharply into focus, and I can’t.
I remind myself that I made it through a challenging year. I managed a great deal alongside my new baby. I loved her, and I did the best I could according to where I was at the time.
How I wish, looking back, that I had spent that year adapting only to common, typical things of new motherhood: healing, bonding, gradually taking on more. Being present, essentially. Certain life changes I had no control over (my husband’s deployment); others, I could have postponed until a better time (selling our home, moving.)
The same energy I put into adapting to life changes I could have put into my postpartum wellbeing. Feeling overwhelmed led me to sleep training. The same energy I put into sleep training I could have put into responding readily and peacefully to my child. Because I had so many irons in the fire, I felt depleted and exhausted at a time when much was required of me.
To my great joy, my husband came home from deployment two weeks after Sofia’s first birthday. We eased back into the routines of family life. In the end, I did finish my thesis and my degree.
Three and a half years after he returned, I gave birth to our second baby girl, Sage. My husband was out of the Navy by then, and held a civilian job in DFW. I had streamlined my commitments, and chosen to be a full time homemaker.
While my second go-round with an infant wasn’t all roses, it was peaceful and it was beautiful. Our days were slow-paced cycles of nursing, soothing and bonding. We delighted in Sage, and observed the love grow between she and her big sister Sofia. I didn’t feel the need to manage Sage’s sleep; instead, I responded to her when she needed me. I kept her close to me longer. I saw comforting her as an opportunity to connect, a blessed responsibility. Sure, I was tired. But I wasn’t overstrung or traumatized. I have no regrets about Sage and sleep.
It’s not easy to write this, but my youngest is more trusting and secure than my firstborn. I believe our general stability, more peaceful state, fewer distractions and higher responsiveness to her has much to do with that.
I can’t go back and rewrite my first year of motherhood. But that first year revised me. My mothering goal now is simple: to be present with my children, who will only need me intensely for a short season of their lives. I may get off track, but I try to get back on.