One of the most annoying symptoms of pregnancy – on top of the insomnia, nausea, indigestion, hemorrhoids, and tendency to piss yourself – is the open season on unsolicited advice and horror stories.
As soon as my gut popped, mothers young and old were practically frothing at the mouth to tell me about the assplosions (baby’s), the cracked nipples (mine), and the screaming (both?) I’d soon have to endure.
I found this infuriating. What were they hoping to achieve? It’s not like I could go “You’re right. This was a bad choice,” squeeze my eyes shut and hope the baby reabsorbed into my bloodstream.
One night in a restaurant, I was halfway through a BLT sandwich (I craved mayonnaise) when, out of nowhere, our waitress told me I should put cabbage leaves in my bra to toughen up my nipples. And, if they still cracked, I should get a tub of “that balm they put on cow teats.”
Jesus. Can’t a lady suck the mayonnaise off a strip of bacon without a stranger talking about her teats?
I hit my third trimester during one of the hottest summers on record, according to my official “I’m pregnant as shit” meteorology system. And I couldn’t sit on a bench to catch my breath and stuff napkins in my armpits without a stranger giving me a knowing smile and telling me I’d better “rest while you still can.”
See, of all the tales people like to bestow on a terrified woman pregnant with her first child, sleep deprivation is by far the most popular. “You’ll never sleep again!” is a common refrain, usually expressed in a sing-song voice designed to ignite an irresistible urge to slap the advice-giver in the face.
I’d lie awake in bed, “you’ll never sleep agaaaaaaain!” echoing through my mind, and just simmer in rage. I mean, I knew what I was getting myself into. I didn’t decide to have a baby in the hopes that I’d spend my weekend mornings lazing in bed. I didn’t expect to spend my future summer days lounging in hammocks, reading novels and sipping daiquiris.
I made the decision to start a family because I wanted more than that.
Then Sammy was born and I never slept again.
It started out of fear. He was so small, and so delicate, and I was so terrified that he’d die in his sleep that I spent the first few weeks of his life watching him breathe, my hand on his chest to make sure it was still going up and down, up and down, up and down.
I could occasionally be convinced to nap, but only if someone in my small circle of trust held the baby and watched him breathe in my place. Even then, I’d shoot out of bed every few minutes, convinced my baby was crying even if he wasn’t. If I managed to sleep longer than an hour, I’d wake up sure that he was dead.
It was also a matter of logistics. The week before Sammy was born, the public health nurse who ran our prenatal classes turned my world upside-down by telling us it was no longer recommended to swaddle newborns. It could increase the risk of SIDS. But my baby wouldn’t sleep unless he was swaddled or held.
So, I held him. All night, I held him. My husband would set me up on the couch with what I called my “anti-suicide snacks” (cheese, fruit and cookies), my laptop, and one of those crinkly hospital pads in case I couldn’t get to the bathroom in time. And I’d sit there, holding my newborn in one arm, eating cheese with the other, watching Netflix and trying not to pass out until it was time for my husband to take over.
Those were some bleak hours, between 1 and 5 a.m., my pregnancy hormones crashing to the ground like chunks of cement falling off a decaying building. I cried. I gulped down glasses of water as my baby drained me dry. I’d message friends in other time zones so I wouldn’t feel so desperately alone. I’d pinch myself to stop my eyes from closing. Inevitably, I peed myself (it took months before I regained the ability to hold my bladder once I had the urge to go. Thank you, childbirth!)
My husband and I would take shifts, all day, all night, holding the baby and watching him breathe. In hindsight, Sammy was much more likely to die from one of us dropping him, or falling asleep and crushing him, than he ever was from SIDS. (In fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics now recommends that you nurse overnight in a safe bed instead of trying to stay awake on the couch for this very reason).
Finally, a new public health nurse, concerned that I was circling the postpartum depression drain, told me to stop screwing around and swaddle Sammy at night. So, I did, and we’d place him in the bassinet that I insisted on keeping on my side of the bed, just a few inches from my own face, so that I could lie on my side and watch him breathe. He’d sleep for an hour or two between feedings, and I would, too, when I wasn’t placing my hand on his chest to make sure it was still going up and down, up and down, up and down.
Interrupted sleep was still sleep, and I slogged along until Sammy outgrew swaddling and hit the four-month sleep regression. Then, we tried everything. Every sleep suit, every sleep sack, every sleep aid. My husband spent hours holding the baby under the hood of the stove, the fan whirring, convinced it would help him nod off. We tried white noise machines. Lavender baths. Soothers. Swaying. Shushing. Putting the baby down asleep. Putting the baby down awake but drowsy, the great white whale of baby sleep tips.
Some nights, we’d luck out and get two, three, even four hours of sleep. Most nights, Sammy would wake up every 40 minutes and scream, scream, scream until someone picked him up (my husband) and put a boob in his mouth (not my husband).
Then waking every 40 minutes turned to 20 minutes, and 20 minutes turned to the second Sammy hit the crib mattress.
It was a comedy of errors, watching my husband sway the baby back and forth, put him down with the caution of someone diffusing a bomb, then immediately pick him back up and start over again.
All night. Every night. Until one of us would finally break and stay up holding the baby while the other slept for two hours, and vice versa.
I could barely function, yet I was solely responsible for keeping our baby alive once my husband went back to work. And, oh, how I resented him for that, getting to leave the house, drink coffee at his desk and go to the bathroom with the door closed while I held and nursed our baby at home. My husband could be as exhausted as I was, but no one was going to die on his watch as a result.
Unless he fell asleep at the wheel of the car, which, looking back, was an entirely possible outcome.
To have a baby that doesn’t sleep is to know true anguish.
I stopped talking to my friends, because their babies slept better than mine, or because they didn’t have babies and slept in fluffy, white clouds as unicorns pranced over them. I stopped answering my family’s daily text messages asking how I had slept, because the answer was always “I DIDN’T WHY DO YOU KEEP ASKING ME THAT OH MY GOD!”
I stopped engaging in Mommy Facebook groups, because those jerk moms were complaining about getting woken up every few hours, or at 5:30 a.m., and I wanted to scream at them that I would kill, KILL, to be woken up every two hours.
I started fantasizing about leaving my husband with the baby and checking into a hotel just to sleep for three days. I started fantasizing about being hospitalized for exhaustion, like a celebrity. The brusque but warm-hearted nurse (there was always a brusque but warm-hearted nurse) would take one look at me, take the baby out of my arms, and scold my husband for letting it get this bad.
Then I started fantasizing that I’d get hit by a car, not badly enough to kill or maim me, but badly enough that I’d have to stay in the hospital for one week, maybe two, while the brusque but warm-hearted nurse kept the baby alive and I slept, and slept, and slept.
Finally, one night, when Sammy was just over six months old, I fantasized about jumping off a cliff into a sea of warm, black water. I’d sink, slowly, and it would be so peaceful, so quiet, as I let the water fill my lungs and slept, and slept, and slept.
It was 4:30 in the morning, and I was sitting up in bed next to my sleeping husband, holding the baby and watching his chest go up and down, up and down, up and down.
We started sleep training Sammy that night. I won’t go into detail, because if, when and how a parent chooses to sleep train their child is divisive and personal. But I will say that I’m now one of those jerk moms who complains if the baby wakes them up at 5:30 a.m.
And eventually, after many nights spent staring at the baby monitor, I’ve learned to trust that my baby’s chest will still go up and down, up and down, up and down, even after I close my own eyes.
Looking back at those dark nights, some of my feelings were normal, but some were extreme. I may have had juuust a touch of the postpartum depression and anxiety. And if you can relate, please, please, please talk to a medical professional.
Last weekend I went to a baby shower for a friend who is pregnant with twins. It was a beautiful, sunny day, and I asked her about her plans for the rest of the afternoon. Well, she might clean the house, she said, or she might take a nap.
Before I knew what was happening, I was frothing at the mouth. Don’t say it, don’t say it, don’t say it.
But I blurted it out.
“SLEEP WHILE YOU STILL CAN!”
Oh my god, I’m such an asshole.
(But seriously, sleep now or forever hold your teats).