When my oldest daughter was about a year old, someone gave me the picture book Hush, a Thai lullaby, written by Minfong Ho.
A mother asks all the resident creatures in her village to stay quiet so as not to wake her sleeping baby. The mosquitos, the elephants, and the lizards all comply; mother crawls into her own bed, ready for her own sleep, only to find that the quiet of the night is interrupted by her now awakened baby, smiling and ready to play. No sleep for mom!
It’s only a story, but I speak with mothers every day about their exhaustion, mothers who plead with the pre-dawn sky for their babies to sleep for longer stretches. Since my work spans from mothers of hungry newborns to mothers with toddlers and even older — it only confirms that a mother’s exhaustion, unfortunately, is her new normal.
The effects on their exhaustion cannot be minimized — driving while exhausted is as bad or worse than driving while intoxicated. Chronic exhaustion can lead to all sorts of problems: weight gain, low immunity, depression, poor work performance, you name it. Despite these real risks, a tired mother is an icon, revered, a mother who sacrifices for her children. But the reality is that we are so tired we feel like we might actually die. Maternal sleep is inextricably tied to infant/child sleep, and we tell ourselves to grit our teeth and get through it (“You’ll sleep again when she’s 12!” — hahaha!! Isn’t that just so funny??) — but I said something radical in my mothers’ group last week: Sleep. Your baby needs to nurse every 2 hours? Sleep anyway. Your spouse goes to work every day? Sleep anyway. You have a job that you go to every day? Sleep anyway.
The key word there is “anyway.” Any way you can. Any time you can. For a short period of time, make it like it’s your job for a few days. Of course, you cannot abandon your responsibilities; take care of your children, and don’t get fired from your job! But for a short, restorative time, act as if it is the only other priority you have, like there’s a jackpot at the end which grows with every hour of sleep you accumulate. We worry about routines, healthy sleep habits, about creating a new normal that can last – but that’s not the focus here. This is a stop-gap measure to maintain sanity.
Here are some quick tips – whether you are newly postpartum and on maternity leave, or you’re long past maternity leave but are just so damn tired and sick of being tired. If you’re going to devote time to sleeping, you’ll need to take time away from other things that rob you of sleep:
- The dishes. Forget them, and eat on paper and plastic. It’s not environmentally sound — but we’re only talking about a few days.
- Housework and chores. If it is within your means, throw money at any task you possibly can. Dinner can be take-out or frozen food or something from the hot bar at the grocery. Groceries can be ordered online and delivered. Housekeeping? Hire someone.
- For the things that can’t be outsourced, ask for help from friends. Think about your support network, and choose the right person for the right task. It can be hard to ask for help — but if a friend asked you to make her a lasagna because it’s exactly what she needed to get her through a rough patch, you’d do it.
- If you can take a sick day or two from work, really take it. Don’t work. And keep whatever your childcare arrangements are, because you still need them.
Turn down social invitations, unless you truly want to go, like going-will-give-you-great-pleasure want to go.
- If you need to “get stuff done” while your baby naps or goes down for (whatever portion of) the night, try resting first, even for 15 minutes, before you tend to it. Don’t check email, TV, Facebook, or even a magazine. Close your eyes and listen to your breath go in and out of your body. Even if you are not sleeping, you can rest with purpose. Maybe that will even lead to learning how to nap, which is a valuable skill.
- And rethink that stuff you need to get done. Thank you notes are important, but they can wait. The laundry doesn’t need to be folded right this minute. Five minutes of “Let me just empty the dishwasher” leads to another 5 minute task, and before you know it, you’ve spent an hour doing different 5 minute tasks.
- Work out a plan with your spouse, and fit it into your calendars. Really explore what it means to co-parent the children you share. If you’re nursing in the middle of the night, or bottles are not a part of your routine, or you want to prioritize your nursing relationship, that’s OK. Sleep at another time. If you are a SAHM or on maternity leave, this is a great opportunity for your partner to build on his or her parenting skills. Don’t worry — they’ll be fine, even if it turns out to be hard work or stressful.
Sleep because your health depends on it, because everything on earth is better when you get some sleep behind you, and because you don’t need permission – from your baby or your spouse – to take care of yourself. Don’t worry about sleep training your baby, or what the long-term plans are, or how sustainable this is. It’s not sustainable; it’s triage. It’s crisis management. Figure out the other stuff after you’ve had some rest.