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When you’re pregnant, you spend most of the pregnancy preparing for the birth and not for motherhood itself. You wonder whether you’ll have a vaginal birth or a caesarean section. You consider the risks of having an epidural. You pack and repack your hospital bag. All the questions you ask your health professionals are about the pregnancy and the birth, and not about things you need to know for when you get home.
What you don’t do during pregnancy is prepare for life at home with a baby during those first few months. You decorate the nursery and make it comfortable. You buy every baby item you might possibly need. That’s pretty much all you do. That’s because you don’t know how to prepare for a baby you haven’t met yet. You don’t know if the baby will be a good sleeper. You don’t know if they’ll be born healthy, if they’ll have reflux or if they’ll have allergies. You don’t know if you’ll have trouble breastfeeding. You know what it’s like to be tired, but you can’t fathom the broken sleep you’ll have as a mother until you actually experience it.
Throughout pregnancy, I tried to prepare for six months or so of broken sleep. By then, I envisioned that my baby would be on the way to sleeping through, and so would I. That’s because that’s what a lot of the books say is normal. Our situation ended up being different though. Henry fed every 2 hours throughout the day and night for about the first six weeks. Then he started sleeping through. We rejoiced. We’re a couple of the lucky ones! we thought, knowing full well that luck was all it was.
Henry slept like a dream until he reached six months. That changed due to teething, getting sick, and goodness knows what else. Since then, he’s had a few good nights, but he’s mostly still had to be fed 2-3 times per night and has cried for the dummy in between. The great thing is that he’s easy to settle. He feeds quickly and goes back to sleep quickly too. The broken sleep has been taking its toll though – physically and mentally.
After months of broken sleep, I felt I was at breaking point a couple of weeks ago. I was in tears easily. I had little patience. I felt nauseous and headachy due to lack of sleep. I’d been sleeping on a mattress in Henry’s room for weeks because I just couldn’t be bothered walking between our two rooms every 2 hours anymore. We ended up just having Henry sleep in our bed, which wasn’t ideal. I was just over it and felt at a loss for what to do. I’m not prepared for this, I thought.
Sam and I talked about calling a sleep consultant. We talked about letting Henry cry it out, which we’ve never done and don’t really want to. We tried putting more blankets on. We tried taking blankets off. I asked other mums for advice. We tried to get Henry to take breastmilk and formula from a bottle so we could share the load, but he wouldn’t take it. We tried feeding him more solids in the day. We tried music and white noise at bedtime. We tried a comfort toy in his cot. I’m actually surprised that Henry didn’t learn a few choice swear words during the week before last.
Henry has a knack for waking up as soon as I fall asleep at night. The other night when he woke, I couldn’t settle him. Sam couldn’t either. I put my hands in the air and said “I just don’t know what to do anymore. Other than breastfeeding him, I don’t know how to get him to sleep. I can’t do this. ” Sam replied with “I wish I had some words of wisdom for you, but I don’t, and I don’t know what to do either.” I then said, “I feel like I’m failing at everything I try.” Sam replied with a cracker. He said, “just because something isn’t working doesn’t mean that you’re failing.”
I thought about this over the coming days and realised that as parents, we often look through a lens that doesn’t lend itself to the picture we’re trying to capture. We look at parenting as though it’s black and white, with success and failure being the only categories we use to view ourselves. This isn’t helpful.
Every child is different and what works for one doesn’t work for another. We hear this all the time as parents, yet it doesn’t stop us clinging to the hope that what’s worked for other parents will work for us too.
When we’re at the end of our tether and the new things we try with our children don’t go to plan, we end up telling ourselves we’ve failed. We lose motivation to persevere. We put ourselves down in front of family and friends. We question whether we’re actually cut out for parenthood and whether we have what it takes to raise a child that thrives. We can become complacent, resigned or indifferent. We can become stressed, anxious or depressed.
When we tell ourselves we’re failing, we’re often focusing on the things that aren’t important; the things that will be insignificant in years to come.
What we should be doing though is looking through a different lens. For me, this meant finding a wider one and moving away from the constraints of success versus failure. I was reminded that Henry is happy and healthy, that his determination and stubbornness will prepare him well for many parts of life, that he’s outgoing and always laughing, that his ability to settle and fall asleep quickly after a feed means he feels safe and comforted.
Does Henry sleep all night? No. But that doesn’t mean I’m failing. It means I’ll have to keep feeding him during the night. It means I’ll have to keep putting the dummy in when required. It means that I’m going to continue being tired for an unknown period. It’s as simple as that.
Parenting isn’t an exam. We need to stop treating it as one.
I'm married to Sam and I'm a mother to Henry.