If there is one uniting theme of parenthood, it is likely exhaustion. Parents, most especially mothers, speak eternally of their overwhelming fatigue. It may be the most unexpected force of new motherhood. Most of us anticipated a landslide of love, a huge life change. But we never meant to get this tired. I know I thought I’d been tired before. I had studied all night, partied until sunrise and worked 18‐ hour days to finish a project. That was a cakewalk. This is motherhood.
ARE THEY FAT? ARE THEY SLEEPING?
I meet mothers from all walks of life in both my personal and professional life. During one workshop a mother raised her hand. She was well spoken with kind eyes and a smiling baby in her lap chewing on her necklace. ‘I know you don’t like to tell people what to do,’ she pleaded, ‘but I need advice. I’m pathetic when it comes to getting my baby to sleep.’ To know where to start I think we must first understand where we are.
I have a hunch that one part of the exhaustion we experience as mothers is about our expectations; another part about their dependence as infants. The expectations we place upon ourselves—and that are eagerly foisted upon us—are tremendous. Babies are judged by two gold standards: are they fat? and are they sleeping? If you have a fat baby who sleeps a lot you’re a winner. If you have a slow gaining baby who is alert, awake and not keen to slumber, you are, let’s face it, a loser. And never will the unsolicited advice pour in faster. You will hear the phrase ‘rod for your back’ more times than you thought possible. You will be told to ‘start like you want to finish’ and to never ever let that baby get you wrapped around her finger.
While sleep is the holy grail of parenthood, in the rest of adulthood we violate it at every turn when given our own authority – we overwork, sleep far less than the suggested 8 nightly hours, read in bed, eat in bed and suffer endless bouts of insomnia, sleep apnea and countless other emerging adult sleep disorders. But when baby has authority, we are meant to restore order and get to bed. No more shenanigans. Uninterrupted shut eye is the goal. Anything less is failure.
WE LIE ABOUT SLEEP
Our solution? We lie. We say our babies are sleeping well, whatever that means, and so do all the other mums we know. We tell our GP’s and our Plunket nurses. Already anxious and sure we’re terrible mothers, we cannot bear to hear the lecture. A good friend I know facilitates regular support groups for new mothers. She tells me that after every session where sleep is discussed, a mother will sidle up to privately to confess that her baby is not sleeping. And worse yet, that she can’t bear to let the baby cry. Strangely, we have come to feel embarrassed about what is utterly normal: a baby who wakes in the night and needs us.
I wasn’t prepared to be that needed, to be so important to another human being. Adult relationships, at least mine, were tinged with an intentional dose of healthy independence. We rejoiced in each other’s company, but also in solitude. Yet when my baby cried in the night, it was an inescapable need for me. Sure, this can be explained physiologically, nutritionally and even neurologically. But it didn’t explain the huge weight that my heart carried all the time. Still does. Our babies’ dependence on us is much greater than physicality. It is an entwining of trust and soul. To be awakened in the night with this reality can feel—can be—too much to bear at times.
NIGHTTIME NEEDS ARE NORMAL
So what do I say when mothers ask me for advice, whether it be as a professional or simply as mum to children who have grown beyond infancy? First: the desperation and the need are normal. It’s all normal. You are not the only one coming unglued at 3:00 AM. You are not the only one secretly thinking you may have made a mistake. You are not the only one wondering if you will ever regain your normal life, get your mojo back and contemplate life outside these four walls.
I realise that being normal doesn’t make you feel good. But it stops you feeling a failure. Second: this is temporary. Babies learn to sit up, walk, feed themselves and even sleep. It may take until adolescence but it eventually happens. And when you get to adolescence, whether it is a slog through angst and disgust or another challenge to be faced together depends, in large part, on what sort of deal you’ve made in infancy.
I am not so naïve as to think that explaining to a desperate mother that she is normal and infancy fleeting makes it all okay. But I am sufficiently hopeful to think it matters that we say these things first. It matters that we think them. Exhaustion unites parents. It also unites us with our tiny babies. A baby’s need is often deepest in the dead of night. But it is in responding to that pure and tender need, no matter what the hour, that we can grow stronger in our love.
Lauren Porter is a clinical social worker, family therapist and PhD candidate, as well as Co-Director of the New Zealand-based Centre for Attachment. Her professional focus is the merging of attachment theory, neuroscience and wisdom traditions. She is the mother of two beautiful children and wife to one wonderful husband.