When my daughter was smaller, she wasn’t a good sleeper. She wasn’t terrible either, but her sleep habits were enough to send me to the madhouse.
For almost three years, we struggled with her waking up too early. We tried everything we could think of: reward charts, a children’s clock to let her know when it was morning time, moving bedtime both later and earlier, skipping the afternoon nap, you name it. That kid would regularly get up ready to play before 6 am, even at 4.30 am. In addition, it took well over a year for her to sleep through the night, with some awful weeks when she was nine months old which took away every last ounce of sanity from me.
I’m sure many of you had worse experiences and are sending names to me. Even at the time I heard accounts of children who would take two hours to fall asleep every night or school-age kids which still wouldn’t sleep through the night, forcing their miserable parents to take turns to sleep. Even at the time I was aware my issues were moderate, but I couldn’t help feeling how I felt. When I was at home with my girl for the first nine months of her life, I was struggling with a stressful breastfeeding experience and I was feeling extremely lonely. I had moved to Finland only one year prior and didn’t have any good friends, nor family to help me out. I was the only mother among my young colleagues. The only community I had was online and, out of inexperience, I hadn’t chosen it well. There, I was either told a million potential causes which would make my girl sleep poorly or to suck it up as that’s how kids are. Both these didn’t sound nice to the ears of someone who was severely sleep-deprived and very insecure of her motherly skills.
I was alone, feeling without any support, and desperately thinking that my life would look that sad and empty from then onwards. When I went back to work, things weren’t better. I was in a toxic workplace and wasn’t aware of it. Loneliness followed me there and sleep deprivation would prevent me from doing my job well, since it required all my brain power. I remember I felt like motherhood had emptied me of my identity and individuality. I regretted becoming a mother. Once I even shouted unspeakable things to my baby, in the midst of despair. I punched the wall, the mattress, and the bedhead on many occasions. I cried a lot.
I don’t recall when things started to get better. There was no epiphany, no mystic revelation. Our sleep overall got better and we developed some strategies (like taking turns to sleep on weekend days). I started to accept the changes that motherhood had brought along in my heart. I changed my job and started working in a much better place. My daughter grew and became more independent, thus reducing the total stress of parenting.
The experience left me scars though. Whenever my kids’ sleep habits decline, I can sense the same feelings of despair and rage boiling deep inside me. At first, they terrified me. When our adopted son joined the family, he had some sleep issues (minimal considering the situation!). I felt like I had precipitated again in the same dark hole as three years prior. I was in panic, unable to rationalise the situation, afraid my life would be ruined again and everything new I had built for myself would be torn into pieces by the newly arrived. It took a lot of self-control and in many occasions, I physically removed myself from the stressful situations to collect myself. Finding out that the wound was still open was even more painful and worrying than getting it in the first place. This time I concentrated on accepting it and being aware that sleep deprivation is my parenting arch-nemesis. I will be honest, this is the one thing that terrifies me when I imagine to grow the family. What if we’ll get a bad sleeper? And I mean, a real one. The kind which requires an exorcism to sleep every night or the kind which apparently doesn’t need any sleep at all. How will I manage to avoid a mental breakdown? Will the support network and services I have now make a real difference?
One thing I feel more confident of is that I am not afraid to admit my own limitations and to ask for help. Yes, I’m a mother and coffee is not enough for my survival! And no, I’m not gonna suck it up.