Here’s something I didn’t realise until too late: maternal insomnia doesn’t start when your baby arrives, nor stop when you baby starts sleeping through. Whatever in the name of sweet suffering christ ‘sleeping through’ means.
No, the times you find yourself awake, staring blankly into the fuzz of night, unable to sleep but with your mind beating like a drum, they actually start during pregnancy. I spent the last months of being pregnant waking at least twice in the night, often for hours at a time. It was, it turned out, the most wonderful bit of natural design; attuning my body to a broken sleep pattern before I got thrown in at the deep end by a milk-nurtured newborn with a stomach the size of a marble and an all-encompassing terror of the world.
Once your child can take on enough calories to sleep five, six hours, maybe even longer, sadly for many of us the pattern has already been set: and so we carry on waking in the middle of the night, while all around us snore like pigs.
A year in, I still am woken most nights by a crying baby but, even more so, I am woken by a racing mind, a single piercing thought, a fluttering heart or, simply, an unstoppable drift up to consciousness. So, what goes through your mind as a new mother? What are some of the things you think of as you lie there, staring at the ceiling? Pull up a duvet and let me talk you through it:
Have they moved recently?
I can’t even count the number of times I lay on my left hand side, drinking ice cold water, waiting for my unborn baby to give a wriggle, a kick, a nudge: anything to let me know they were still going in there. By the end, I was sleeping with a Berlin Wall of cushions between me and my sleeping partner to make sure I didn’t roll onto my back (thanks, poorly-functioning placenta) and so every time I woke up feeling vaguely comfortable I would instantly panic, get up and try to feel some movement beneath my ribs.
Are they breathing?
The first night I brought my baby home, the first night he ever breathed air, I woke him up twice just by checking that his chest was continuing to rise and fall. Every day, every night of his life, for months, I would wake, seized with a desperate need to know if he was still breathing.
Are they too cold?
You can be told everyday of your pregnancy that newborns should sleep rooms around 18 degrees but when you wake in the night, reach out to feel their cold fingers, see their tiny bones, it will take a better woman than me not to want to put another blanket over their tiny sleeping form. Don’t do it. Get a room thermometer and follow the NHS advice.
Have I ruined my life?
Not to mention the life of your partner. In truth, you haven’t ruined your life, nor your partner’s, but your old life is gone. For good. In precisely the way that when you left home you didn’t ruin your life but you did end your childhood, when you had a baby you didn’t ruin your life but you did move, irreversibly, into a new era. It is perfectly healthy, sane even, to mourn the passing of that old life. It is fine to feel sad. And it will take time to adjust - only, annoyingly, you will now be so entirely preoccupied with keeping a helpless infant alive that your time to adjust may well be restricted to about 20 minutes a day.
Is there a warthog in the room?
The grunting, the sneezing, the farting, the hiccups, the snuffling, the erratic breathing, the snorting: in those first few months having a baby is often like sleeping in a farmyard.
Am I a volcano?
The tectonic shifts in your body in that first week are like nothing I have ever known before or since. As great swathes of your frame collapse, creak back together, pull up, shrink or crumple, whole other sections are now inflating like life rafts, swelling uncontrollably, gushing with fluids or otherwise undergoing dramatic alterations. I took photos of myself in my underwear knowing that in a year’s time I would be interested to see: dear reader, it is wild what your body will do.
Are they breathing?
You will wonder, you will worry, and you will rest your fingertips on their chest, in the dark, to check.
Which breast did I finish on last time?
I still have the notes I kept during the first month about when, for how long and from which breast I was feeding. It wasn’t particularly useful at the time, the midwives were rightly uninterested in reading it but, wow, as a document of sleep deprivation, maternal bonding and physical accomplishment it is something else.
Can you eat dry oats?
Breastmilk cannot ‘run out’. You know this. And yet, when the great cuboid swellings have been sucked flat, as you lie back trying to sleep, you may well begin to wonder if you should try somehow to ‘top up’ the supply. Honestly, if you can, just get some sleep and let your body do the hard work for you.
Are they breathing?
There it is again, waking you up in the middle of the night, like a particularly unwelcome nightingale of low-level anxiety and parental duty.
Do I love my baby?
You might. But you might not, yet. That is absolutely - let me say that again - absolutely okay. It can take a while for you to love your baby. A very nice woman told me that holding a baby for the first time was like falling in love. It was not. At least, not for me. It took days, weeks, months of steady, gradual application of life for me to love him. It took the daily duty of keeping him alive, the slow burn of his total dependence, the concern that turned to affection, the increase in his awareness and the recovery of my body and mind. I loved my partner in a way I’d never felt before, I loved my mother, I definitely wanted to care for, nurture and protect my baby. But love took its time to grow.
There is great advice available from the NHS, NCT and many others on post-natal depression. But it is also worth saying that, while you should look out for the signs for PND, having a baby may not look or feel how you expected it to, even in the best scenario. The more honest you can be about your feelings, your concerns and your behaviour, the more likely you are to navigate this whole thing.
How do single mothers do this?
Like, seriously, how the fuck do single mothers do this? If you know a woman who is surviving the sleepless nights, remembering the 14,000 things she has to do everyday just to keep life under control, making the appointments, quelling the panic, feeding and washing herself as well as a baby, dismissing the terrifying Google results every time she has a new question about her unknowable baby, facing the future without collapsing, getting through the endless days and infinite nights without someone else to hand the baby over to: get down on your knees and kiss that woman’s feet because she is a hero.
Will turning on a light wake them up?
I mean, it might. And, let’s be honest, if you’re anything like me you’ll remember precisely 0.6% of whatever you’re reading anyway.
Will having sex wake them up?
It’s worth a shot, at least.
Are they breathing?
It becomes a sort of mantra, really.
How can you be that sick from just milk?
I became convinced that my child had some sort of serious and undiagnosed digestive issue after, for the third night in a row, he threw up so sumptuously over me, my pyjamas and my bedding that I ended up in the shower at 3am.
What if they manage to pull their pyjamas up over their face?
This is often chased by other similar questions like; can they get tangled in a blanket? What if they get their nose stuck up against their arm and can’t breathe? Did I accidentally leave something in their cot? Read the advice on safe sleep and SIDS and keep that cot as spartan as possible.
Will I ever stop wearing sanitary towels?
You will. It may take longer than you think, but you will. And when you do, please donate any unused sanitary items to your local food bank: other women out there are in desperate need. In the meantime, enjoy that puffy, mattress feeling in your knickers and keep an eye on your iron levels.
Am I a good mother?
Honey, if you are even asking this, then you are almost certainly doing fine.
Will morning ever come?
It will. I promise it will.
Are they breathing?
Hello old friend, it’s you again