The Truth About Parenting: On Being Tired

Before my husband and I became parents, we received an onslaught of pithy advice about what we could expect when our little one arrived. Promises of tiredness, a messy house, and an immediate, boundless sensation of pure love for our future child came at us from every angle. For six long months, we were showered with simplistic explanations of the changes that were rocketing towards us.

After an arduous labor that culminated in one last screaming, triumphant push, my husband and I were transformed into Mom and Dad. Enraptured, and in a haze of love and endorphins, we cradled the six-and-a-half pound baby girl we had created as dusk settled over our hospital room. Everyone, we realized, had been correct about how incredibly deeply and fast we would fall in love with our daughter. We figured that there was a chance that they were also right about everything else.

Over the next few days, my husband and I chalked up enough parenting experiences to know that, while all of the cheery words passed to us over the previous two trimesters had a whiff of correctness, they were so gigantically understated that they were mostly useless. The trite advice had painted a too-shiny veneer over the potpourri of frustration and elation that was first-time parenthood. What was worse was the lack of warning about the emotional struggles we would face in the earliest days with our new baby.

If it hadn’t been for my husband and I sharing our candid thoughts in that first week with our daughter, I would have felt alone, and utterly crazy.

In addition to being a Mom, I am also a writer. My response to the void of accurate information was to write about reality as I encountered it; in my experience, where platitudes fall short, stories can win the day.

For those who are parents, I hope that my tales bring laughter, a sense of solidarity, or a reminder of the joys which almost defy description, but which more than compensate for every parenting hardship. For those who haven’t yet experienced this great transformation, I offer truth over truism, and, hopefully, a glimpse of the incredible powers we are given upon becoming parents.

The truism: You will be tired.

The truth: Words cannot describe the incredible exhaustion you’ll feel in the first few weeks of parenthood. In spite of this, you will somehow prevail.

My labor began at five o’clock P.M., eight days before my daughter’s projected due date. The achy feeling of being unwell gave way to full-on contractions by eight. For the next four-and-a-half hours, I labored at home, and though I knew I needed to rest, I was far too uncomfortable and excited to sit for long.

At twelve thirty, my husband and I left for the hospital. After going through triage, I was declared two centimeters dilated; not far enough along to be admitted. Between the hours of two and four A.M., my husband and I walked the deserted hallways of the hospital to move things along. By the time we returned to triage, I was both dog-tired and completely unable to sleep for the pain. Upon examination, though, I had progressed enough to be sent to our birthing suite, which my husband and I would enter as two, and exit as three.

Over the following hours, I battled through the contractions as long as I could before accepting an epidural. Under the influence of the drugs, I got one blessed hour of sleep, and then things began to pick up speed. Just after four o’clock in the afternoon, with the epidural worn off enough that I felt every glorious, hellish sensation, our daughter entered the world.

For those of you keeping track, that’s one hour of sleep in more than twenty-four hours. But was I able to drift off after my daughter was born? Not a chance. I was riding an incredible assortment of feelings that I can only attribute to the excitement I felt at counting tiny toes, running my fingers over her conical head, and trying to sneak a peek at the eyes she kept scrunched so tightly shut.

Not until after eleven o’clock that night did I finally get a few hours of rest, some of which were only possible because my husband paced the room with our fussy daughter to keep her from waking me up.

For the better part of the following day, we received instructions on infant care from at least twenty doctors and nurses. Then, after a final examination, our little family was allowed to return home.

That night, my husband and I trekked all of our gear — a cooler with tiny bottles of infant formula, diapers, wipes, water, the breast pump, my tablet, and a bag of lactation cookies — up the stairs and into our bedroom. We were prepared to go to sleep for days. I placed our baby in her bassinet, and collapsed (carefully, on account of the stitches) into our bed. It felt as though my eyelids hung on rusted hinges, but sleep refused to come; I was listening for the gurgling and breathing of the small girl with blue-tinged extremities swaddled tight in her white bassinet.

This was my first experience with what I’ll call parenting insomnia. You may find yourself far beyond the realm of tired, but with this new, fragile creature to care for, all sorts of worries will begin to crop up in your mind. What if she chokes on her own spit? What if the swaddle sack strangles her in the middle of the night? What if she suddenly stops breathing? What if, on account of being too hot or too cold, she gets sick and has to be admitted back to the hospital? You get the picture; all these concerns and more may cross the mind of a new, exhausted parent. The worries only lose a small portion of their powers, in my experience, after you see, over and over again, that, so long as you follow the proper guidelines to prevent SIDS, your child will sleep safely, whether you watch her or not.

That first night, however, I didn’t have to worry about something happening to my baby in her sleep because the baby wouldn’t sleep. She hadn’t been in her bassinet more than five minutes before the plaintive whining began. Quickly, this became full-out crying.

My husband turned to me, dark recesses below his eyes. “I can’t listen to her crying,” he said, looking terribly overwhelmed.

I thought about how he’d cared for our daughter the previous night so that I could rest, and how he’d made a delicious dinner when we’d arrived home so that I could try to nurse the baby.

“I’ll take her,” I said.

With my tablet, a giant carafe of water, and my cell phone, I headed to the nursery, where I struggled to stay awake as I rocked our child. Try as I might to get her to sleep, she had no interest in going down. Once, when she did drift briefly into a closed-eyed state, I tiptoed to our bedroom and placed her in the bassinet, only to have her commence wailing immediately.

For the next six hours, one parent slept while the other, cradling our tiny daughter, made stumbling loops around the second floor of our house like zombies, undead, but not quite alive, either. When the second parent felt that their level of exhaustion posed a threat to our child’s well-being, they woke the other and fell asleep as though knocked out cold.

At three in the morning, I awoke to find my husband lying on the floor beside the bassinet, watching the baby, whose cries were gaining volume.

I bolted upright and told him that it was his turn to sleep. I felt my tiredness in every sinew as I pulled myself upright and took our daughter to the nursery. Desperate, I searched for anything that might draw me into a more wakeful state. I ate handfuls of cereal. While chewing, I felt more awake, but then I drifted off and awoke with a mouthful of soggy Cinnamon Toast Crunch. I turned on Netflix, but not even the allure of a new season of Orange is the New Black could do the trick.

I had to give in to my need for sleep. After placing our child in her crib, I stretched out flat on the scratchy carpet. Before my eyes were closed, the protestations began. I let her cry for the briefest moment before crawling back to a standing position and starting to walk the second floor.

This time, instead of wandering from the darkened master bedroom to the darkened nursery and back again, I pushed open the door to my writing room. In the small, cozy space, the blinds were open. By now, a rising sun in the distance had begun to turn the sky so that the suggestion of light cascaded over the walls, where I have hung dozens of framed quotations from authors I admire.

In the growing light, my child in tow, I read through those old quotations, which usually provide inspiration when I hit a roadblock in a writing project. Instead of imparting their usual calm certainty, each quotation left me with the nagging sensation that I would never write again; that my old life was already in the distant past. And then I read the quotation that put those negative thoughts into new context.

“The two most important days in your life,” wrote Mark Twain, “Are the day you were born, and the day you find out why.”

I glanced down at the wisps of brown hair on the tiny head on my shoulder, and looked into tiny eyes the color of a heavy storm cloud, and I began to cry.

The little girl I held in my arms had just experienced her first most-important day, having been born into a world to which she was still adjusting. I was at the tail end of experiencing my second.

Before having my child, I had considered writing the purpose of my life. But even through the heavy fog of fatigue, I felt a tingle through my whole aching body as I read those words. With absolute certainty, I knew that being my daughter’s mother was what I had been born to do. From now on, everything else would be ancillary.

Swaying with her in the growing light, through happy tears, I thought of how very blessed I was to get to watch my daughter grow and find the purpose in her own life.

And, with a third night of less-than-acceptable sleep under my belt, my second day of parenting began.

In the months that have passed since that first night home with my little girl, I have been more exhausted than I can rightly describe. At times, that sleep deprivation has played tricks with my sanity. Fatigue has shortened my fuse more often than I’d like to admit.

However, I’m grateful that I was able to experience that special moment in those painful pre-dawn hours. In the quiet times when I, often still dog-tired, watch my daughter sleep, or when she smiles at and babbles with me, I feel an echo of that sensation that, warts and all, in parenthood, I have discovered the ultimate purpose of my lifetime.