“Are you getting any sleep?” asked my dental hygienist upon learning that I had an 18 month old.
“Lately, she’s been sleeping through the night.” I replied.
“That’s good. I have three under the age of three!”
“Oh, really? That’s tough. How about you? Are you getting any sleep?” I responded automatically, reaching for that same robotic question that I’ve grown to hate. That phrase —“Are you getting any sleep?” — simultaneously scratches at the surface of concern with good intentions and buttresses against any real inquiry of how a new parent is faring in the trenches. “Are you getting any sleep?” is the milquetoast equivalent of asking a very tall person how the weather is “up there” or if an oversized dog is out with his owner, “Who’s walking who?”
It’s the socially accepted and expected response. I get it. With some level of chagrin, I use it myself. When people ask about a new parent’s sleep (or lack thereof), it’s basically a form of the most universal and generic code-switching. We suddenly all share the exact same concern over some lost ZZZZ’s and wonder aloud in the exact same language. Very little variety exists in the phrasing we choose to investigate this huge life change. “Is he/ she sleeping through the night?” is the common alternative, but the underlying intention is the same: to perfunctorily acknowledge a person might be experiencing difficulties adapting to parenthood — after all, you’ve heard they probably get less sleep! — but not in a genuine way that invites honest conversation.
For me, it’s this second part that riddles the sleep question problematic. The generic probing over how many hours awake versus asleep leaves few options for a socially-acceptable response. Since having my daughter, I’ve answered this question literally dozens of times, always in the same jovial manner — a sort of half-laugh accompanied by a vague assessment of how my child’s sleep pattern currently manifests. (I say “currently” because a baby’s sleep pattern is never “set” or static. It changes weekly — at times, nightly — so describing the amount of sleep I’m currently getting is a bit like describing the weather.) And though I’m tempted, I never respond with the more honest, “Well, I’ve struggled with insomnia for most of my adult life, so the loss of identity is actually much worse than the lack of sleep!”
Now, right here, I want to take a moment to state the obvious. I love my daughter. She is a gift, a treasure, a challenge, the most perfect cherub I could wish for. Hashtag blessed and all that. But becoming a mother was not only the sunshine and warm snuggles promised by Pampers commercials. There are those moments, thankfully, but the transition to motherhood was not an easy one. It’s a life change I am still adjusting to, and perhaps always will be. It is multifaceted and complex, and sleep deprivation is but one sliver of the giant, fraught metamorphosis that is “mommy-dom.”
My brain felt scrambled, and my concentration refracted, like light through a water glass, refracting into a prism of topics on which I couldn’t focus individually.
Far more difficult to deal with was the aforementioned identity loss. I’d read about this as a possible post-birth affliction ad nauseum, but the experience of it was very different from, say, What To Expect When You’re Expecting’s description. Books and several webpages had prepared me to reject the the moniker of “mama” — that my child would call to me, and I’d look around, wondering who she could be referring to because I did not FEEL like a mother — I would still be clinging to my days of being footloose and fancy free! (And/or I would resent the tremendous care she required of me.)
This was true…ish. I wouldn’t say that being her mother felt strange. I am nurturing by nature, and I’d had a lot of practice with two spoiled pooches. I’ve been known to scramble some eggs for my dog’s breakfast, so providing for my child seemed a natural extension of my innate desire to care, to tend to. I still felt very much like myself, albeit a far more emotional version. My identity hadn’t really changed, per se, but my ability to indulge it did.
I still defined myself in the same terms: an actress, an progressive activist, a feminist, etc. But suddenly, I found a complete lack of ways to express these facets of my personality. Whereas the year before I had my baby was a landmark for my acting career — performing in six shows, of which I wrote and self-produced two — once my daughter arrived, I was land-locked. Theatre just didn’t pay enough to cover the cost of childcare, and I still needed my day job — I felt like, if I spend all day at my job and rehearse that night, why did I even have a baby? So I was an actor… but I wasn’t acting.
[The transition to motherhood] is multifaceted and complex, and sleep deprivation is but one sliver of the giant, fraught metamorphosis that is “mommy-dom.”
I gave birth a little before the tragedy of November 2016, so I died a bit inside as all progressives that fateful month. There were so many marches and protests in the subsequent months I wanted to attend with baby in tow, but my husband strongly disagreed. He felt bringing a baby to a protest endangered her. Because he is also an actor and was performing out of town, he couldn’t watch her, but he did encourage me to find a sitter so I could go alone. However, I couldn’t justify paying $15 an hour for who knows how long to navigate the crowds, and the whole plan started to break down when I considered the added of stress of when and how would I pump during a protest. So, I was an activist… who was watching the movement from her couch.
The list goes on and on. There were so many ways that I felt like I was the same person, but I couldn’t actually do any of the stuff I used to love anymore. Everything I used to commit to without a second thought suddenly required money and time that I didn’t have. It felt like I would never have those resources again. How long could I call myself these titles if I wasn’t actually doing anything to earn them? In that way, I felt my identity had been eroded.
This new version of myself had an even worse aspect though: the constant feeling of failure. My predominant strength type was “achiever” through and through. That is how I. Got. Shit. Done. (Hence, performing in 6 shows, self-producing, writing, and juggling a full-time desk job with teaching aerobics.) I loved to overextend myself and then exceed expectations. It was like feeding an addiction.
The generic probing over how many hours awake versus asleep leaves few options for a socially-acceptable response.
After having a baby, I felt like I couldn’t accomplish ANYTHING. Completing even the simplest task seemed impossible. I struggled to learn monologues. When my maternity leave ended, I desperately tried to keep up with an influx in my workload while incorporating multiple breaks to pump. I also wrote and produced a full-length play while understudying at a large theater, which seems insane in hindsight (and it sort of was) but I wasn’t doing more than I had done pre-pregnancy. It just felt like I was suddenly doing it all terribly. Trying and failing, repeatedly. My brain felt scrambled, and my concentration refracted, like light through a water glass, refracting into a prism of topics on which I couldn’t focus individually.
Much like Picasso, I experienced a “Blue Period.” So many factors contributed to this sad time. Isolation, anxiety, unrealistic expectations (my own and society’s), and, yes — even a lack of sleep. However, the sleep loss was as much a result of the other stresses as the new baby’s disruptions. But when anyone asked me if I was getting any sleep, all I could do was half shrug, smile, and chirp, “Yeah, some!”
I wish we had more language available to talk about the difficulties of becoming mothers — real, meaningful ways to check in with our friends, our sisters, and our wives. I could have asked my hygienist how she manages to work with three children under three years. Or if she ever gets time to herself, or if it gets easier, or if she can give me any advice. Or even that she deserves a round of applause because that shit isn’t easy!
So much of this transition is universal. How have we only developed the most basic, generic language to approach it? It’s a mystery I’d like solved. Very rarely, but very fortunately, I’ve enjoyed a break from the superficial chatter, when another mother feels brave enough to offer her own truth unprompted. They’ve shared insights on their battles with post-partum depression; feeling so isolated they count the minutes until their partner returns from work just to hear about the outside world; struggling to feel sexy in a body that has become so functional. And when those experiences are shared, there is such a relief in knowing, “Oh, thank God. I’m not the only one!”
Moms can’t exist in a vacuum. We need to find ways to talk about the true difficulties of motherhood that don’t carry any stigma or shame. In fact, let’s normalize it! Let’s embrace that struggle and messiness aren’t residual symptoms but part of the whole motherhood package itself. Sometimes parenting sucks. Sometimes it involves sacrificing sleep and time, but more troublingly, aspects of personality and self-identity as well. And that it’s OK to hold both grief and joy for this change in the same moment without guilt. We owe that to our friends, our families, our partners, and ourselves.