Apr 10, 2023

The Strange Hours

Finding a new relationship with rest in early motherhood

For the first several months of my child’s life, he lived almost entirely in my arms. N. entered our home screaming, and it was only when I held him that he calmed, my exhausted post-labor body providing some semblance of the warmth and comfort he had known in utero. I spent hours listening to the rhythm of his breath as he nursed and slept, careful not to disrupt his precarious respite by stretching my burning back or aching shoulders too abruptly. Through the living room window, I saw the sunlight recede and the darkness emerge. Ladybugs had gathered in our apartment to hibernate for winter; I watched one fall from the ceiling onto the tray table beside me while the muted television flickered nearby. The motion kept me alert as I struggled to stay awake. My greatest obligation to N. was to offer him rest; in my consequential sleeplessness, rest became my own greatest desire.

Before N.’s birth
, I had been completely in the dark about the realities of infant sleep. I did not know that a baby’s circadian rhythm cannot yet distinguish between night and day, that the preference for sleeping alone is not innate, nor that hunger can disrupt rest at any moment. N. nursed constantly in his early weeks, and at times I couldn’t tell whether he was sleeping or had simply closed his eyes while eating. My maternal instincts tended to be wrong: When I would pass him to his father, D., so I could nap, N. often cried inconsolably until he was returned to me and I fed him again. I was haunted by the mantra endlessly rehearsed by postpartum professionals: Sleep when the baby sleeps. How could I, when the “safe sleep” advice underscored by every infant care expert I had encountered included never holding the newborn while I slept? There were times when I wanted nothing more than to lay N. down in his bassinet so I could collapse into my own solitude; then I felt guilty for wanting momentary separation from the baby, who could not yet understand himself as separate from me.

So in those first few weeks I let N. sleep on me, finding relief only in the brief intervals when he would nap in his car seat or his father’s arms. I often replayed the memory of a friend telling me, years before, that she thought she would die from exhaustion in the first months of her child’s life. At my one-month checkup, the midwife confirmed that I had been experiencing mild postpartum depression. It’s not unusual for new mothers, she said—especially those at my age who had “lived an independent life”—to feel as though they have lost a part of themselves. In the moment, I felt validated by this recognition of what I’d perhaps been afraid to name, but later I became frustrated at her suggestion that independence was what I had been mourning most. What does it mean to prize maternal independence when what I really needed was interdependence, in the form of friends and family who would step in to care for him? I thought of my mother and the network of working-class immigrant women—aunts, friends, neighbors—who made it possible for her and my father to raise children while working demanding restaurant jobs. In our newly nuclear household, in a pandemic, far from family and our closest friends, there were no spare hands to afford us such respite.

Soon, even the attention of our small unit would face other demands; my 12-week parental leave was nearly up. As the unforgiving cadence of semesters, writing deadlines, and job applications approached, I turned toward sleep training—a popular but controversial practice in the US, which conditions babies to fall and stay asleep independently, sometimes as early as 12 weeks of age. Typically, parents encourage their child to learn to “self-soothe” by waiting to respond to their cries. The underlying idea is that sleep is a behavior that must be cultivated in children, adapting them to their caretakers’ needs—and, by extension, to the regimented rhythms of capitalism. As the scholar Arden Hegele observes, while the phrasesleep training” emerged in popular literature in 1997, the idea of teaching children to sleep independently through the night has existed since the Industrial Revolution, when mothers entering factory jobs en masse struggled to assimilate the irregular hours of parenting into the structured demands of their work schedules. As more Western mothers—specifically, white mothers—worked outside the home, the erratic patterns of infant sleep were increasingly described as a problem to be solved, as one particularly stubborn piece to be jigsawed into the mother’s rigid schedule.

“I just want to be a good mom,” someone said. “Does it get better?” another asked.

The promise of rest that sleep training extended to all of us felt necessary, but the very idea of letting N. cry himself to sleep was painful. In search of a more gradual approach, we turned to Marc Weissbluth’s Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child, one of the most enduringly popular books to address the challenges of navigating children’s sleep—first published in 1987, the year I was born. (We’d been gifted two copies during my pregnancy.) Over nearly 800 pages, Weissbluth lays out healthy sleep habits from the first month of life through adolescence. But the surfeit of recommendations felt impossible to absorb. The more time I spent attempting to pore over the book’s recommendations, the more it overwhelmed me. I struggled to hold it with my lone child-free hand. Eventually, I abandoned it completely—looking instead to forms that promised something more digestible—web forums, blogs, YouTube, TikTok, and pediatric websites. On KellyMom.com, I read about attachment parenting, which asserts that an infant’s needs are best met by parental intimacy: co-sleeping, babywearing, and importantly, soothing the baby when they cry. Some advocates cite the history of humans as a carrying species, not meant to put our children down so easily. Encountering this school of thought gave me some solace; my baby was doing what babies had always done, even as it reinscribed my guilt for trying to prioritize what I wanted for myself. Engulfed in an almost infinite stream of often contradictory advice, I found myself holding just two incontrovertible facts: the crying child in front of me and my mounting exhaustion. I felt profoundly alone. The only fleeting camaraderie I could find was with strangers: On Reddit parenting forums, the mothers could not stop blaming themselves. “I just want to be a good mom,” someone said. “Does it get better?” another asked, then another, and another. Sitting in the dark in bed with N. as he slept, I searched the forums for an answer.Yes,” said one mother, then another, and another. I struggled to believe it.

While we waited for things to get better, we simply carried on. N. began to sleep in his bassinet, though his wakings persisted; nights of extended rest were few and far between. The cumulative effects of sleep deprivation make it difficult to remember many details of this period with precision. I don’t recall who told us that a red night-light would help produce melatonin, which would facilitate sleep, or how we decided on how long to wait before attempting to set N. in his bassinet. I do remember, during a night of seemingly endless wakings on the heels of many other restless nights, screaming from exhaustion in the red glow, feeling as though I would lose my mind if I went one more hour without being able to lay my head down. I remember the baby screaming in his father’s arms after I screamed, my upper body still aching from the strain of holding him. I remember D. and me putting N.’s car seat in the grass after a difficult trip to the pediatrician. We watched him doze as we quietly drank coffee in the park, afraid to express the feeling of having made a terrible mistake.

Two weeks before my return to work, the doula who had accompanied me during N.’s birth recommended a pediatric sleep consultant who specializes in gentle sleep coaching—a practice of guiding the baby from relying on nursing toward alternative sleep associations, such as patting or rocking—which we hoped might help us put N. down for the night. On the first night we made seemingly endless attempts to bounce N. to sleep on a red exercise ball in our bedroom, while he persistently demanded to nurse. He furrowed his brow in the red glow of the bedroom, his cry wavering almost comically with each bounce.

Over the course of two weeks, N. began to sleep better at night, and by the time my leave came to an end, my sleeplessness had lessened, though not as much as I needed. I was open with students about my circumstances, perhaps at times too open, but they were gracious. The grace I found outside the home in turn gave me permission to be more present in my time with N.; I learned to accept the ongoing obligation to hold him while he napped, quietly passing the time in the darkened room. Although I still missed being able to move as I wished, I came to enjoy these periods of slowness. I read for pleasure and watched television. I prepped for teaching, reading PDFs of book chapters on my phone. I followed what felt like the only piece of advice that I could—a friend’s suggestion to spend time just looking at the baby, meditating on these moments that I would never have again.

Many things happen
in the first year of a person’s life: There are viruses to pass, teeth to cut, gases to expel, accidents to clean; there is a motorcycle brigade passing through the block, a booming thunderstorm, a terrible nightmare, some inexplicable thing that wakes us and keeps us awake. On some nights there is good sleep; on some nights there is not. One evening late in the spring, I simply put him down and rubbed his back to the edge of sleep, saying good night before closing the door as D. and I left the room. For two nights in a row he surprised us, sleeping until sunrise. More recently, N. got sick and the cycles of waking returned. His father caught the same illness and recovered in N.’s nursery while N. and I were alone for many nights in our bedroom. Too tired to rock him back to sleep in his witching hour, I brought him into our bed where he tossed and turned, alternating between tucking his warm body against mine and sprawling his limbs across the mattress. I couldn’t sleep. The more I dwelled on my sleeplessness and the demands of the next day, the more awake I found myself.

We are all always pushing forward on a clock that is not our own, required to make shifts, deadlines, and appointments so the rhythm of work can carry on. I do my best to shield my child from these obligations that are not yet his. I see it as my role, in the strangeness of contemporary motherhood, to be the buffer between two disjunct temporalities: that of a new body, and that of the production-oriented world that demands the body’s compliance. During the more difficult nights, when N. is back in our bed beside me, in the calm moments before we each fade to rest, I study him in the dark. Tonight I listen as he fusses briefly, then quietly repeats the word “apple”—his most recent obsession in a quickly growing vocabulary. I think of my mother 2,000 miles away, who has grown to accept her tendency to wake at 3 am, using prayer to pass the time. I pray that the baby and I will both fall asleep quickly. In four hours, we’ll be out the door, forgetting the night, driving by the students on their way to school, finding the reserves to move through the choreography of another day.

Maryam Ivette Parhizkar is a writer, educator, scholar, and member of the US Central American collective Tierra Narrative. Her most recent chapbook is Somewhere Else the Sun is Falling into Someone’s Eyes (Belladonna* Collaborative, 2019).