Sleep When the Baby Sleeps…The Fairytale of Life Balance for New Parents

Published on: June 30, 2019

Midwife Emma explores the myth of achieving balance for new parents and concludes that life with a newborn can be fantastic, magical, horrific, mind-numbingly boring, and spectacularly exhausting all in one day; and that’s ok. We are all just winging it on the good ship parenting so give yourself a break and hang on for the ride. 

By Emma McNerlin

If we are brutally honest about our early weeks as new mothers (and fathers), how many of us would say it was all sunshine and rainbows? I would hazard a guess that the older your kids are, the rosier the tint on your spectacles. For those in the trenches of new parenthood, the struggle is real. It seems everyone you meet is an expert and has little golden nuggets of wisdom to impart, to which you will smile, nod sagely, and take your cracked nipples and sleep-deprived, wobbly butt back to your recently acquired 24/7 underappreciated and unpaid job as chief baby comforter, diaper changer, milk provider, entertainer, and oh-so-loving partner to your poorly neglected other half. 

The problem with parenting is that while you signed up for it …, it is unlike any other job you have ever had.

Of course, it is not always this bad. In fact, some days you will be living your best new-mum life. You will have showered and eaten a meal before lunchtime and gone out of the house in clothes without puke or poop on them, maybe to meet friends or to go to that baby massage class where your baby wasn’t the one throwing a fit; and you got to have coffee and a cupcake and a conversation about something other than infant bowel habits. On these days, the job’s not so bad.

The problem with parenting is that while you signed up for it, and maybe it was much longed for, it is unlike any other job you have ever had. In parenting, effort does not equal reward. You can find yourself exhausted from a day of hardcore babysitting, yet your little darling won’t get on board with your plan for a quiet evening. No matter how many books you read from kaftan-wearing parenting gurus, how much Bach and Mozart you listened to in hopes of an easy baby, and how much you desperately try to recreate the perfect parenting day you had last week by doing everything exactly the same, the new little human in your life will not always comply. Life has a new rulebook and you are playing catch up. It is not possible to achieve balance right now, but you have a whole new set of scales.

It is at this point that we need a dose of serenity so we can learn to accept the things we cannot change, change the things we can, and hopefully have enough brain cells left after childbirth to have the wisdom to know the difference

Let’s face it we don’t get the best launch into motherhood, as we are thrown headlong into it following the most physically demanding experience of our lives — childbirth. Studies have likened the energy required for labor to that of a marathon athlete. Run 26 miles and you can maybe expect a medal, a massage, and at least a few days to recover. Have a baby and the demand to feed them and keep them alive and return to “normal” is instant, no one is there to offer you a rub down and rest, much less a medal! So, give yourself a break, and take help where you can. Pace yourself, because the bone-aching tiredness isn’t going anywhere for quite some time. 

Remember too, that comparison is the thief of joy. Do not compare yourself to other mums. In this age of insta-perfection, appearances are everything. In reality, everyone is going through challenges like you, even if they won’t always admit it. There is comfort in like-minded company, so try to make other new-parent-friends. Let’s be honest that is probably half the reason why you sat through hours of childbirth prep classes, so you could find your tribe in this postnatal jungle.  

Along the way, you will meet your fair share of antagonists. Beware the humble braggers who will sympathize with your plight of no real sleep in weeks with “oh you poor thing”, while gleefully telling you their little cherub slept through the night from day four. Newsflash: their kid did not sleep through the night at 96-hours old. Babies don’t do that. 

Sleep when the baby sleeps has to be one of the stupidest pieces of advice I have ever heard. When you get over the initial compulsion of checking them every two minutes to see if they are breathing, then you might have the odd co-nap but let’s face it, that laundry isn’t going to fold itself. Sleeping when the baby sleeps isn’t the problem, waking when the baby wakes is the killer. You cannot substitute 8 hours of uninterrupted sleep for a snatched 30 minutes twice a day and still function as a normal human being. Daydreams and fifty-yard stares are your thing now. 

Watch out too for the weirdos who will demand to know if you have had a “good baby”, as if there is a mystical genetic lottery for such a thing, and you didn’t win. As a new mum when I was asked if my son was a “good baby”, I would meekly reply “yes” while all the time thinking “nope, he is a bit of a nightmare and I think he hates me”. 

New parenthood is hard and wonderful and frustrating and delightful. We should be able to be honest about it, warts and all.

The truth is babies are babies, miniature humans with very basic emotions and only their senses and reflexes to guide them. As newborns, they experience the world as kind of a sensory soup, crying is their only form of communication and they have evolved to cry so they can survive, and we have evolved to respond emotionally to those cries, thanks to the wonders of oxytocin. The measure of a new mother is not in having a baby that doesn’t cry — file that under “the things I cannot change”. It won’t always be like this, but for now, just accept it. Hold your baby close, feed them, change them, cuddle them, and breathe. When you have done all that for as long as you can, allow someone else to help. We are lucky in many cases, finding helpers in Bangkok is easy. Do not entertain negativity in your self-talk. If today you kept your baby fed, safe, and alive then you are winning at parenting. It’s hard work; take help where you can without guilt or judgment. 

New parenthood is hard and wonderful and frustrating and delightful. We should be able to be honest about it, warts and all. Like all things in life, this too shall pass and as you and your baby navigate through each day, a new balance will emerge Until then, there is coffee and chocolate and dry shampoo and good friends to share the journey.   

Photos by Rodrigo Pereira and Janko Felic on Unsplash

About the Author

Originally from Ireland, Emma is a UK-trained midwife who worked in the maternity unit at a busy NHS hospital just outside London. Emma moved to Bangkok with her husband in 2014; they have an 11-year-old son, Toby. Volunteering with BAMBI Bumps and Babies since August 2015, Emma regularly conducts sessions on pregnancy, birth, breastfeeding, and Infant First Aid. In her spare time, she enjoys baking and Muay Thai and is an active member of her son’s parent group at school.

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