Three months ago I was blessed with the arrival of a beautiful, healthy baby girl. She is my first child and the learning curve for a new parent is steep.
The world is filled with advice on how to get your baby into a routine, how to settle her, when and what to feed her, and how to wrap her properly in order to get her to sleep.
Over the years I’ve seen mothers drive themselves crazy trying to absorb and adopt the overwhelming amount of advice coming from midwives, doctors, grandparents, parenting websites, friends, and other mothers.
As a new mum myself, trusting my instincts and watching and learning from my child have been the guiding principles that have served me best.
Equally important has been my willingness to drop my stories.
What do I mean by dropping my stories?
I mean that throughout my life I’ve amassed innumerable ideas, notions, and beliefs about what is right and wrong, good and bad, healthy and harmful.
Through this collation process, which we call ‘life’, I stumbled across an idea that I came to view as patently true. The idea was; that people need approximately 8 hours of uninterrupted sleep each night in order to function well during the day.
During my pregnancy, I was encouraged by almost everyone I came across to add another ‘truth’ to this; parenthood = tiredness.
Indeed, I lost track of the number of times I was told some variation of this during the course of my pregnancy. ‘Enjoy your sleep’ people told me with a smirk, or ‘I hope you’re getting sleep now’ they’d say.
And so a story tried to take hold in my consciousness. The story was this;
I need 8 hours of uninterrupted sleep each night in order to feel good. As a parent, I won’t get this. I will likely feel tired every day of my child’s early life. No matter what it takes, I must get my child to sleep through the night as soon as possible.
I don’t think I was the only person to have this story thrust upon them. Indeed, I have seen women deny their own mothering instincts as they construct their lives around it.
The only thing which kept me from the same fate was this; a few years ago I was allowed to test the truthfulness of society’s views on sleep.
You see, I have always loved my sleep. I’ve not always slept well, but there has been an almost devotional quality to my love for sleeping. And so, for many years I told myself I needed at least 8 hours ‘to really feel good’.
Then l worked for a large seminar company, traveling regularly throughout Europe and North America.
In that job, it was common to work 16-18 hour days for a week or so, fly home (often through numerous time zones), have a day and a half of rest and repeat the cycle over again.
In the first few months, I struggled with such a regime. I resisted the ‘demanding schedule’ as I conceived it, and I resented the people that required this of me. My resistance didn’t take the form of out-and-out confrontation though, it was more of an inner resistance, a feeling of disquiet and unhappiness, and it expressed itself in side comments and causal remarks about tiredness and ‘having no time to rest properly’.
As a new mother, the schedule is even more relentless. It’s 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. In such circumstances, it’s incredibly easy to fall into a resistance pattern. Your baby wakes every few hours (if you’re lucky) and even as you love your baby more than anything you’ve ever loved in your life, it’s easy to feel some level of resentment about the lack of sleep. Sometimes the resentment is directed towards your husband who ‘never gets up in the night to help’, or it turns into a story of victimhood and tiredness is worn as a badge of honor.
The victim story plays itself out in conversation as the mother casually mentions her 4am wake up or her lack of sleep, often with a sense of quiet desperation, hoping that somehow by mentioning the problem she will be alleviated of its pain.
During my time at the seminar company, I looked for help. I complained. Quietly but persistently. I attempted to change the schedule to provide more opportunities for everyone to rest. I did little more than sleep and wash clothes on my days off so that I would be sufficiently revived for the next seminar.
After some time, however, I realized that all of my techniques were having a limited impact. I knew something radical was needed and so I adopted an approach that, up to that point I had disregarded as unlikely to change anything.
I stopped telling myself I needed 8 hours of uninterrupted sleep a night in order to function.
I decided that I had had enough and I was willing to drop the idea that I had come to call ‘true’ and to which I had been faithful for so long.
I changed the movie that was playing in my head. A movie that had as its underscore, a phrase almost metronomic in its repetition; ‘not enough, not enough, not enough’.
As I did, two thoughts arose, both of which seem obvious but which were almost revolutionary when I really came to embrace them;
- that I may never have needed as much sleep as I had previously thought, and
- that if I felt tired in the middle of the day, I could allow myself the time to sleep (thereby dropping another story I had previously held; the ‘I’m too busy to sleep’ story).
Two things immediately followed this simple act of dropping my story;
- When I woke in the morning I didn’t assume tiredness, based on the amount of hours I had slept (something I hadn’t even realized I was doing until I stopped). I just went about the business of getting dressed and I stopped adding additional layers – energetic layers of consciousness, stories from the past, which weigh more heavily on one’s being than the thickest of winter coats.
- If I found that my body was flagging during the day, I slept. Sometimes it was just for 10 minutes but as I no longer had a story about how much sleep would make me feel better, I found that it had the necessary restorative effect.
From that moment forward, my experience as an employee of the seminar company completely changed. I no longer resisted and I no longer resented. I simply was.
Certainly, there were still times of tiredness in the body. But I didn’t build this into something more than it was. It was tiredness without a story and that is a radically lighter experience than tiredness which is attached to a story of ‘poor me’.
My experience at the seminar company has helped me immeasurably as a new mother.
As my daughter wakes in the night, I’m alert to my potential for creating stories about how tired I am or how awful it is not to have 8 hours of uninterrupted sleep.
I watch for such creations and if such a story arises, I drop it and return to the business of feeding my child, changing her nappy, and helping her back to sleep.
Adopting such an approach ensures that irrespective of how my child sleeps, I don’t carry additional burdens.
You may have realized by now that this is not a piece about getting your child to sleep 12 hours a night.
This is not a piece about how to manipulate or cajole or control your child’s behavior. This is a piece about you.
Because if you are a mum or dad who is having problems with getting ‘enough sleep’ (whatever you deem that to be), you might be like me; desperate enough to try something which you may have previously discounted. You might be willing to reflect on your thoughts.
If you do, you might discover your own collection of stories about the importance of sleep to brain development, physical restoration, holding an intelligent conversation, having a sex life, and performing well at work. The list goes on and the more value we attach to sleeping well, the more we resent the absence of it.
Buddhism teaches that all suffering is born from attachment. I was deeply attached to sleep for most of my life. I had formed many stories about what constituted ‘quality sleep’ and why it was so important.
I still love sleeping, but I’ve dropped all of those dearly held beliefs. I dropped them because they stopped serving me and were starting to cause problems in my life. When I dropped them I found that the sleep I was getting, was enough. In the end that was all that was needed; a new underscore of ‘enough’, ‘enough’, ‘enough’.
As human beings, the challenge is always to see beyond the paradigm in which we live. Whether that be in relation to sleep, work, parenting or politics. A place to start is to drop the story. Drop the story and open to what might reveal itself. Something radically different may present itself or things may look roughly as they did before. Either way, you’re free of the boundaries set by the old paradigm. You’re free of your attachment and new possibilities are able to reveal themselves in ways previously unavailable. (In the same way, we came to realize that the world wasn’t flat, so too may we come to see the necessity for 8 hours of uninterrupted sleep for what it is; an oft-repeated story which we’ve collectively agreed to label as ‘truth’.)
I’m not saying you don’t need sleep. I’m quite happy believing in the necessity for sleep (and still I remain open to dropping this story if it becomes problematic in my life). What I am suggesting is that you consider the limitations you’ve put around what it should look and feel like in order to satisfy you. As a new mother, these limitations are tested and the time is ripe to question them.
When I dropped those limitations, my experience changed. Perhaps yours will too. After all, it has been observed since at least the time of the Roman Empire that