Motherhood: Layers of Letting Go

When I was pregnant with Everest, one of my biggest fears about becoming a mother was the possibility of sleep deprivation. I was one of those people that treasured my eight hours of uninterrupted sleep each night – I didn’t know how to function effectively or kindly on less – so the thought of anything disrupting my precious sleep sent me into anxiety. Naively, I soothed myself by believing it wouldn’t be as bad as I feared or would only last for a few months. Like so many aspects of motherhood, I was rudely awakened (so to speak) by the reality of sleep deprivation.

Everest was quite possibly the worst sleeper I’ve ever heard of. He woke up 6-10 times a night, sometimes every forty-five minutes. By his fourth month, it went from bad to worse. And by ten months, when his two front teeth started coming in, it reached an all-time low with wake-ups every fifteen minutes. Since we weren’t willing to start any of kind of “sleep training”, it was up to Daev, my husband, and I to deal with it somehow. Daev was nothing short of heroic; if Everest didn’t fall back asleep nursing, Daev would walk Everest until he fell back asleep – then go to work the next day. We were the walking dead. But somehow we made it through. Eventually, slowly, with some gentle sleep modifications, Everest did learn how to sleep.

And now we’re awake again. Asher doesn’t quite rival his brother for being the world’s worst sleeper, but he comes pretty close. But for the most part, I haven’t been exhausted. Why? For one thing, my body seems to have adjusted to less sleep and to interrupted sleep. I don’t have the energy to run a marathon, but I have enough to effectively and kindly (mostly) get through the day. This is one of the brilliant changes that occurs through the transformation of becoming a parent: you discover resources inside you that you didn’t know you had. Prior to becoming a parent, I really believed that I couldn’t be a nice and happy person if I didn’t get eight hours of sleep the night before. That belief has been radically altered.

But the main difference between my experience this time is so simple: I go to sleep earlier! I put Asher to bed, then I put Everest to bed and fall asleep with him. Most nights, I’m asleep between 8:30 and 9 pm. So even though I’m still woken up several times during the night and am usually awake for the day by 5 am, I feel relatively rested most days.

Here’s the thing: with Everest, I wasn’t willing to sacrifice my evening hours in favor of sleep. I would have rather been exhausted than give up my private time or time with my husband at the end of the day. The sacrifices as a new mother were so overwhelmingly numerous that I couldn’t bear to let go of one more thing – especially something so essential as time separate from my child. More shocking than the sleep deprivation was what felt like an almost total obliteration of my separate selfhood. I grieved many things in the first months of new motherhood but at the core of the grief was the loss of self and the loss of the freedom I had before becoming a mother.

With the second child, I’ve already adjusted to having significantly less time to myself and the lack of freedom. I don’t experience it as a loss anymore because there’s an acceptance that this is what life is with young children. And over the last 5 1/2 years, I’ve learned how to find my separateness even when I’m in proximity to my kids. In this moment, for example, as I write this blog, Asher is asleep on my back and Everest is playing an imaginary helicopter game. Like sleep deprivation, I never thought I’d be able to work and write with my kids around. But these are the adjustments and areas of growth that have arisen because of this life we’ve chosen.

Do I miss having time alone? Yes, of course. I do carve out times on the weekend that are mine and I set aside two evenings a week where I don’t fall asleep early so my husband and I can have home date nights. But mostly I keep the long-term view in mind: before long, in the blink of an eye really, Asher will be “sleeping through the night” and my evenings will by mine once again. Daev and I will have real dates together. Our kids will one day spend the night at a friend’s or relative’s house. As I know now from having a first child, the older they get, the more they independent they become and the more separation they need. As they separate, so my chunks of alone time will return.

Keeping the long view in mind helps me to cherish this stage and keep gratitude forefront in my mind. How many times have you met someone when you’re out with your kids who says, “Oh, cherish this time! My kids are grown up and how I miss them!” The years fly by faster than we can imagine. For now, I inhale into gratitude as I write with my baby on my back and my five year old rescuing cats trapped in a volcano, just a hug away.

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Sheryl Paul, M.A., pioneered the field of bridal counseling in 1998.  She has since counseled thousands of people worldwide through her private practice, her bestselling books, “The Conscious Bride” and “The Conscious Bride’s Wedding Planner,” and her websites, www.consciousweddings.com and www.consciousmotherhood.com. She’s regarded as the international expert on the wedding transition and has appeared several times on “The Oprah Winfrey Show”, as well as on “Good Morning America” and other top television, radio, and newspapers around the globe. Phone and Skype sessions available internationally.

Comments >> Motherhood: Layers of Letting Go

  • Anna

    Oh, I love this post. This is a huge fear of mine surrounding motherhood – the fear of losing myself (sleep included). The biggest struggle for me will be maintaining parts of the old me while finding the new me… that’s a huge task.

    Thanks for another great post, Sheryl!

  • Thanks, Anna. I would say that’s the biggest adjustment of motherhood – finding that balance between mother-self and separate-self. When I first had Everest I experienced it as a total annihilation of my old self; I thought she was gone forever. But she wasn’t (of course) – just in hibernation while the new mother-identity took root.

    It’s scary to think about it but the privileges and joys of being a mother are well worth the sacrifices – I promise you! And eventually the identities weave together so that you don’t experience the loss anymore but just a new, expanded, unified self.

  • Kim

    I’m going to link to this article on my blog – I found very much the same thing. With my first, I really didn’t want to give up my evening hours. Mind you, for the first few months, she didn’t go to sleep until nearly midnight and screamed for hours beforehand, so I didn’t have much choice, but when she began to fall asleep earlier in the evening, I would let her sleep on my chest or in my arms and watch movies with my husband, blog, check my email, read, knit, etc.

    With my second child, I’m going to bed! He normally falls asleep for the night between 7 & 8, and as soon as our daughter is in bed (around 8:30), I head to bed. Sometimes I read for a half hour, sometimes my hubby and I watch a tv show for a half hour, but mostly? I need that sleep – especially because you can’t nap when the baby sleeps with the second!

    • Isn’t it amazing how different things are from the first to the second? Everyone said it would be different but I couldn’t imagine how until I was in it. Sleep is such a huge issue for so many people but I do think a lot of it is the shock of motherhood and the inability to make the adjustments – like going to bed earlier – that would ease the shock and sleep deprivation so much. Thanks for linking to your site and sharing your story.

  • Celene

    Your most recent post on sleep deprivation and mother/self identity was most timely for me. Thank you for taking the time out of your busy day to share your insightful perspectives with us out here in the world of new mothers.

    I look forward to reading more of your posts. I always say, the problem isn’t “what is”, but what we are telling ourselves about “what is”. Your words and insights help me change what I’m telling myself about “what is”, thereby reducing my stress and freeing up more psychic energy.

    Blessings,
    -Celene and Josephine

    • Yes, that’s exactly what I always tell my clients (and myself): it’s not “what is” but what we’re telling ourselves about what is. Very well said!

  • Anon

    Sheryl,
    I am six weeks into the adventure of mothering two (my son is two years old, and now I have a daughter). Your post really resonated with me! I agree wholeheartedly that the sleep deprivation isn’t quite as jarring the second time around. And in fact, nothing has been as jarring. I had an extremely rough transition the first time around, and I was bracing myself to go through it all over again. To my great joy, I’ve discovered that the BIG transition has already been made! What I’m feeling now is a refinement of the mother-identity I’d already established. Life has certainly gotten more challenging in the past six weeks, but my world has not turned upside down like it did two years ago. What a delightful surprise!
    Anon