Before I had kids, I flaunted my sleep-deprivation like a badge of honor. “Just look at how important I am! I must overextend myself in so many ways, for so many people, that I barely have time to sleep.” Slurping coffee all the time to stave off the sleepiness was a tell-tale sign that I was adult AF, right? Wrong. Once I had kids, I couldn’t afford to be tired all the time. And as much as I tried to fight it, there were subtle ways my body tried to tell me I was exhausted, and that I need to remedy the situation before something bad happened.
My kids needed a well-rested parent who could think clearly and use good judgment. They might be in danger if I was constantly operating in a fog. In the throes of new motherhood, though, I remember feeling like I had to sacrifice everything to ensure the safety and security of my child. Little did I know that if I neglected to tend to my own needs, I essentially (and unintentionally, of course) threatened their well-being. I wasn't hurting my baby if I allowed them to fuss for an extra few minutes so I could eke out a few more moments of sleep. I would potentially hurting them if I didn't.
It took me until I was in my mid-30s, and a good couple of years into motherhood, to realize that being constantly exhausted is not a sign of success. Listening to my body was key, as it found these subtle ways to get me to pay attention to the fact that I needed sleep:
The Clock Gave Me Anxiety
I constantly felt like I was running out of time. I couldn’t possibly get it all done — the work stuff, the kid stuff, the me stuff — in 24 hours. I felt like I had lost control, that I was on hamster wheel I couldn’t get off and that I’d never check the last item off my to-do list. Lack of sufficient sleep fed my frustration and paranoia; it’s a lot easier to stop and take some deep breaths when you feel whole but being sleep-deprived, I felt like a shell of myself and, as a result, “never enough” to accomplish everything on my plate.
I Was Gaining Weight
It took me a while to realize that the less I slept, the more I weighed. Even though it was just three or four pounds, it made me uncomfortable in my skin. I had battled lifelong body image issues, so even minor upticks on the scale could plunge me into a pit of despair. As a new mom, already acutely aware of an increased level of exhaustion from keeping a small person alive, dealing with the mental anguish of hating my body on top of that exacerbated my crabby mood. Sleep deprivation made me more fragile and less able to accept slight shifts in my size and appearance.
Everything Felt Like Work
It would normally be no big deal to have to pick up groceries or dry cleaning on the way home from work, but when I was exhausted molehills literally became mountains. Everything was a thing. Being on hold with customer service for a minute felt like an eternity. Waiting for a train was soul-sucking, even if it was an average wait. That my body couldn’t take these standard microaggressions that life hands out to the average human was a sure sign that I was needing some serious restorative sleep.
The Bags Under My Eyes Were More Pronounced
Looking at myself every day, it was hard to notice the incremental changes that were the result of a lack of sleep. Puffy bags under my eyes seemed standard, until they squeezed into the space my eyeballs should have been, and I looked like I was squinting — or half-asleep — all the time.
I’d Cry At Practically Anything
For a few months postpartum, while my body adjusted its hormone levels to their pre-pregnancy states, I gave myself a break about having all the feels. My sensitivity was heightened and my response to everything was profoundly emotional (“They forgot the side of guacamole? My life is over.”) But months, or even years, after giving birth, I would fall into these crying jags over car commercials or a birthday card from my bank. That’s when I knew I was not firing on all cylinders. I was tapped out and needed a damn nap.
I Couldn’t Find Any Joy
Beyond making me cranky, exhaustion had me wearing blinders. I couldn’t get excited about doing anything. My glass was half empty constantly. Nothing pleased me, nothing made me laugh, and I wasn’t looking forward to any of the usual things that would bring me joy, like social outings or watching movies or just eating something delicious. Sleep deprivation dulled all my senses.
I Would Pass Out Minutes Into A Breastfeeding Session
With my first child, staying conscious while nursing her was not a challenge. But when my second child arrived, my sleep deprivation issue was compounded by the fact that I now had two kids and I had not caught up on any sleep since becoming a mom the first time around. My infant son would latch on and I’d almost instantly nod off, waking up sometimes a full hour later, with him asleep in my arms, a milky puddle under his cheek. Oh the glamorous #momlife.
I Tripped (More Than Usual)
12 years of dance class didn’t exactly turn me into a swan. I can be a klutz, but never more so than when I haven’t slept enough. My feet can’t navigate the pavement as well and I’m stumbling more than usual and I bump into things and I’m definitely not presenting as sober.
I Fell Asleep Putting My Kids To Bed
When my son was a month old, I took him and his 2-year-old sister to the Poconos so we could stay there for the month of my maternity leave, with my husband coming up on weekends. I thought we would all benefit from the extra pairs of hands, staying there with my parents. But I was on my own every night, with my son waking at all hours to nurse, and my daughter fighting sleep as a stubborn toddler. My nights would begin with a nursing session, and I’d hand off my son to my mom. Then I’d put my daughter down, but I’d fall asleep in the process. Two hours later, my mom would come in with my fussy infant, and gently wake me, nestled against my daughter’s body, so that I could, again, feed him. At best, I was taking a series of naps throughout the night, but mostly, I was just awake, toggling between a hungry baby and a disgruntled toddler.
I Got Shingles
This was not at all subtle. This was the final straw. This was my body screaming at me that I had to take care of myself. I had to start putting myself first. I had to get my own basic needs met, and that meant rest. That meant delegating tasks and asking for help more than I was used to. That meant coming to terms that just because I was someone’s mother didn’t mean I also needed mothering. Self-care was vital if I was going to be any kind of good parent to my kids. Getting shingles was the wake-up call I desperately needed to make the necessary adjustments to achieve a more attainable lifestyle: one that didn’t make me feel like I had to be on call for everyone in my house, and on my job, around the clock. One that allowed me to say: “I need a break.”