When you have a baby, the first thing people love to advise you is to sleep when the baby sleeps, otherwise you won't be able to sleep at all. The first time I heard that advice, I thought it made some sense. After all, babies sleep a lot. New ones sleep on and off all day long, and as they creep towards age 2, they still nap through pretty big chunks of the day. So technically, there is time and opportunity to sleep when your baby is sleeping.
At the beginning, I tried taking other moms' advice and taking naps during my baby's intermittent naps, because so many people told me that it would be the key to coming out of new motherhood not totally manic. But it just didn't work for me. So guess what, guys? I took your advice. I tried sleeping when the baby sleeps. And you know what I think? You're all full of it.
If I had a nickel for every time people – women! Even fellow mothers! – told me to “sleep when the baby sleeps," well, I'd have a lot of nickels. When they first started mentioning this foolproof plan to avoid fatigue, I was hesitant. That sounds awfully easy, I thought. They’re making it sound like new mothering won’t be too soul-sapping (and sleep-sapping). They’re making it sound kinda doable.
Come to think of it, I’m pretty sure that’s exactly what they were trying to do: Make motherhood sound doable, and to a certain extent, it is. After all, look around! Look how many people are actively being mothers!
When you meet a new mom, you lie to her a little. You’re going to be so overcome with joy that the stress won’t matter, you say. You’ll be tired, but that’s why there’s coffee. You can sleep when the baby sleeps.
But new motherhood is also a state unlike anything else in existence. If you think that taking care of yourself is already, like, super hard, and you have a rough time feeding yourself well and keeping yourself clean and exercising and sleeping enough, then take that difficulty and multiply it by about ten thousand.
“Absurd!," you cry out to the heavens. "That’s absurd! This won’t work! It can’t!" But it does. You just have to figure out how to make it work for you.
So when you meet a new mom, you lie to her a little. You’re going to be so overcome with joy that the stress won’t matter, you say. You’ll be tired, but that’s why there’s coffee. You can sleep when the baby sleeps.
Technically, I suppose, you can sleep when the baby sleeps. But if you do, as I quickly discovered, you won’t be able to do all those things you used to do, the things that made you feel like a functioning human being. When I was a new mom, I couldn’t bear the thought of not wiping down the counters ten times a day, no matter how tired I was. I couldn’t stand not reading articles I found on Facebook. And I hated not being able to throw the ball for my dog for an hour.
I am a clean freak, a reader, a dog-owner and a mom. Those are the things that made my life well-rounded. Funneling my awake time into my baby and my sleeping time into recuperating from having a baby didn't feel good. It just made me feel like childbirth had zapped the entirety of me, like I had just disappeared.
When the baby is sleeping, you are on your own. You are gloriously, magically, impossibly alone.
So here's a helpful word of advice, new moms: when the baby is sleeping, you are on your own. You are gloriously, magically, impossibly alone. You can take a shower. You can scrub the kitchen sink. You can watch TV, or call a friend, or read a book, or sit and stare at a damn wall, for all you care.
While the baby is sleeping, you shouldn't be wasting time trying to sleep yourself. You should take the opportunity to momentarily check out of your new life, and return to the life you knew so well before you had the baby. You can do whatever it is you need to do, however you like.
So the next time a friend of mine has a baby and asks me how I found time to sleep, I’m going to tell her how it worked for me. "Lay the child down and run to the living room," I’m going to say. "Pick up your phone and call a baby-less friend. Call Papa John's and have them bring you food. Call your partner and tell them to come home early. Clip your fingernails, brush your hair, lotion your hands. DON’T SLEEP. THIS TIME IS TOO PRECIOUS! DON’T GO TO SLEEP.
"During this time, Mama," I will say, "do your best to tend to you."