Motherhood Uncut: Shaney

There’s a reason why sleep deprivation is used as both an interrogation tactic and a means of torture by special forces. I’m betting the person who came up with it centuries ago had a baby that didn’t sleep. 

When you tell people your baby won’t sleep, they tut-tut and tell you it’ll pass. And so you try to get on with it; through witching hour, through those first weeks that become months, through the inevitable relationship stress, thinking it’s just a stage.

It was normal, we were told, until my husband fell asleep at the wheel during rush hour, and I was hovering on the edge of postpartum depression, our exhaustion compounded by the guilt of being constantly told not to wish away that magical time when our baby is young. 

But we were broken. The long term side effects of sleep deprivation offer more variety than a box of chocolates: hypertension, heart attack, weight gain, diabetes, depression, anxiety, immune system deficiency, decreased fertility, loss of balance, and a decreased libido. My husband and I ended up ticking the box on most of those. 

Society had schooled us well. We thought we were just crap at dealing with the demands of having a new kid; that we were soft. Thankfully, when I showed up at my GP in tears, she had a different take: it wasn’t normal for my bub to be waking so much, and it was time to get help. Her strategy was to attack the problem from all sides. She got me referrals for two specialist baby sleep centers in my area, did bloodwork, and arranged an emergency appointment to see a specialist pediatrician that day. 

My four-month-old boy was diagnosed with silent reflux, and prescribed oral medication that should have fixed the sleep issue. I, meanwhile prescribed myself a hefty dose of guilt for not picking up on the fact my baby was in pain sooner. 

For many months, we were paying more in medical bills than we were in rent. “What do people do who can’t afford this?” we said to each other, as we went over our budget, drained savings and juggled credit card payments. The short answer is: they suffer. 

Our son grew out of silent reflux, but the sleep issues didn’t end there. Both sleep schools I was referred to had months-long waiting lists, largely because there were so many other moms like me.

While one was professional and efficient, the other didn’t return my calls. After 12 attempts to get a response from the intake nurse, I emailed to argue that while I was just sleep deprived and lacking in civility, they might also be ignoring a mother who was so broken she was at risk to herself or her baby. That got me a call back from the organization within minutes. 

It turns out the intake nurse only responded to people who hounded her, and she “tried not to answer the phone”. I was appalled. What if the person didn’t speak English? I asked. Or if they were so sick with sleep deprived postpartum depression they couldn’t chase her up? Is it OK to let them slip through the cracks? I was met with stony silence. 

Turns out I was too much of a troublemaker for sleep school.

At its worst, my toddler was waking 12 to 20 times a night, needing to be resettled. My husband and I slept in shifts. We closed down our growing side business as we couldn’t safely run it without sleep. I developed a thyroid issue and ended up in hospital, where the medical intern doing intake told me I needed to get more rest. I burst into hysterical laughter and told her I had a child who didn’t sleep. “It can’t be that bad,” she replied. Another person telling me sleep deprivation was not a big deal. 

When you’re sleep deprived, you get desperate, and the sharks start to circle. You read this book, you read that blog, you buy that special sleep aid, you try that youtube trick. Fed up, I decided to fork out thousands for a baby sleep guru. While I’m sure there are good sleep specialists out there, I didn’t get one of those. After she showed up an hour late without a good reason, I threw her out of the house and got my money back. I was angry about that because, if I’m honest with myself, I was buying hope.

Time trickled on, my community of friends and family rallied to help us. My relationship survived on 10 years of built up goodwill, my career limped through. I learned to like watching the stars give way to a gorgeous sunrise over the ocean every morning with my baby, full of energy and giggles and cuddles. 

Now my kid is about to turn five, and we still have bad nights. In the past few months he has started to show signs of an emerging sensory issue, and it turns out there might have been an underlying reason why he doesn’t sleep after all. With the benefit of time and a little more sleep, I know now it wasn’t anything he did wrong, or that we did wrong. I’ve learned to be kind to myself. 

Society doesn’t mean to gaslight you as a new mother, but looking back that’s how I felt. We were told to accept the physical exhaustion, told to accept the annihilation of my relationship simply because ‘that’s the way it is’ when you’re a new parent. My saving grace was a good partner and a great doctor who both believed that being a mother didn’t mean I had to suffer. 

What if, instead of telling sleep deprived women that’s just the way it is, we tell new mothers that their concerns about their baby not sleeping are completely legitimate?  What if health officials didn’t normalize the exhaustion of new mothers? What if medical care was more affordable for these issues? 

How many mothers are suffering needlessly because they’re told it’s just the way it is?

Read next: Motherhood Uncut: Jade

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