I knew the sleep thing would be hard, I didn’t think it would make me contemplate suicide.
When you’re sleep deprived the need for rest is like a longing. A wanting draws down from inside you and pulls from the anxious knot in your throat right down to the pits of your begging belly. You lie there, tense and unmoving; hoping.
You hear your baby rustle: your breath stills and your body stiffens. The screaming starts and your eyes scrunch shut. Despair. The cortisol rushes through your body and pricks under your skin. Your aching body tells your weary mind what your broken heart already knows:
‘We can’t take this anymore.’
My sleepless story started early one midwinter’s morning eight months ago when a thunderbolt inside me jolted my body into labour.
“Uh oh, he’s a mummy’s boy!” a well-meaning midwife prophesied as my hours old son refused the bassinet and calmed himself against my chest. Broken by birth; I lay, under the florescent strip lights and listened to the cries of the newborns and their slumbering mothers all around me.
Sleeplessness is par for the course in the beginning. No matter the hour on the clock, little ones need to feed. The novelty of my new role and contribution to the magic of mankind kept me afloat. Life is a murky soup of unconditional love and helpful hormones.
Three months pass and other mothers start to share their triumphant sleep stories, but my baby boy still won’t even entertain his own cot. My nights are spent curled up, shrimp-like, baby to breast.
“Do whatever it takes” they say, “he’ll get there”.
A misguided martyr, I bore the brunt of every long, hard night, unaware of the insidious effects of broken sleep – or what was to come. I protected everyone around me from the impact of my insomniac son – after all, they worked and I ‘didn’t’. My breasts became my baby’s pacifiers, my arms his mattress.
Six months passed and the cracks began to show. A burning ache began deep inside and a fever fell upon me. Petrified that I couldn’t look after my baby, I called my husband home from work and I was hospitalized with an infection. The illness calls time on breastfeeding – the result of constant comfort night feeding. Now, my body doesn’t know what’s expected of it anymore and things rapidly deteriorate.
Fast-forward eight months and my every waking moment is consumed by consultant-prescribed routine. I lived my life in pre-planned five minute increments, sleeping apart from my husband and making multiple bottles of formula a night. My son is heavy now. He kicks, he rolls, he hits and pushes. He wants me to hold him, but all at the same time he doesn’t. He wakes five, six, seven times a night, each time a screeching crescendo that snatches me from precious pockets of rest and rips me back to my brutal reality.
Guilt and tears follow. I have done this to him. He is frustrated, I am frustrated. I shout at him. I cry, he cries. I scream into my pillow. I’m a shit mum. He sleeps. I can’t. I concede to insomnia – I know I’ll be awoken again; what’s the point in trying?
The longing for rest is dark and brutal. I fantasize about drifting to my death in my sleep; I can rest if I’m dead. I close my eyes and I will it to happen. I imagine the connections in my brain shutting down one-by-one.
I cannot go on. I can hear my baby screaming while I wrack, rock and sob on the bathroom floor. Our son looks down at me, confusion in his glassy eyes. Holding him is my husband, surveying his strong, capable wife. She is broken.
“I love him, but I would rather die than be woken up again.” I say. He knows I mean it.
Sleep deprivation is like a bad boyfriend; it chips away at you. In your light moments you forget the darkness, but eventually you break. For months I had found the strength to persevere, trying different routines – each one promising the nocturnal reward if I followed the rules. I tried every one; I tried everything – lavender sprays, sensory bedtime, sleep consultants, cranial osteopath quackery, the lot. My every effort thwarted, my daytime diligence, pointless. It broke my heart.
I knew deep down what would work – all along I knew we’d have to cry it out. The thing is, your instincts can get drowned out by all the rhetoric and the unsolicited advice that’s thrust upon women; on mothers. Postpartum you are fragile, you are on show. I was too busy beating myself up with the yardsticks of people I didn’t even know to listen to my son, who just wanted to learn how to sleep.
This isn’t in defense of controlled crying, nor is it a how-to guide. The truth is, I felt physical pain as I listened to my precious boy work out how to settle himself through soul wrenching sobs. For the longest hours of my life, in the depths of the night, I steeled myself as my son reached up and clutched at my wrists with his tiny little hands. Interval after interval, his wild, wide eyes begged me to help him back to sleep. I stroked his head with pretend positivity. I swallowed my sadness and took myself out of my body. Eventually the crying stopped.
The next day we prepared ourselves for another fight, but it never came. We placed our boy in his bed and he rolled over and fell fast asleep, completely content.
Carolanne Bamford-Beattie is mum to Ralph and a creative comms strategist and aspiring writer.
You can find out more about her here
Muse. Kaleigh Day Didier