Parenting journal: Troubleshooting my self-care

I made this list two nights ago. Owl had awakened, crying. (There is a particular cry she makes when she’s basically asleep but still awake enough to cry, that just grates on my every nerve. I don’t know if it’s the cry itself or that she only makes it in the middle of the night.) I tried to nurse her. She still cried. I tried again. She cried. I changed position and tried to nurse her on the side that still hurt from teething. No luck. I picked her up and bounced her around and that didn’t work either. So Erik took her and walked around with her and she fell asleep. Then Erik fell asleep. But I couldn’t sleep. I lay there, feeling miserable about everything, wanting to complain to someone, afraid to reach out because I couldn’t tell whether my reactions were reasonable or it was just the tiredness that made me so emotional. I wondered whether there are therapists who specifically work with new parents. I thought, I can’t go on like this.

Eventually some rational inner voice said, Why don’t you start by making a list of what’s bothering you. And then we can brainstorm ways to make them better. Start with the worst thing. I made the list in my head. It helped. And I fell asleep.

I was just going to keep the list in Evernote as a reminder to self, but decided it would serve me (and maybe others) better if it were here, public. (Any other new parents reading this, though, please, PLEASE only use what’s helpful and don’t read judgment into anything I’ve written here. I made this list for myself, remember; it’s calibrated to my particular tendencies.)

Problem #1: I’m so tired.

Sleep deprivation is inevitable with a baby, but I make it worse because I’ve never liked sleeping and have always hated naps. It has nothing to do with how tired I am; sometimes I’ll be so sleepy that all I want to do is lie down, but once I’m in bed, I can’t relax — and knowing I’m supposed to be sleeping doesn’t help.

Things we already do:

Things to try (solo or in combination with one another):

  • Avoid using the computer, or mobile devices, after 8:30 PM.
  • Spend a few minutes in a deep relaxation pose before getting into bed.
  • Take a shower before bed.
  • Sip some hot herbal tea before bed.
  • If there’s simply too much on your mind, take out a notebook (not a digital device) and write everything down.
  • During the day, try to nap when the baby naps, and if that feels impossible, at least take a few minutes to breathe deeply and check in with how you feel.
  • During the day, if rest is absolutely not an option, fresh air and movement can be restorative.

Problem #2: My body hurts all the time.

Pregnancy and labor take their toll, but so does breastfeeding and schlepping around a growing baby (and all her paraphernalia). Unfortunately, the demands of full-time parenting are such that true rest and recovery time are minimal (if not completely out of reach), but there are still things we can try.

  • Check in with yourself whenever possible. What hurts? Where? Is it time to change position?
  • Remember to rest. That doesn’t only mean sleep. Just plain inactivity can also be a beneficial choice — you don’t have to be “doing” all the time
  • Try some movement you don’t usually do, even something as simple as just raising your arms overhead.
  • Go for a walk when you can. It’s better if you can swing your arms (read: no stroller).
  • Stretch and/or do release exercises when you can. You don’t need a big chunk of time; you can just do whatever you have time and energy for.
  • Make sure you’re eating enough, and well.
  • Make sure you’re drinking enough water.

Problem #3: I feel like I’m losing my mind from multitasking and constant interruptions.

Again, so much of this is unavoidable, but that makes it even more important to “reset” when you get a chance.

Things I already do (sometimes):

  • Start and end each day with half an hour of “unplugged” time (no devices).

Things to try:

  • Take every opportunity available to unplug and be present.
  • See if your partner (or anyone) can give you some uninterrupted stretches of time for writing and/or taking a walk alone.
  • Make a practice of “singletasking” (doing one thing at a time). These days, when you’re so often managing several things at once, you need to deliberately cultivate this activity so you don’t forget how to do it!
  • This might be a little counterintuitive, but even if you aren’t unplugged, try singletasking on your device (e.g., close the FB window, don’t skip back and forth between apps or tabs).
  • If the baby is demanding attention, give it to her. Trying to get something done while she’s hanging onto you and complaining is nearly always a losing battle, not to mention frustrating as hell.

A final thought

It is okay to do as the airlines recommend, and put on your own oxygen mask first. It isn’t selfish. It is, in fact, an act of caring, to tend to yourself first so that you have more to give to others. It is harder and more draining to be generous from a place of physical, mental, and emotional depletion.

Meanwhile, I post this now from a much better place. I woke up this morning and lay in bed wondering why I felt so strange, trying to sense what could be wrong. I then realized I’d had a decent night’s sleep for the first time in at least three weeks. I’m still tired, of course,  but with that first long stretch of rest came perspective again, gratitude, a feeling of possibility rather than despair. It occurs to me that my unhappy middle-of-night self of the previous nights was right: I did have everything all out of proportion, but I did need help, too. And with this morning I recall that I felt this way after coming out of the four-month sleep regression too. So I’m sharing this list as a reminder to myself. This will probably happen again. And when it does — but also, even before it does — try these tips. It isn’t only when things are at their worst that we need to take care of ourselves.

9-month-old Ada playing in an orange play structure