This was the advice given to me in grad school as I was wrapping up my MFA. Sure, I understood it, but did I really follow it? I thought I did. Flight school taught me to allot eight hours for sleep a night – a practice I hadn’t consciously honored since middle school – and deployment instilled in me a sense of what a weekend is really worth. I began to slow down and eat a proper breakfast before work, I joined a CrossFit gym, and I ate dinner with friends at least once a month. I started to prioritize what was important.
My sister told me life would get hectic once I gave birth. It did. The excitement and wonder and joy of creating a human being wore off (mostly) around two weeks, when sleep deprivation kicked in. Abruptly realizing none of the books I read had prepared me for this new reality shocked my system. My life quickly became an indefinite cycle of feed, burp, diaper change, sleep. It sounds easy, but when the feeds take forty-five minutes and your nipples are so sore that you’re crying the whole time while trying not to drip tears on your newborn’s head, it’s a special kind of torture. Burping takes another twenty minutes. If your baby has the runs, you may change her nappy three times in ten minutes. Sleep doesn’t come until your little one is herself asleep, which can take (in one case) up to five hours. And every two hours the feed cycle starts anew, whether you’ve gotten sleep or not.
I recently listened to Bringing Up Bebe by Pamela Druckerman. She explains the French code of babies “doing their nights.” It means they are sleeping through the night, usually around three months. Robin was not doing her nights at three months. She was still waking up at least once in the wee hours for a feed. As I had whisked her off to the States at seven weeks old, I simply took for granted her sleep would be interrupted while we traveled the country. I was not interested in starting this magical (or hellacious) journey called sleep training until we were back home in England. So, we didn’t.
By the holidays, my idea that our circadian rhythms would realign once we settled back down in the same time zone for more than ten days proved laughably optimistic. The festivities weren’t solely to blame; the world’s worst cold followed on Boxing Day. Robin fared better than my husband or me. (Granted, she was stealing my antibodies, but that’s how mother nature works.) We were laid up in bed for days. Suddenly, I returned to the world of newborns, finding energy only to feed, change, and burp her. This vicious illness clung on even as we drove to Germany so I could drill for two weeks – officially “back to work” with a five-month-old – and lingered even after we returned home a month after Christmas. Finding the willpower to do more than one extra task during the day, like take a shower, proved difficult.
Three days after coming home, as I was recovering from vomiting and diarrhea, Robin slept through the night. Not as in the five-hour definition of “night” in baby books; she didn’t wake for eleven hours. Was it because we were home and she was sleeping in her nursery? Was it because she was a week away from turning six months old? Was it because she was eating one portion of puree a day? I won’t ever know, but that day marked a turning point. I began to feel human again. My patience slowly returned. And I started to recover a few precious hours from the time bandit.
My husband recently asked me if I planned on getting a job. He didn’t mean it as in, “Go back to work, woman. We need more money.” He meant, “Do you want to be employed in England?” I thought about this. It would be nice to have a job here, to get a paycheck in pounds, to earn enough every week so we could capitalize on the free thirty hours a week of childcare down the line. Instead, I told him no. I had a part-time job in the Reserves. I made money from that job. I was a full-time mom. I didn’t make money from that job. But what I needed to do, what I had worked so hard for and then put on hold, was write.
This is the time I need to protect: writing time. Again, my sister’s advice rang true – you’ll never be as productive as when you have kids. I’m learning to prioritize my tasks again. Do those dishes really need cleaning now, or can I get a yoga session in first? Do I really need to vacuum the living room, or should we bring the dog for a walk? Instead of scrolling through emails, how about you sit down and write something? Now that life is calmer and I have (mostly) recovered from this cold, it’s time to put my MFA to work. I’ve got coffee, a laptop, and a few hours a day.
Don’t bother me. I’m writing. (Happy Valentine’s Day.)