(cw: postpartum anxiety/depression, mentions of self harm, suicidal thoughts and infant death. Not every post is going to be so heavy, I promise!)
In the grand scheme of things, my daughter is a good sleeper. I know now that it’s all entirely down to the luck of the draw, and you can do things exactly the same way with two different babies from the same parents and get completely different results. It is not a failure on your part if your baby wakes up every 90 minutes, nor is it proof of your amazing parenting if your infant is sleeping through the night by 4 months. The first sentence of this post is therefore not a brag by any means, just disbelieving gratitude for our astounding good luck.
It has, however, taken me a while to reach this point.
I’ve always been a fairly anxious person, and becoming a parent has made me more so! I am by no means unique in this regard. I sadly know someone whose first child died of SIDS, so was always extra paranoid about safe sleeping. I worried excessively about breastfeeding (not helped by the hospital or my husband, but that’s an entirely different story). I worried about tummy time, I worried about naps. Oh god, did I worry about naps.
I started hearing phantom cries pretty early on (clearly hearing crying when they aren’t crying at all) and then started getting sudden vivid images of something violently terrible happening to my baby. I was terrified for her, and wanted desperately to protect her. And up to a point, that’s not abnormal – your postpartum hormones are a high-speed train wreck, you’re low on sleep even with a baby that does sleep well, and you’re directly responsible for a whole, incredibly vulnerable, tiny human life.
But I couldn’t get it out of my head that she wasn’t sleeping enough. Her naps were off, we didn’t have a reliable schedule. How could she ever grow and develop and become healthy and strong if she wouldn’t nap? I started tracking her sleep, obsessively hoarding minutes of precious snooze time in my baby tracking app. I snapped at my husband when he didn’t document all of her sleep. I cried several times every day, and every night when we lay down to sleep I had these visions flashing before my eyes of murders, accidents, car crashes, natural disasters, all of these horrendous things happening to my beautiful baby all in vivid colour behind my eyelids that would follow me into sleep and chase me through my dreams.
And then my days started getting worse. I would scream into pillows when she wouldn’t nap, and throw cushions at the dog when his claws made too much noise on the floor. I didn’t want to talk to anybody, and closed myself off from friends. I felt inadequate, worthless, an awful mother, like I didn’t deserve to be alive… yet at exactly the same time, I was convinced that nobody else could look after my daughter properly, that I had to be there, I had to look after her and keep her safe, only me. I wanted to die, I didn’t want to exist, but I didn’t want to make my baby sad by depriving her of her mother, and I didn’t trust anyone else to take care of her. I got overwhelmingly angry at my husband, and on more than one occasion slammed my head into the wall. I would rather die than hurt my baby, but hurting myself was no problem at all.
And then, the very last straw: after yet another day of terrible naps the baby had finally, finally, just fallen asleep in her carrier as I was walking the dog, when a woman with two white Shiba inu came around the corner. Her dogs barked at mine, and woke the baby up. Oh god, I lost it. I full on screamed at the woman: “I hate you! Control your fucking noisy dogs!” then went down a different road, sat on somebody’s front door step, and burst into loud sobs.
I was not well.
So, with the help of one of the City Hall midwives, I went to see a doctor about my postpartum mental health issues. It… could have gone better. I specifically told him that I was breastfeeding and wanted to continue doing so, and he prescribed me… an antipsychotic for which ALL of the patient information in both Japanese and English says “this drug is known to pass into breast milk; do not take while breastfeeding”. The pharmacist hesitated when she went to hand over the drugs, and that slight hesitation was all I needed to confirm my fear. All of my stress, all of my anxiety has been wholly centred around keeping my baby safe, and that doctor wanted me to take medicine that could potentially harm her?! So the drugs are sitting untouched in a drawer, and I haven’t been back to the doctor either. No way.
In reality, the baby was doing absolutely fine. It’s true that I hadn’t got her “wake windows” down perfectly, but a) I am a first-time parent and b) sometimes she just wasn’t ready for sleep. Sometimes she still isn’t. As a matter of fact, hands down the best piece of advice I received was this:
It is your job to offer sleep, but it is your baby’s job to accept it.paraphrased from Taking Cara Babies
Isn’t it funny, the things that make a difference? As soon as I heard those simple words, an enormous boulder rolled off my back. I could breathe deeply for the first time in months. It’s my job to offer, it’s her job to accept. I can’t force her to rest, but that’s okay.
So this week, for reasons unknown (teething? typhoon?) she won’t nap for more than 40 minutes at a time. But now I know that that’s not my fault. I know I’ve got the timing down. I know the conditions are right: cool, dark room. White noise. Safe sleeping space. Full tummy. Fixed routine beforehand. And because I know everything that I can control is controlled, the rest being out of my hands is far more manageable.
The things you never knew would stress you out about parenting, eh!