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Desperately Seeking Sleep

The first night home after my twins were born was utterly exhilarating. The quiet intimacy of nursing my children made that first round of night feedings more magical than taxing. When morning rolled around, I realized I hadn't slept for more than a half hour at a time, but with my husband's help I managed to squeeze in a nap the next day, and I told myself that I was ready for another nonstop night.

Needless to say, the second night was harder than the first. By the fourth night it was hard to get up when I heard the cries, and after two weeks I was in tears every night myself. The well-wishers had gone home, the presents had stopped coming, my husband had gone back to work, and I was completely alone. It was the most exciting time in my life  -- and I had never felt worse.

The list of things no one tells you before you become a mother is fairly exhaustive  -- in part because nature arranges for us to forget the hardest parts so that we'll remain open to the prospect of doing it all again; in part because experienced mothers know that if they told the whole, unadulterated truth, it might well mean the end of the species. But for me, no part of new motherhood was as shocking, as overwhelming, as the cumulative impact of sleep loss.

Some days I was so wiped out that I feared I would be unable to meet my babies' needs  -- much less do anything besides that. Many more days, I mourned the fact that I was simply too tired to enjoy a time I had so looked forward to.

The lowest point came when I nearly stepped in front of a bus; because I was so disoriented, I looked in the wrong direction crossing the street. My husband marks it differently: For him, the darkest moment came around four one morning, when he watched me pound the bed with my fists and scream "no, no, no" as my son refused to go back to sleep after nearly an hour of nursing and rocking.

My babies didn't start sleeping through the night until they were almost 7 months old. By then, my exhaustion had come to feel like a chronic illness  -- something that would always be with me, that might be dealt with, managed, but never cured. But complaining or asking for help seemed pointless. After all, didn't everyone go through this?

Nell Bernstein is a freelance writer and mother of two in Berkeley, CA, who frequently covers children's issues.