“I had no idea” he said. “I just didn’t realise that you could be this tired. That tiredness could make you feel like this and act like this. That it could make your brain slow down, your hands shake, make you giddy but feel as if you’re moving in slow motion.”
My friend was tired. His firstborn was taking a few weeks to learn night from day. He and his wife were grabbing what sleep they could but he was turning up to work with a couple of hours sleep, exhausted.
I felt for him. There’s no tiredness like newborn baby tiredness. Except maybe newborn baby and toddler tiredness.
I assured him, as I suppressed an empathetic yawn that it was all normal. In our house we called those early weeks “survival mode”. We came to expect it and in some way got used to it by the time our third baby was born, but by then the usual advice didn’t work, if you “sleep when the baby sleeps” then the toddler is roaming unsupervised. And when does the baby do the laundry or cook the dinner?
Looking back I don’t know how I did it. I don’t know how my husband did it. It sort of happened and I was there, in a dazed state while it happened around me. We got through it.
I remember when my eldest was 3 weeks old phoning a friend. I was sitting on the couch in my dressing gown in late afternoon, the early autumn sun was streaming in the window but I was freezing, the tiredness was in on me. My friend asked how I was and I cried and cried. It was so hard. I was so, so tired. She talked me down, told me it was normal. It was exactly what I needed to hear at the time.
My mother said she was surprised the first time that she came to stay that I presented her with a bottle of expressed milk, moved Ciarán’s crib into her room and went straight to bed. That’s how tired I was, I handed over my newborn and went to bed. I knew other people could keep the baby alive, I just needed my duvet, to close my eyes and let someone else carry all the responsibility for an hour, maybe an hour and a half.
The tiredness of caring for a newborn is like no other tiredness I’ve felt. Mothers are still recovering from the birth and have raging hormones, and leaking boobs (among others). Dads, especially first time dads, while not needing physical recovery feel the burden of the additional family member and try to do it all. It’s exhausting.
By the time we’d had our third baby we had learned some lessons. Take ALL the help that’s offered. If it’s not offered ask for it. It doesn’t matter who sleeps where, sleep when you can, wherever. I slept upright in the middle of our bed many nights after a nightfeed with baby asleep on my chest. I was horrified the first time that it happened, it wasn’t planned, but it wasn’t the only time I fell asleep while winding the baby and only woke a couple of hours later. But everyone got some sleep. It’s OK for dads to sleep in the spare room, it’s OK for anyone to sleep anywhere in the early days if as many people as possible are getting as much sleep as they can. Sweet, sweet, sleep.
Parents give one another sympathetic nods, acknowledging the bags under eyes. Nobody gets it until they go through it. And everyone who has a child has gone through it. So if you’re going through it now, don’t think you’re alone. Ride it out, take help, don’t forget to eat. Don’t think any less of yourself for feeling completely overwhelmed by it. Science tells us it’s normal to be a mess without sleep, so go easy on yourself. And most of all remember, this will pass. It might not feel like it today as you operate on empty, but it will. And then someday you’ll look back and remember it like it was a dream, and wonder how you got through it. Because you will get through it. I did, three times and I lived to tell the tale. (Just don’t mention the teething).