Who Stole My Sleep? What Motherhood Has Taught Us

By Gail Perry Johnston


Last week I pulled an all-nighter in my home office due to a deadline that would not budge, only to have to make breakfast, pack lunches and take my kids to school at 7 a.m. I have a spouse who would have gotten out of bed if I lovingly nudged him, but why bother—I was already up! Besides, in my tired state, calling him into action seemed more complicated than just doing what I always do.


My kids had no idea that their mom was operating on zero sleep, although they probably wondered why I was so jumpy in the car. Any vehicle that even hinted at turning into my lane gave me a start. “Oh! Ooo! Ah!” I kept saying. Once, when my kids were really little, I was stopped by a policeman who observed my sporadic driving and thought I had been drinking. “I’m just very, very tired,” I told the nice officer who let me go with just a warning. I should have learned then that driving while sleepless is dangerous. Still, I did get my kids safely to school, and I did meet my deadline later that day, just before the kids arrived home wanting to be fed again.


All in all, though, believe it or not, I actually get more sleep now that I’m a mom than I did before. Here’s why. When I was nursing—a solid ten months for baby number one, and nine months for baby number two—I learned the art of going quickly back to sleep after being disturbed. When my babies cried, being the light sleeper that I am, I would immediately spring out of bed and nurse them, but as soon as I put them back down, I would sink into delicious sleep again. Pre-kids, this would have been impossible. If I woke up in the middle of the night, my mind would kick into high gear about something, and that was that; I wouldn’t be going back to sleep. However, when nursing a baby, a certain hormone is released that helps us fully relax. I love this hormone. Moreover, during these initial months of mothering, I developed a new respect for sleep. While I used to consider sleep a waste of time, once mothering came upon me, I started to appreciate it, crave it, and pursue it with passion. This has served me well.


Unfortunately, nighttime interruptions stick around well beyond nursing years. Whenever my husband and I thought nights were finally getting back to normal, our boy would throw up at two in the morning or our daughter would startle us with a little sleepwalking. As an aside, I’d like to mention that here is where my husband was heroic. He cleaned up vomit in a jiffy and was so gentle with my daughter during her odd nighttime wanderings. It’s important to celebrate the unexpected strengths our partners bring to parenting in order to counterbalance the stress and inevitable disappointments.


To be honest, nights did eventually become smoother…in a way. As my kids became less trouble, my spouse’s snoring seemed to get louder in equal proportion. Every woman who lives with a snoring man deserves a medal, as far as I’m concerned. Or at least an extra dose of grace for when she is justifiably irritable during the groggy days that follow. But I don’t mean to be complaining because the ability to fall back to sleep—that lovely art I learned while nursing—is still with me.


Take, for instance, last night. I was disturbed on at least three occasions by hot flashes. Although this is a fairly new experience for me, I know what to do: simply wait it out and then fall back to sleep. Do not, I tell myself, look at the clock, start thinking about the next day, or get upset at anyone or anything—just go back to sleep. And I do, for the most part. On the relatively few occasions where I can’t seem to pull it off, I get up and do whatever I can do without disrupting the whole house (i.e. read or e-mail), but it’s no big deal, really. Motherhood has also given me a wise perspective. Some things are very important. Having a perfect night of sleep is not one of them.



Gail Perry Johnston is author of The Wish & The Wonder: Words of Wisdom for Expectant Parents and coauthor of A Rumor of Angels: Quotations for Living, Dying, & Letting Go. Find her books on www.cupolapress.com.