About a year ago, I wrote about how I was trying to figure out how to sleep better. I set a routine around a two-hour train commute, getting up at 4 a.m. and sleeping around 10 p.m. Having dinner on the ride home gave me time to digest before going to bed. This improved sleep quality, although I was still tired on many mornings. I wanted to relax at home and talk with my wife, and I often stayed up past my prescribed bedtime. So there was a stretch where I was squeezing it all in, the train rides and work, evenings and sleep, and strength training.
Well, that was twelve months ago and much has changed since. During my wife’s late stages of pregnancy, I started to drive to work in case I needed to come for her on a moment’s notice. This shortened the commute by about half an hour, but I couldn’t eat while driving. I traded the benefit of eating early with the joy of eating at home with my wife. Although I ate later and didn’t sleep as soundly, I did have a little more time to sleep in the morning.
Then, my wife gave birth to a beautiful baby, and I went on parental leave. Just before my leave, though, I took on a management role at my job. At the same time, I accomplished the StrongFirst Lifter barbell coaching certification. Within a week, my life became quite different.
All went well with my wife’s labor and delivery. When the baby was first born, we slept little. We woke the baby every couple of hours to feed her, day and night. We learned she was having tummy issues with some of the food we ate. Until we figured out which foods to avoid to ease the pain of gas in her belly, our ears were tested by her unceasing crying. We discovered that whatever foods gave me gas, gave the baby gas, even if it didn’t affect my wife!
My wife and I were so short on sleep we had hallucinations. When I got up to walk the little human after her nursing, I was often in a daze of half-consciousness. I carried her around in the dark until my arms were numb with aching, my ears turned raw, and still I carried her more, holding her close. When she fell asleep in my arms, I would sometimes sit down and fall asleep too. I was amazed that my arms still held her when I woke an hour later, even when I ended up lying on my back with her on my chest.
My wife, still recovering from birthing our baby, stayed up to nurse her. Because she was also using the breast pump, the cycle of nursing gave her about an hour and a half of sleep at a time. She could barely wake when the alarm sounded, and often moved about with glazed eyes. She also endured the pain of sitting on a recovering bottom while nursing the baby for up to an hour at a time. Her parents and I prepared food and drink for her to have in bed. She needed all the nourishment she could get to make milk, and heal.
I saw a new kind of strength forming in us, the strength of parents. I had always thought of my wife as a warrior of sorts. Seeing her persevere as a mother in the most desperate hours of the night proved me right. It might not seem difficult to hold a tiny baby to let it suckle. But a nursing woman gives the essence of her being to her baby through her milk. All of her nutritional resources are tapped to make this food. She tirelessly wakes, positions herself and the baby so it can comfortably feed, and holds that position for fear of the baby unlatching. Every moment in the beginning is crucial for the baby to receive enough nourishment.
For the new mother, this must be done with her entire body in a state of trauma, just having been stretched to the point of bursting and just having gone through the event of birthing unparalleled by any physical sport endeavor. And, with that, only sips of sleep allowed by the universe despite her desperate thirst for it.
A newborn baby knows to drink from its mother, but the baby must learn to adapt to her mother’s body. She needs to get used to her mother’s breasts and belly and how to position herself in order to receive her nourishment. The baby will writhe and cry and even scream in agony in between good latches on her source of milk. And the mother must endure this initial adaptation for several days, if not weeks.
Seeing my wife go through this struggle gave me the false sense that I too was having the same struggle. But I learned that as the father, it was not my body feeding the baby. It was not me that needed to hold and nurse and stay awake and learn with the baby to nurse. I did everything I could to help position the baby, provide food and water for my wife, and set up a comfortable nursing place. But my role was different and I had to take that on without feeling guilt.
I heard from the maternity classes and books that the father must get sleep in order to be of use when the baby was born. I knew it must be true but didn’t realize the truth until the baby was born. It was hard to let my head rest when my wife was struggling. But it was necessary for me to sleep so that I could help her in my fullest capacity.
Ironically, it was so easy to fall asleep that I was able to nap almost on command. Since I didn’t work, I could actually drop down and sleep the moment I wanted to. The tricky part was to convince myself that I needed to sleep. There was always something to do! Between cooking, laundry, cleaning, and setting up breast pump materials, it was easy to get fired up about doing more. At times, I denied the dull ache of tiredness. But I learned to routinize sleep after a few terrible episodes of prolonged baby crying on no sleep.
A couple of days after returning from the hospital with our baby, I started a regular training rhythm with my kettlebells. Strength practice was one of the anchors in the storm of newborn care. It allowed me to create and release tension. Because I was able to create more tension in training than I had already built up from carrying and soothing the baby, I was able to release the whole of it.
Kettlebell training also rebalanced my body. I often carried the baby on one shoulder or arm longer than the other. After waking from a nap, I would be unable to extend the one arm fully, and one side of my back would be tighter. Kettlebell clean and presses, swings, and Turkish get ups reset my nervous system and relaxed the tight areas. And of course, it made it easier to fall into deep naps.
I realized, from all the books and articles and pamphlets on baby care we read, that most experts don’t remember the first days after birth. They might remember the general difficulty and the long nights. They know the timing of certain baby development landmarks. However, I doubt that more than a handful actually remember the intense pain, the relentless crying, carrying the baby beyond the limits of sleep, patience, strength, and consciousness. I doubt more than a few remember the intense anger and sorrow and confusion and utter helplessness. Most don’t remember the moments when they wanted to quit, to throw the baby, to slam a fist through a wall, to weep, to tear oneself apart, to murder doctors and nurses, and to scream at family and friends. And even if they did, there would be no way to remember how it actually felt.
Humans are capable of great strength. Motherhood and fatherhood are among the greatest builders of this strength. With each step beyond my own limits, I knew I was growing stronger. Tests of our strength are necessary to push deep into the soul, to knead the spirit and shape it into a more resilient form.
The physical involves the emotional and the mental. Our conventional academic view of life separates the physical happenings from the mental and emotional. It is imperative to deliberately push oneself physically in preparation for the great emotional and mental trials that arise throughout life.
With all that being said, I guess I will sleep easily when I need to. As much as I try to shape my days to optimize sleep, it is also important to keep pushing myself harder. I find it more satisfying to really go for it than to stay comfortable all day long. Why walk when I can run? Why stay silent when I can mobilize to action? Why let happen when I can make happen.
Optimize sleep time while optimizing the waking hours.