I often talk to new mamas with babies who “aren’t very good sleepers.” The latest mama has a happy 5-month-old girl who doesn’t nap more than 15 minutes at a time and is still waking up about every 3-4 hours at night. It’s exhausting.
I run through my usual suggestions. First, this can be a normal pattern for some babies at this age. It helps to know that. I recommend a good, comfy, hands-free baby carrier (a must) and a sleeping arrangement that helps her stay close (and safe) with baby at night. I tell her that she isn’t doing anything wrong—most likely there is no “solution” to this issue, it’s just who her baby is and what she needs right now. This too shall pass, and all of that.
This mama looks at me blankly for a minute, and then, looking confused, says, “So do you just not get anything done then??”
Mamas, I want to tell you the truth. And here it is: You will not get anything done when you are home with a baby. And anyone who told you otherwise is not being very forthcoming (or perhaps they just have a lousy memory). You might get yourself fed. You might get yourself dressed (then again, you might not). You might take a walk (it makes baby happy). You might have a short phone conversation or start a load of laundry, neither of which you will finish. This is your new mom normal.
So what are you doing all day? Not much that can be measured, really. You’re simply responding appropriately and with patience (through fatigue), to smiles, to tears, to hunger cues, and to drowsiness, teaching your baby how to navigate this complex and (to a baby) highly emotional and raw world. You are keeping your baby clean, which on some days involves more costume changes (for both of you) than any non-mother can begin to fathom. You are teaching a tiny, helpless person all about the world—at least the important parts, like how we treat each other and what it means to be connected to a family. You are creating a foundation of love and trust between you and your baby, one that will help you set your parenting compass, inform your future interactions, and provide a basis for the way your child relates to the larger world. You may be breastfeeding your baby—another time consuming task (though once established, it takes less time than bottle feeding) that reaches forward through time to heal and protect your child, and simultaneously reduces your risk of disease. Oh, and you’re becoming a mother. It started the day your baby was conceived, and it continues beyond birth. Your baby is stretching and growing into this new body, and you are too.
But that’s about it, really. That’s your day.
Our culture doesn’t have a good way to measure what you are accomplishing. Your baby will grow and meet milestones: check. But to the untrained eye most of this work, at the end of the day, will look like nothing.
But we know better.
There is no greater task than the nothing you did yesterday, the nothing you are doing today, and the nothing you will do tomorrow. Caring for a baby is all about the immediate experience, yet the first two years are all about investment. It’s give, give, give, and give some more. These are hard-fought, rough-and-tumble years that can cut us down to our core and take us soaring high above the clouds, all in the space of 5 minutes. And yes, as you do the hardest work of your life, it will seem like you’re not getting anything done at all. Crazy, huh?
But here’s where it gets interesting: As much as you need and want a break now (and you should take one, more on that later), no mother has ever looked back on this time and thought, “I wish I had held my baby less.” You will not remember the dishes that didn’t get done, the vacuuming that you just couldn’t make happen, or the dirty clothes you wore more often than you’d like to admit. You will remember the first smile, the first belly laugh, the first words, the first steps. You will remember the way you looked at your baby, and the way your baby looked at you.
So the next time you find yourself wondering how another day is gone and nothing is done, stop. Hold your baby—feel the way that tiny body strains to contain this giant soul—complete, and full of potential all at the same time. Take a deep, slow breath. Close your eyes and measure your day not as tasks, but as feelings, as sounds, as colors. Exhaustion is part of it. And it’s true, you will get “nothing” done. But the hard parts will fade. The intense, burning love is what remains, and it is yours to keep forever.
Anne Rust, a founder of MamaSeeds.com, is a prenatal and postpartum advisor, yoga instructor, birth doula, mother of two, and an all-around cheerleader for moms and babies.