The 5 Stages of (Sleep) Loss

Ever since my son was born, I’ve been in deep mourning over a significant loss.

I didn’t lose a friend, or a loved one, or a job. I didn’t lose my engagement ring or anything of sentimental value.

But still – this loss has affected every single aspect of my life.

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I’m talking about the loss of sleep.

I’ve discovered that the five stages of grief and the five stages of sleep loss have uncanny similarities.

Stage 1: Denial

When I was pregnant, I wasn’t immune to know-it-all veteran moms waxing poetic about how blissfully unaware I was about the inevitable sleep deprivation. I smiled politely as they bestowed me with clichéd trinkets of wisdom like, “get all the sleep you can now” and “you’ll never sleep again after the baby comes.”

I thought back on all the all-nighters I had pulled in college. I thought about all the late nights in my twenties when I stayed out until last call and then dragged my butt to my office job the next morning. I thought about the incessant insomnia that had plagued the majority of my pregnancy. I thought I was prepared.

It turns out I was in complete and total denial about just how fucking terrible it would be. You see, all those other times I had lost sleep, I was able to make up for it. Sure, I might’ve stayed awake for 24 hours to get a term paper done, but then I’d have the opportunity to sleep away the entire weekend. And sure, I was dead-tired and super uncomfortable while I was growing my tiny human, but at least I didn’t have to feed and change and bounce and rock and pump and bathe and pace – with absolutely no break. All I had to do was let him chill in my belly while I laid in bed and mindlessly watched Netflix while eating an entire box of dry cereal.

I was in denial over how easy pregnancy is compared with motherhood. And the hardest part of motherhood, at least for me, was – you guessed it – the loss of sleep.

Stage 2: Anger

I’m not proud to admit it, but the fact that I basically haven’t slept in a year has done quite a number on my once-cheery personality. I used to be the type of person who would wake up and announce, “Today is going to be freaking awesome!” And I meant it. 

Now, once the fog of four hours of choppy sleep punctuated by the screams of my baby has cleared, I think “Today is going to suck because I’m so goddamned tired.” I think that every single day.

I’m not saying that every single day totally sucks. I’m not saying that at all. Even though I’m beyond exhausted, I still manage to fully comprehend the joy that is new motherhood. But that joy, no matter how strong, cannot erase the bitterness I feel when my alarm goes off every morning and I’ve calculated my net total of sleep for the night.

I think the main source of my anger is that there is really no solution to any of this except time. (Please, please no more sleep tips. When I tell you I’ve tried everything, I mean EVERYTHING). I know, realistically, that one day my child will start to sleep more at night. I know this is just temporary. I know I will look back on this and tell my son in a most lighthearted way, “You were the best baby but the worst sleeper.”

But until then, I’m really pissed off. So please don’t talk to me until I’ve had my coffee.

Stage 3: Bargaining

Since we became parents, my husband and I like to play a silly little game that I call “What Would You Trade for Sleep?”

Here is what I would trade for a full night’s sleep: chocolate, sex, my sense of smell, the internet, comfortable underwear, and air conditioning.

Here is what I would trade for a full week of sleep: my soul.

Stage 4: Desperation

When my son was around 3 months old, he was still in a brutal pattern of needing to eat every two hours, 24 hours a day. I was exclusively pumping and it was also time for me to return to my full-time job. It was a very dark period where all I did was cry and obsessively think about sleep. That is not an exaggeration; I was incapable of thinking or talking about anything else.

My body hurt everywhere. I wasn’t eating much. I had lost every pound of baby weight and then some.

My family was worried about me. 

Upon my (too soon) return to the workforce, I was required to go on a cross-country business trip. I would have to spend two nights away from my new baby. Not only was I desperate, my anxiety was at an all-time high. I honestly have no idea how I got on that plane.

My first night away, I crawled into my hotel bed at 5 pm, pulled the comforter over my head and woke up at 7 am the next day. I slept for 14 hours straight. I did the same thing the next night – engorged boobs be damned.

I returned home feeling refreshed and energized and ready to tackle life as a working mom. All it took was two full nights of sleep for my desperation to lift.

Of course the desperation has periodically returned but it is always directly correlated to the amount of sleep I get (or more accurately, don’t get). Now I know that when I’m starting to feel down, I need to make sleep a priority.

Stage 5: Acceptance

I’ve finally gotten to a point where I’ve made peace with the hand I’ve been dealt.

In talking (okay, complaining) to my mom tribe, this is what I’ve come to realize: Every single baby has their “thing.” Some babies are picky eaters. Some are constantly sick with ear infections. Some throw temper tantrums. Some refuse to be put down. Some have developmental delays. 

My baby’s thing just so happens to be that he’s a challenging sleeper.

In the words of my own mother, “It is what it is.”

 That’s not to say I don’t still mourn all the sleep I’ve lost. Sometimes I still find myself in various stages of the sleep-grieving process.

Just the other night, when my 13-month-old decided it would be a good idea to wake up every hour, on the hour, I cried real tears and thought to myself, “This cannot be happening.” Denial. I threw the covers off myself, got out of bed, and muttered, “This is complete bullshit.” Anger. I picked up my fussy kid, rocked him and begged him to go back to sleep and stay asleep. “If you sleep for the rest of the night, mommy will buy you a pony.” Bargaining. Later on in the night, around 4 a.m., I cried some more. Desperation. The next morning I dropped him off at his babysitter’s, both of us overtired and grumpy, and I kissed him goodbye like I always do and said, “Have a great day, my little sleep stealer.” Then I moved on with my crazy, wonderful, painfully exhausting mom-life. Acceptance.

Related: Interview with a Sleep Consultant
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