In my lactation group the main topic, apart from bleeding nipples, is sleep. Every parent, it seems, struggles to get their offspring to fall asleep gently; napping terrorises the better half of the day, and we all know about the sleepless nights.
Why write this post here and not on the mummy page? you might ask. When you have a baby, sleep, invariably, becomes a topic, but I feel it is a massive issue with most people - children or not. And if we know that sleep is not only a topic for the smallest among us, is it possible that we, as parents, make it an issue, rather than it actually being one?
I have a book about sleeping and babies in which it says that tribal African women were asked what "bed routine" they have with their children. They were puzzled by the question and simply said, "they sleep when they are tired." As a society we seem constantly tired. Everyone is tired, all the time. It seems none of us get any sleep - children or not - measured from the level of tiredness around. I also hear "I really should go to bed earlier more often" from many, many people - so what's keeping us?
I have a theory. Ever since Lily came to this world, I have read plentiful on sleep. Sleep is about relinquishing control. Sleep is about letting go. Sleep is about loneliness. Sleep is about calmness. Sleep is about quietness. Sleep is about missing out on things.
Listing it as above, I am not surprised most people have an issue with sleep, for, in our society, hardly anyone is good at any of these things. Let's start at the bottom. FOMO, we've even got a word for it. The thought that we might miss something because we're going to bed early seems to be a major factor in the sleep conundrum. We're obsessed with dancing on all balls - even the ones we don't particularly like. But what do we really miss? Watching Netflix? Playing on our phones? Drinking? It seems to me these are all hardly things we should stay up for.
I am a very bad sleeper - partly because I love doing the things I just said above (apart from drinking). However, ever since Lily was born, I more than not went to bed with her at eight o'clock - and you know what? I didn't miss anything. I did, however, wake up at seven in the morning, feeling like a million dollars (for a new mum, which is still not great, but at least not a-truck-has-just-run-me-over-feeling like). Still, I sometimes even admonish myself for going to bed early, I could do so many things if I got up again, right? Also, I am scared of my thoughts.
Which brings me to the next point. Most people I encounter are terrified of being alone with their thoughts - which is also why the present situation is so difficult for so many, I assume. Permanent entertainment guarantees a swift and gapless transition without having to address the lurking thoughts bubbling underneath. Especially under the prevailing circumstances, I have noticed how many people I know are paralysed by the thought to be at home on their own all day - with their thoughts. Don't get me wrong, it can be depressing to be alone all day, it really can. As a freelance writer I am painfully familiar with that condition; however, silence and aloneness are not only pitfalls for depression. They can also be deeply replenishing, mindful and resourceful.
True genius is often borne of boredom, so I believe. Minds that are allowed to wander, to be idle and to venture into unknown territories are the ones who stumble over great ideas, reflections and thoughts - which is probably why so many people say their best ideas hit in their half-sleep. True, many of them seem to be much better during half-sleep and are simply rotten in an awake state, but it means we explore the possibilities of our thinking much deeper when our guards are down, when we're not in full control, when we've yielded full consciousness.
I am also intrigued why so many people want to try meditation these days. On the one hand I can understand that many of us crave a spiritual access to something; but most people I encounter wouldn't be able to sit still long enough for their minds to settle out of sheer fear what might be dredged up from their muddy memories. And before anyone starts believing I am this smug, enlightened beast shaming other people, I fully count myself as part of this category. It is insanely difficult for me to calm down, to quieten the mind, to sleep.
Another issue I encounter in myself but also feel is a bigger problem for the society at large, is relinquishing control. Sleeping means letting go. Letting go of control, the active mind, full consciousness, decisions. We enter a world where we don't know the rules, where there is no remote control or driving instructions - a world where anything could come up without us being able to shut it down. Being asleep means being vulnerable and vulnerability appears to be associated with weakness - don't drop the mask (the proverbial one, I mean), don't "lose your face", don't let them see your pain, "grit your teeth" - we have so many idioms centring around "keeping it together", yet hardly any that go among the likes of "show them the pain", "cry in public if you have to" or "admit that you feel hurt by what someone said." Being in full control of your emotions, your surroundings and, ideally, each and everyone in your vicinity seems to be the sought after state of mind - only that this is impossible to attain.
Speaking of idioms, ever heard of "surrender to sleep". It says plenty about the relationship we have with sleep. It's a battle and we lose if we fall asleep, we surrender. "Surrendering" also associates to weakness and vulnerability, doesn't it? And, more importantly, it is a negatively associated term. If you surrender you didn't win, and if you didn't win, you're a loser. Contrary to that, ironically, we perceive our babies (and ourselves as parents) as "losers", i.e. "bad sleepers" if they don't nod off gently the minute we put them down in their crib in their own bedrooms. Conversely, we are losers if we surrender to sleep, linguistically, and also losers if we are "bad sleepers". Sleep, as it seems, is a minefield in which one can only lose. Damned if you sleep and damned if you don't.
Sleep seems to have become a massive market because of the problems so many encounter with it. Have you noticed how many "sleep-aid" apps are around? Programs with subscriptions and the works, promising you sound sleep in exchange for more dependence on your phone and an outer source. In my opinion these programs only hold appeal because they give us the feeling to have any control about the whole sleep conundrum. That we can buy better sleep like brand sneakers or a status car. In a world where cities burn so bright that it never gets dark and we are told we can control everything from our heating even when we're not at home, our calorie intake with the right app to our screen time, is it any wonder we struggle to do one of the most fundamental things humans do?
I was tempted by such a sleep app, by the way, but when I saw how much the subscription was, I asked myself, Do I really need an app to help me fall asleep? In the end, I relied on the oxytocin from breastfeeding and the cuddly, warm baby on my belly to find into Morpheus's arms. Yoga, fresh air and an early dinner also help - oh, and why not give meditation another try? I've heard it helps with relinquishing control not only in the bedroom but other life areas, too. Personally, I could never be bothered with sitting motionlessly on my yoga mat, but it's still cheaper than an effing subscription to Calm where people teach you how to sleep.
Quickly returning to the baby issue before stopping with my rambling, if we as adults need an app to fall asleep, we shouldn't wonder if our babies need a minute or two as well. Relinquishing control here also means to accept that your baby isn't a machine where you press the buttons and it nods off, it's a human being like we are and maybe needs your assistance as much as you need the one of apps like Calm. And it's not just babies, we should allow ourselves to find gently into sleep as well - without an app but more appreciation of entering a state of controllessness and tranquillity.
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