The working parent and the sleepless nights silver-lining

Are you familar with the 2-children curse ? This is a much known and much encountered concept in my home.

After 4 months of night feedings, Peanut, my 5 month-old daughter, decided that she could go the whole night without milk.

YES !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

My husband Lion and I enjoyed 4 nights of sleep bliss before everything went pear shaped again. This time, it was our 2 year-old, Apple, who started for some reasons to be afraid of her bedroom. I guess this is a normal milestone in her development : the dark, the monsters, the weird noises… All of this started to frighten her at night and she would call out for us. Every night. Twice at least.

Then, after 3 weeks of waking up every single night and us reassuring her, Apple suddenly slept through a couple of nights. And that’s when Peanut went through a growth spurt and was hungry again at 4 am…

(Fun story : last night, neither girls woke me up ! So did I sleep ? No, because Lion has man flu and kept snoring…)

And that’s where I am, having not had a single full night of sleep in almost 6 months.

Before I became a mum, I was a fairly sound sleeper. Of course, I turned up for work a few times sleep-deprived (random Sunday-night insomnia for instance). The workday following a crap night were not nice at all but I would go through them ok. Because I knew that I would sleep the following night and everything would go back to normal.

As a working parent, sleepless nights used to scare the s*** out of me.

First, because it’s not just one random night, it’s weeks and weeks and months of them, sometimes with not a single good night in between. You can’t see the end.

Second, because these repeated bad nights start to attack your cognitive abilities. You think less well, less clearly. As a worker, you are not performing as well and more prone to stress, negative emotions, lack of perspective.

And when you leave your little ones all day with a caregiver to pursue your career, you really really want to be good at it because otherwise, why do it ? In my case at least, the pressure I put on myself only went up as I became a working mum, I am not cutting myself any slack (and perhaps I should).

In the days before going back to work after Peanut was born, I was freaking out : “she still needs feeding every 3 hours ! I’ll never sleep ! They’ll think I now suck at my job !”

However, as the sleepless nights piled on and on, something amazing happened : I got used to them. Now, I don’t mean that my cognitive abilities are restored, they are not. But I either became really really good at hiding my impairments or I just learnt to let go of the fear, but somehow, I do my job. I turn up in the morning, I mostly make rational decisions, I have only cried in the bathroom once in the 3 months I have been back (yay !)

As a professional, sleepless nights have increased my long term self-confidence : sure, I was not at the top of my game immediately post-babies, but I still did a decent job.

Also, I realised I am not alone ! When I returned to work after my first maternity leave, I realised there is a secret society of sleep-deprived parents in work. Those people have A LOT of empathy for one another because they know how hard it is. And they have a lot of respect for you when you still manage to be a semi-effective executive. It has also softened me and I also now have massive respect for all working parents out there : you are all doing a fantastic job !

Anyway, in case it is useful for anyone, here are a few tips I use to keep me alert on rough days :

  • I drink one or 2 cups of tea in the morning. I don’t drink strong coffee (or any coffee for that matter) after 11am as I find this stops me settling for bed at 10pm, which is what I must do if I want to grab 7 to 8 hours sleep. Black tea gives me the perfect balance of caffeine. If I want a hot drink as a pick-me up later in the day, I have decaf tea and coffee at my desk. This gives me the comfort without the excitability.
  • I do desk stuff  in the morning and meetings in the afternoon : being around people stimulates me so it helps me get through the early afternoon.
  • I have a nourishing lunch (Veg, Carbs and Protein) and regular snacks throughout the day. I try to avoid very sugary stuff outside of meal times as I find this gives me a boost and then send me down the pit… Snacks I favour are : Savoury crackers, Rice cakes, Fruits, Carrots or Cherry tomatoes, Cheese, Miso Soup. All of this can be had neatly and cleanly at work.
  • I get up from my chair : this helps me gather my thoughts and regain a bit of energy. Sometimes, all I do is go to the loo to wash my hands, just to give myself an excuse to move. Sometimes, I take this opportunity to go and talk to some of my team, or some people who work in another team, and every single time, I am glad I did because it often triggers an idea and that helps re-energize me.
  • I cycle to work : Light exercise first thing in the morning gives me a boost. With the kids, the house and work, there’s no way I can go to the gym or the pool first thing, so a commute on human-propelled wheels is the perfect combination of practicality and sport.
  • I make to-do lists : Some days, I am so tired that my cognitive abilities are impaired. Those days, I just write off any strategic or creative thinking and only focus on going down my admin tasks, one by one. This gives me some satisfaction that the day has not been lost.


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