Monday, February 1, 2010


I haven't been sleeping well lately, perhaps because of the pregnancy, but most likely because of a long-standing difficulty turning off my brain at night.  Now matter how tired I am when I get into bed, the minute my head hits the pillow, it's like a switch gets turned on that I just can't turn back off. 

Normally I have the most trouble sleeping when there is something on my mind or I'm stressed out.  But the insomnia, while recurring, usually comes and goes as issues pop up in  my life.  Lately, however, it's been almost every night, which is in sharp contrast to my first trimester when just about all I did was sleep - with no trouble whatsoever.  So it's a big shift, and all the more frustrating because I otherwise feel so much better than before.  Now I'm tired not from the pregnancy, but from the not sleeping.  And while some insomnia is to be expected given my complicated relationship with sleep, and the fact that I obviously have lots on my mind planning for baby, it's still difficult to deal with.  

I lie in bed for hours almost every night, trying everything possible to sleep (except herbal tea, since I can't drink it now for some odd pregnant reason).  I've tried essential oils, sleep balm, even yoga; nothing doing.  My brain just won't shut down.  I've even been doing the buddhist version of counting sheep:  Count each inhale and exhale up to the number 10, starting over each time a thought interrupts.  I don't think I've ever made it to 10, and not because I've fallen asleep.  Yep, those darn thoughts just take over completely.  And eventually I just get angry.

I can't sleep and I'm frustrated that I can't sleep so I toss and turn and feel annoyed at myself and then the anger just builds as sleep further eludes me.  So I wake up both exhausted and really pissed off.  Not a great way to start the day. 

In desperation I started looking through some pregnancy books for guidance, and eventually came across some wise words from Sheila Kitzinger*:  "The stillness of the middle of the night provides a marvelous opportunity for practicing relaxation and breathing techniques and for getting in touch with the baby." 

Funny, but despite all my efforts to be more mindful in daytime, I never thought of using those moments of insomnia as an opportunity to connect with the little one.  Seems obvious now, but reading that was a huge revelation.  

So when the thoughts started to come the other night, I focused instead on my body, my belly, my breath.  I redirected the stream of thoughts to the baby who is still so tiny that I can't even feel him/her moving yet, which is perhaps why it didn't occur to me before to spend that time connecting.  

And a surprising thing happened:  a gentle wave of gratitude just washed over me, sudden and unbidden.  As I thought about the baby I just started feeling thankful for the amazing gift of life growing inside of me.  As I looked over at Kevin resting peacefully beside me, instead of feeling resentful at his perpetual ease with sleep (or his snores), I felt grateful for his presence in my life, our choice to create this child together, and what a wondeful father I knew he would be.  And then I felt grateful for my warm bed, my cozy apartment, the relative material comforts I enjoy when so many others are sleeping out in the cold, or homeless in Haiti. And so on. 

And it's strange because at other moments when I've purposefully tried to be thankful, the gratitude often got corrupted by guilt over my privilege and I usually ended up feeling worse.  But the other night was different:  my heart was full of thanks and appreciation for the simple blessings that I suddenly became aware of as I laid wide-awake, breathing in the quiet darkness.  

I'm wondering if that means I can't force gratitude, as much as I feel I should be thankful at certain moments.  Maybe I just need to soften enough to let the gratitude in when it feels welcome, when it has the space to express itself fully and freely.   And the idea that I can use this insomniac time to do something healthier than getting angry is in itself a gift.  I don't know if I fall asleep sooner (though I suspect I do), but I wake up a lot happier. 

I think it's also a good lesson for when the baby comes, since everyone says that new parents don't sleep.  Well, if the insomnia continues, it's good training for what comes later.  And even if I do manage to start sleeping normally again, I think the idea of being present during a time of unwelcome wakefulness is crucial.  Just as I realized that I can choose to be angry about the insomnia, or use that time more peacefully-productively, I hope that I'll be able to appreciate those moments when the baby wakes me as a gift rather than a burden (at least some of the time!). 

Who knows what I'll be capable of in 6 months, but in the meantime it gives me something to work on when I can't sleep at night!

*from "The Complete Book of Pregnancy and Childbirth" (Knopf 2004).


DQ's Windmill said...

I have a longtime preoccupation with sleep. I understand what you have been feeling. I am so happy to hear about the spontaneous sort of peace that washed over you the other night. That's always how it is. Also, remind yourself that these are just passing phases in the body. Sleepy, then not so sleepy. And what you suspected is actually proven: people who say they are having trouble sleeping tend to underestimate the time they spent sleeping - they always slept more than they thought they did! That knowledge alone takes the edge off.

PS, I see you visited Plum Village! I made a little pilgrimage there in '07 - it was very special.

JenLF said...

I have so much trouble sleeping when I have a lot going on, even as sleep-deprived as I am with two munchkins who are not great sleepers. I loved reading about your moment in the middle of the night, though--it brought me back to that wonderful feeling of blessing and gratitude that I felt most of the time while pregnant. In a few short weeks, you'll have baby's movements to enjoy when you can't sleep. :)

Diana said...

Donna - yeah the sleep thing goes so much better when I stop stressing about how many hours I'm getting. And just being more relaxed at night means I feel more rested in the morning. And yes, Plum village is wonderful! I've only been once, but I practice with a sangha in the PV tradition, which has been such a great experience.

Jen- oh no, I was hoping that difficulty sleeping would go away once I became a sleep-deprived mother! sigh...

and yes I'm so looking forward to when I can actually feel the baby, that's going to be so exciting!

Lily said...

That feeling of peace and gratitude, and being present even when you would rather be sleeping is so wonderful, and so helpful to have practice with prior to the baby being born. As much as I had it after our daughter was born, I wish I had it more often. It is a state I really wish I lived in. :)