The sleepless nights start before the beginning. Before the world changes and your baby is born, you slowly realise you can no longer sleep like you once took for granted. You need the toilet every few hours, your hips ache, your legs cramp, you wake up worrying about not having enough nappies in your hospital bag. You think you are tired.
And then your baby is born and you discover you never really knew what tired was until near the end of that first week you became a mother. You truly haven't slept for months, you have given birth, your body doesn't feel like your own, and you know unbroken sleep is very, very far away. Your baby won't stop crying until you hold her. And you are too afraid to doze off with her in your arms. And so you sit up, with your newborn, for what seems like nights on end. It is.
And you cry. Because you really are now so tired that you don't know what else to do. There's nothing else, really, but you and your baby and your tiredness. You don't think you can keep trying to feed her, you don't know if you can keep holding her the right way. But, somehow, without you knowing how, you do.
After the first week, you doze off with your baby in your arms because she still won't sleep anywhere else and you are desperate. Desperate? Yes. Your baby is awake for an hour. Then she sleeps in your arms for two hours. If you try to put her back in her basket she wakes and cries and takes hours to resettle. And so your cycle begins again.
You lie on the sofa exhausted (for yes, now you really are) and watch as your husband walks around the kitchen, up and down, singing, shushing, swaying, rocking... but your baby still cries. More than anything you want to go to sleep, but you can't leave them because those cries keep you in the room.
These nights do get further apart though and very very infrequently you get a whole night made up of stretches of three hours of unbroken sleep.
Suddenly, you can sleep at any given (or not fully given) opportunity. You never used to be able to take a mid-afternoon power nap. You now fall asleep before you're even lying down fully, before you've propped up the pillows, or straightened your blankets. Wake me up in 20 minutes you say. But your husband leaves you to sleep because you need it and it's two hours before the baby cries for food again...
As they grow, there are good runs and bad runs. Over winter it doesn't end, this relay of broken nights. They begin with sickness and end with sickness, the washing machine spins constantly, the soundtrack to dark.
You cope, somehow, with the new normal. The days start with heavy limbs, limbs that you don't feel able to stir awake. But you don't have a choice because the children are already pulling your feet over the side of your bed and lining up your slippers for you to push your feet into. You don't have a choice even though you know you could sleep for a year.
And through this hazy fog are days that are spent with the children who don't sleep and for whole hours of these days you forget. Because when they lock eyes with you and laugh at you and hold your hand, you forgive them every minute of every hour.
You put them to bed knowing you have a short time before their cries splice your evening. You rush to do what you need but you never get it all done because there they are, the screams in the night. Even after the back molars are through and the children are well and the night terrors are over, the nights are still broken.
You've given up spending hours trying to resettle your baby because you're just too tired because you really haven't slept properly for years. You bring her into your too-small bed and try to stay awake while she settles. Quickly, because she can touch her fingers to your face and hold your hand and lie right beside you and squish into you until you almost fall out of the bed. She doesn't mind that you have work tomorrow or were planning to get up early to finish your paperwork.
You are already dozing off maybe before she is and when you wake up aching and stiff it is night and you still aren't in your pyjamas and you still haven't done your teeth but you're just too tired to get up and move her because she might wake up. And you must have fallen back to sleep but next time you wake up you decide you have to get up and so you chance it and you move her back into her cot. You've practised it a million times, lowering her slowly so she doesn't wake up. Tip-toeing across the hall for the quietest tooth brushing ever. And collapsing back in bed.
You should be able to sleep. The children are in their beds.
But this is broken sleep. It is the awake hours now for no reason.
For a while at least. Because then too soon you're woken again by cries. Your body can't move it's just so tired. But outside it is light.
And they jump on your bed like they've slept for a week. And the day begins. With a hazy, blurry start. You hold them to you, breathe in their morningness, and know that one day you will miss these nights when there is just you and them and the night. And all they need is you.
An earlier version of this post first appeared on Kiran Chug's blog, Mummy Says.