I met with my doula today for a book return and quick check in.
Kim came into our lives quickly and fortuitously after we learned that my pregnancy had gone from low to high risk. I was going to be induced early due to gestational hypertension and we knew we would want someone to help us navigate the new world of medical interventions and all the new decisions we would have to make.
We hired her mid-June, went on a babymoon, and returned to an immediate hospitalization and subsequent delivery. It was almost divine in the timing. Initially we weren’t going to hire a doula, but with all the new problems we were encountering, having someone act as a sounding board and medical advocate became vitally important to us.
Kim asks incredible questions and has a whole demeanor that allows for immediate, open conversation. 5 minutes into our conversation I dove deeply into the world of my new paradigm as a parent and explained to her the difficulty of managing the new level of fatigue.
Fatigue isn’t just coming from the obvious source of a lack of sleep. What we don’t really talk about is the fact that our brain is rewiring as parents. Kim constantly reminded me of this in the early days with Ronan and it’s a piece of information I pass on to other new moms. In my work in organizational change management, brain rewiring, both on the personal and organizational level, is the centerpiece of what I am trying to do. In order to successfully rewire brains there needs to be a constant source of energy (glucose), a regular cycle of stress (the change we’re making), and rest.
In parenting, there are several barriers to quick rewiring. First, there is the obvious lack of sleep and downtime to facilitate rest. I type this as my son is napping, but if I weren’t I’d likely be doing dishes, laundry, responding to emails, or planning any of the 10,000 things that go into running a household and business. Even this is not rest. Rest involves a lack of stimulus like sleeping or meditating. Even watching TV or reading, activities commonly associated with relaxing, involve external stimulus that keeps our brains from truly resting.
When we rewire the human brain we need LOTS of rest. Children are the most concrete example of brain rewiring. Part of the reason why they sleep so much is because of all the new neural connections being built and reinforced through reviewing memories.
Though we new parents are doing some serious rewiring, the main source of fatigue comes from what I call Baby Calculus. This is the constant flow of tiny decisions parents have to make every day. There is well-documented evidence of decision fatigue, which is the feeling of exhaustion we get from making many small decisions during the day. Decisions in non-parental life can start first thing in the morning with what to wear. President Obama famously reduces his chance for decision fatigue by only wearing blue or gray suits. As the day goes on, we draw on more and more glucose stores in our brain as we decide how to respond to texts or emails, whether or not to go to the gym, what to have for lunch, to get water now or after the meeting, how to order our coffee today, etc.
For parents, not only do we make these decisions for ourselves, but we also make them for our tiny human. My most vivid example was just after Andy had gone back to work and I was trying to get Ronan down for a nap. We had just gotten a swing from a friend and we were heavily relying on it to soothe him during the day. But we discovered that sometimes if we left the swing on after he had fallen asleep, the movement would actually wake him up. So we had taken to turning it off after 10 minutes. But then in the last day, the lack of movement was causing him to wake up. So you can see the dilemma. Do I turn off the swing or leave it on? My baby needs a nap, but there’s a 50/50 chance that whatever I do will wake him up and could have to start the process of soothing him to sleep all over again.
This is just one of many, many decisions that get made in the course of caring for a newborn. Do I go on a walk while he’s awake or asleep? Should I put him down for a nap now or later? In 3 minutes? 5 minutes? Will this catnap affect his night sleep? Should I let him try and soothe himself back to sleep or go in and offer a bottle or paci? Was that a cry that needs immediate attention or his just making noise in his sleep like babies do?
Add to that all the decisions I have to make for myself during the day and no wonder new parents rely on food that’s easy to make and skip the gym.
Ronan is 3 1/2 months old now and just starting to show some regularity in his routine. This is akin to finding a way to automate email responses or meal planning. As his routine and needs become more regular and recognizable, the number of decisions I have to make in a day will start to decrease and hopefully give me some brain space back for eating a salad and returning to the consulting work I love so much.
Though it’s more likely that, because he’s a human, he’ll start to shift the minute I find some regularity. It’s ok, though, because my brain is rewiring, too, and starting to get better and figuring out what my tiny human needs.