Excerpt from Lessons of Labor: Thinking in Circles
Thinking in Circles
In the background, a mix CD played on repeat throughout my five hours of labor at the hospital. My husband and I had burned this CD together and had included a track of soothing ocean sounds between every other song. Three hours into this repeated ocean soundtrack, I wanted the CD to be thrown out the window or at least turned off. I was desperate to be rid of those manufactured waves, but I could not speak out loud to ask my husband or doula for help.
Never before had I felt such an odd separation between my mind and body. My thoughts continued in their ranting (I wish they would turn off that CD!), and yet I could not get the words out of my mouth. All of my bodily functions, including speech, were overtaken completely by the involuntary contractions of my uterus—and my uterus was doing its job whether or not the sounds of the ocean were soothing my mind.
When I could let the music be background instead of foreground, my irritation would recede. In those moments, I could breathe deeply and repeat the song I truly wanted to hear in my mind, noticing the contractions escalate and diminish according to their own rhythm. Sometimes I get stuck in a mental loop. When my thoughts are getting me nowhere but the same place I have been, it’s time to move my attention somewhere else.
Over-thinking, for me, has been a true impediment to parenting. Many experts seem to suggest that parenting is a science we can be trained in, rather than a relationship we need to feel our way through.
The newest theories offer us specific responses to crying babies, stubborn toddlers, or fighting siblings. I get caught in this mentality, believing that if I can just keep thinking about the problems of parenting for long enough, I can solve them.
What if they aren’t problems, though, but rather just the stuff of life? In that case, wouldn’t it be better to just respond to my children in the moment, based on a true presence with what’s actually happening?
When I can step back a little from immersion in my own thoughts, I feel a slight spaciousness and more freedom to choose where I put my awareness. This doesn’t mean that thoughts are the enemy. I couldn’t get rid of them if I tried. Sometimes, though, it helps to place less stock in the validity of my thoughts and break myself out of those mental loops.
Right now, it’s 4 a.m., and I’ve been awake since my son’s coughing episode woke me up about an hour ago. He’s okay now and has gone back to sleep, but I feel fully alert.
Before I had children and in my earliest years as a parent, I engaged in serious negotiations with my mind when I would lie awake like this in the middle of the night. I’d beg, “Please go to sleep.” I’d warn, “You only have three hours until you have to get up.”
I’d fret, “How will you be able to function at work?”
I was exclusively focused on my inability to sleep. Regardless of the mental exercise, I would be awake for approximately two hours, and then I would either fall asleep or get up for the day if it was already morning.
No matter what I tried to do, those two hours felt endless, like I’d been up for days on end. I tried various sleep-inducing herbs, melatonin supplements, and prescription medications. I played with every strategy imaginable. The best one was forcing myself to scrub the shower stall tiles in the middle of the night. (The rationale was that the threat of an onerous chore would trick the mind into quickly going back to sleep. If it didn’t work, I would still have a clean bathroom.) I have a good deal of willpower, but I couldn’t keep trying that method for more than a couple nights.
A few years ago, I surrendered to the insomnia. I just accepted that there will be some nights I don’t sleep much. Sometimes (many times), a child wakes me up, but other times it’s just me, needing to go to the bathroom or waking up from a dream. Regardless of the reason, I will be up for about two hours.
Accepting this pattern, I have been able to use the time to do whatever I feel like doing. Often, I will relax in bed, letting my mind wander without worrying about the time. Other nights, like this one, I get up a little and read or write.
The time is much more pleasant now. First I am asleep, and then I wake up for two hours. Then, I go back to sleep or get up for the day, just like before.
The only difference is that I don’t engage in mental negotiations or watch the clock anymore. If it doesn’t matter what my mind is doing, if I will be awake anyway, why not just do something relaxing or enjoyable? Sure, I’m still tired the next day, but thinking too much about sleep never gave me much rest, either. If I can’t be well rested, I can at least be free of my mental loops.
- Julia Aziz
Read more in Julia's book, Lessons of Labor.