I Had a Newborn in Quarantine, Nights were the Hardest Part
By Jillian Pretzel
In the first months after my daughter was born, I'd lie in the dark every night playing "diaper change chicken" with my husband, Randall.
I'd wake up as soon as the baby did and count the seconds she cried—hoping Randall would leap out of bed and check on our newborn so I could go back to sleep. Instead, the baby would wail, my husband would snore, and I'd give up after less than a minute, stepping into my fuzzy slippers and taking my daughter to the next room.
Even before becoming a parent, I knew taking care of a newborn would be hard. I'd seen movies featuring parents with droopy eyes and unmatched socks. I knew I’d run into sleepless nights and exhausting days—but not like this. It was Fall 2020, and Randall and I were struggling through the coronavirus pandemic. We had two work-from-home jobs, a new baby, and no help.
The year before, when I was newly pregnant, Randall and I mapped out what child care would look like for our growing little peanut. We wanted to hire a nanny to help out in the early years, plus, we expected to get a lot of help from my mom, who was excited to meet her first grandchild. But once the pandemic hit, we changed our minds. We were terrified of our daughter getting sick and we couldn’t take any unnecessary risks, even if that meant isolating from loved ones.
So, when the baby came, we introduced our bundle of love to family through the living room window. My mom quarantined for 14 days and then stayed with us for the first week home with the baby, but she couldn’t stay strictly quarantined forever. When she left, we were on our own.
In those first few weeks, we were busy every moment of the day. Our laundry piled up, we rarely found time to shower, and we both felt we were falling behind at work. The days were hard but, for me, the nights were worse. All I wanted after a long day of juggling work and bottles was a long, deep sleep, but I was up three or four times a night with the baby. Each time I came back to bed, exhausted and stressed, I wanted to flick my sleeping husband’s cheek as punishment.
One day I called a friend, whose daughter was only a few months older than mine, to ask how she was getting through the pandemic. Immediately, I could tell she wasn’t having the same problem. On the phone, there was no baby crying in the background, no hint of fatigue in her voice. I pictured her lounging in a white gown unmarred by food stains, running her fingers through recently-washed hair. I had to know her secret.
She described her sleep training method, which started when her daughter was only a few months old. “Newborns need to get up to eat, but after three months or so, a lot of times they cry just because they want to be held,” she said. I was nodding anxiously on the other line, hanging on every word from this apparent parenting mastermind. She told me to let my daughter cry in her bassinet so she could learn to fall back asleep on her own. I could put my hand on the baby’s stomach or even sing to her, but she said to avoid picking her up. Eventually, my little one would learn to sleep through the night.
My friend’s words gave me hope. I pictured myself in the not-too-distant future with my own freshly washed clothes and clean hair. I imagined an empty email inbox and fantasized about filling my free time by making muffins from scratch. If I could start sleeping through the night, I knew I’d be more efficient, more patient, and probably a lot happier.
That night, I woke up when the baby began to cry and looked to my husband, still sleeping soundly. I let a minute pass, then two minutes, hoping my daughter would fall back asleep. I put my hand on top of her swaddled tummy, shushing and then singing, as I reminded myself to stay strong. A few minutes later, Randall woke up, too. I reminded him of the sleep training plan, but soon, he gave up, worried that we’d wake the neighbors.
"Oh no," he said when he lifted the baby from her bassinet, "she peed through her swaddle.” He swept her off to the next room to change her clothes and diaper, while I stayed in bed, feeling terrible. I'd been thinking the baby was crying because she was bored. Really, she'd been soaked and cold, asking for help.
The next morning I woke up feeling guilty. All day, I tried to be extra attentive, extra doting, extra patient. I wanted to make it up to my daughter, but also, I wanted to convince myself that I wasn't a bad mom.
All through the winter months, I tried my best to work and parent efficiently, but by early 2021, I ran out of energy. Randall and I were still afraid of coronavirus but I’d used up every last bit of my sleep-deprived strength. I needed help, I needed support, I needed a nap. We relaxed our lockdown rules and asked our family to start babysitting.
At first it was just my mom, then my in-laws. Then, when people started getting vaccinated, we started seeing friends again, too. In those first weeks, things changed quickly. With help during the day, Randall and I both worked faster, we had free time to cook, shower, and fold laundry. We were still on our own at night but, after easier days (and even an afternoon nap), I didn't mind getting up. I felt refreshed, and not just because of the newfound childcare.
Sitting with my mom, or my sister-in-law, or my best friend, I’d admit the things in person I'd been too shy to say over the phone. I'd hold a glass of wine and list off my errors, as if the couch were my own personal confessional. Besides my lone night of sleep training, I made lots of mistakes. There were times when I ran the bathwater too hot or too cold. The time I got the baby's skin when clipping her nails. There was even the time I took the baby out for a walk and realized my breast milk was leaking down my shirt.
My friends without kids would chuckle with me, while friends with kids would top my stories with ones of their own. We’d all struggled, we’d all made mistakes, and we'd all needed help at one point or another.
Eventually, I felt like I’d gained a little community of parents. I even got some mom tips and recommendations for invaluable products like reusable nursing pads, which would save me from getting milk on an otherwise clean outfit, and Sposie booster pads, which would keep my daughter’s diaper from leaking onto her clothes at night and were a total game changer.
Now, my daughter is over a year old and we still get a lot of help from my mom and my in-laws. We haven't gotten a nanny yet, but we've talked about it. In a lot of ways, parenting is a lot easier now that the world has opened back up. But in some ways, it's not. My clothes are often stained with avocado and the cream from the middle of Oreos. My inbox generally sits comfortably at around 220 unread emails. And while I do make a batch of muffins, I always use a mix.
My daughter now sleeps through the night, but every so often, I hear her cry: wanting to eat, or be changed, or just to be held. I always crawl out of bed to help her because I know, even after a long day, we all need a little help.