About three days into being a parent I learned that “sleep when the baby sleeps” is horrible advice. Or rather, it’s wonderful advice, but almost impossible to follow.

If you sleep when the baby sleeps, then you are only awake when the baby is awake. And if the baby is awake, then you are feeding, changing, soothing, playing, adoring and waiting for the baby to be asleep again.

So besides knowing a love like no other and being responsible for a human life (or two in my case), this realization was, for me, the moment I registered that everything in life was different. The freedom to choose how to spend my time was relinquished to my twin boys. Their needs, as it rightfully should be, called the shots. And there were a lot of needs (not to mention, a lot of shots). In the haze of the fear, self-doubt and exhaustion of new motherhood, my life looked unrecognizable. Though eternally grateful for my children, I was suffocating.

One afternoon, my 3-week-old babies were sleeping. I chose not to sleep. I also chose not to wash dishes, put away toys or write overdue thank-you notes. The only thing I wanted to do was watch an episode of Grey’s Anatomy.

My boys were born in mid-April, just in time for the drama-filled countdown to the season finale. Just a few feet away in my DVR was a chance to escape into to my pre-motherhood life. To lounge on the couch while pretending it didn’t now smell like spit-up and watch the unluckiest group of surgeons survive (or not) another catastrophe — or at least make-out in the on-call room.

I remember feeling almost surreal watching the first episode stored on my DVR. Like, how could I be a mother and watch Grey’s Anatomy? My eyes darted back and forth between the fictional operating room in Seattle and the very real Pack ‘n Play in my living room. Was I really capable of caring about what happens on a television show even though right next to the TV were two little chests rising up and down in harmony, mirroring the deep breaths I was taking each day to calm my nerves over my new responsibility? I wondered if I was still allowed such frivolous wants — even though in the moment it fell more like a need.

Luckily, thankfully, the answer was “yes.” Old Me and New Me could co-exist. I mean, I was still a mess. I still didn’t have any idea what to do with these babies who now lived in my house and consumed all of my physical and emotional energy. And I was still super freaked out about that.

But I also still loved a show about fake doctors and their unprofessional dalliances.

As the fog has cleared from the exhaustion of newborns to the mania (and exhaustion) of toddlers, I have learned how this is possible, how your before- and after-children selves dance around each other in those early days, unsure of what to make of the other, if they are friends or foes. And then one day, they finally coalesce, understanding they were never really separate.

And the line between starts to fade and becomes less important. Because you never truly go back to your former self, nor does that version of yourself get cast away to exile. My identity does not end or begin with being a mother, but it is certainly formed by it, just as my version of motherhood is a union of who I was and the experiences I lived before my boys arrived.

With toddler boys running around, my DVR is as full as ever. I think I only made it through three episodes of Grey’s Anatomy this season. My husband keeps threatening to erase them so he has room to record all of the golf tournaments he never has time to watch.

I know I can always watch the episodes online or on Netflix when the chance finally presents itself, but I need them on my DVR. It’s my reminder that I might be a mother and my life is pretty much unrecognizable from before I had kids, but I am still me. When I’m frantically scrolling through the menu to activate a Sesame Street or Paw Patrol recording for a few minutes of quiet, I like seeing the Grey’s Anatomy episodes. I imagine the characters looking up from a super risky surgery and waving to me, telling me to take my time, they aren’t going anywhere (except to syndication).

So now that is what I tell new parents. When the baby sleeps, do something that makes you feel like you. Maybe that is picking up the house or writing thank-you notes. Or maybe you just collapse on the couch and watch some mindless television.

And by all means, get some sleep.

Caryn Berardi

Caryn Berardi works in higher education and lives in Texas with her husband and twin toddler boys. Her writing has been seen on Huffington Post, Kveller, Modern Loss, Scary Mommy and Beyond Your Blog. She can be found dreaming about retirement on her blog or on Twitter.