4 hours a night like Margaret Thatcher


I once tried to write a short story about people who slept in a polyphasic (segmented) pattern. It wasn’t a very good story, but the effects of sleeping like this continue to fascinate me. Apparently time stretches, so 24 hours feel like 40. People who learn to sleep in small chunks say they feel like Superman, like God. They get everything done and sometimes they go slightly mad.

Sleep is such a tease: when we have it we don’t notice, when we don’t we are crying on the floor like spilt milk. Of course, having a baby tends to cut into our sleep quota to a pretty high degree, something which you cannot fully or meaningfully interpret until you calculate that you have been getting by on 4-5 broken hours a night for months and months or years and years. NOW I know, you think, as you sob into your cereal.

But it gets better! Awful true parental cliche no. 1. The months start flying by! There goes another one. For a long time I wanted to get to the point where I was happy despite being sleep-deprived. I mean, mostly I wanted to not be sleep-deprived, but I would take a heady sleepless happiness as second-best.

I was obsessed by my lack of sleep, by my baby’s physical dependence on me to sleep, convinced I could not be happy until she “slept through the night” in her cot. But she doesn’t sleep through the night – she never has, not once at nearly 9 months old – and yet I have felt wildly happy recently. I had been so worried about it for so long and forgot to notice that the worrying about it was a lot worse than the actual “it” of it. When I realised this, I felt more energetic than I had in months, perhaps over a year. I decided I didn’t have to do anything I didn’t want to do, that it was ok to comfort-feed my baby in the night to get her back to sleep, something that was working for me at that point, even if – as the health visitor and the sleep consultant and the paediatrician and the blogs say – she doesn’t “need” to feed in the night at her age, the princely baby-age of 8.5 months old. Immediately after this, the night-time disruption seemed to barely touch the sides, and all the days that week with her were sunny and joyful. We will just go on as we are for now, I told her, and we both seemed happy about it.

Of course part of me (most of me?!) thinks fuck’s sake when I hear her crying in the night and I stumble out of bed and put on my dressing gown, slippers and go down the hall toward her. I reach her cot and she thumps her right foot against the mattress when she knows I’m there, and I pick her up and kiss her several times on her hot little cheeks as she whines, the sound of her needing me. The levels of tiredness ebb and flow: cope-able, not cope-able. There is probably no-one worse than the woman on the internet who says “just enjoy those cuddles mama! Treasure every moment! It passes so quick!”, because when you are tired you just deeply, deeply need to not be that tired, not be told to fucking enjoy it. But I understand what they are getting at. There is something tender about these peaceful night-time wake-ups, provided they don’t ask so much of us that we can’t function the next day.

Since she was born I have worried about what the right thing to do is and have been influenced by everyone and everything. The internet age is a terrible one to parent in: a hateful volume of questions, answers, opinions, utterly contradictory advice from “experts”. All the books. An entire industry that knows desperate parents will do anything to have their problem “solved”. Because every bit of baby advice has its own completely opposing solution, all you can do is go with the statements that seem truest for you. For me the things that started to resonate most strongly in this particular chapter of our lives were statements like babies wake in the night just like adults do and parenting doesn’t end at nighttime and babies don’t just feed at night for nutrition but for comfort and once you have night-weaned your baby you have potentially dropped a useful tool to get them back to sleep quickly and try not to obsess about your baby sleeping through the night; your goal is for you and your family to get the sleep you need alongside the loud voice in my head saying she is only a baby, she is only a baby. I am not so naive that I believe that different statements will come to seem truer next month, or tomorrow, and opposite statements will be more vital to other parents. That is ok.

Your baby is not a problem to be solved! I read that once, and I understood the sentiment, I really did, but all the internet posts were buzzing around my head – she will only sleep on my chest, he wakes every hour, he gets out of his big boy bed every hour in the night, do I wake her up from naps, do I leave him crying if he wakes up early from naps, she only has 30 minute naps – all from women (sorry but they are all women) in real despair. Babies are not problems but they present us with the most awful amount of shit, of course. This is parenting. It is beautiful and completely awful.

Last year I was in such a sleep-deprived fuzz that I barely noticed it was winter, but now spring is on its way. Such a cliche, so joyful! In that week where I felt so alive and awake I ran up hills with my daughter in the buggy as she made a “ssssshhhhjjjjjeeeeeee” sound of delight. When she was grumpy I threw her in the air. I made meals and did work while she slept and fell into bed in a messy exhausted heap at night. It won’t last. It will last. It’ll last as long as it lasts. We’re alive. Spring is on the way.


One Response to “4 hours a night like Margaret Thatcher”

  1. ‘Trust your instincts’ is always a good mantra – especially when your instincts are as sound as yours.

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