A good friend of mine went on a last-minute-late-night date last week that began with a phone call at 10.30pm, and ended at 5.30am at her flat with two large G & Ts and Emergency on Planet Earth at top volume (our parents turned to Rumours for nostalgia, we look back to Jamiroquoi to channel our early youth.) They both passed out, and when they got up he went to work. I imagined the scene: him stumbling into the office with a can of coke and a wry smile and saying to his colleagues “mate, I only went to bed at 6, I was wasted. I’m probably still pissed” and then sitting down to do a day’s work. Of course, this story has nothing to do with me, but my daydream did remind me of a time when a lack of sleep was something to be proud of.
Sleep is a precious commodity for the parents of the very young. Hours are collected like gold bars, as if we could stash them away for a rainy day; we barter on the nursery trading floor, selling midnight lullabies in exchange for lie-ins and cbeebies at dawn for breakfast. It’s a bear market, investor confidence is low, and all we really want are “just five more minutes”.
It seems to be a commonly accepted truth that the person who is working in the morning needs sleep in order to function properly and the person who is at home with the baby can easily get through the day with two hours sleep and a strong coffee. Biology and the politics of parental leave meant that more often than not there is a clear gender divide in the first months. Lots of couples, during the early days, decamp the daddy into the spare room to sleep all night, leaving the mother to deal with the baby because “he has to work” and “there’s no point in us both being tired”. Of course each family has its own internal logic, and it is not my place to judge the choices of parents who are doing their best to raise their children. But I do wonder if the tyranny of work needs to be challenged from time to time.
Is it not the same men who, pre-children, were drinking until 4 in the morning and rolling into work rubbing the stamp from their hand with a dab of red bull on a tissue, who now, after having a baby, need to approach a day’s work like an Olympic event: it seems that he needs to be Rocky (young and fit and training for the fight of his life) to tackle his in tray. Meanwhile there is a woman at home looking after their 10-week-old baby, with no idea what to do or how to do it, or worse, a toddler tearing around the house desperate for attention and activities, who is expected to parent, quite literally, with her eyes closed.
Biology has a large part in our downfall. Nature plays a cruel trick on pregnant women, making a good nights sleep impossible throughout the 7th and 8th months. And for breastfeeding mothers, night feeds are hers responsibility and hers alone. For all the convenience and comfort that breast feeding gives, it makes the partner’s role in the middle of the night practically irrelevant. For a lot of women, by the time they return to work, feel the freedom and pleasure of taking the bus alone, drinking a coffee, having a conversation with a colleague and realise that work is often by far the easier option, it is too late to redress the balance.
I was very lucky*. My husband took to nighttimes like a bat. He would leap out of bed at the first snuffle and deliver my son to me, with a clean nappy, and he would be there to put him back in his cot when he’d had enough to eat. It wasn’t such a big thing, but I knew I wasn’t alone. When my daughter came along, it was very different. It took a lot more than a snuffle to wake either of us up, and feeding her and getting her off to sleep was like falling off a log to me. Her birth coincided with a very difficult and stressful time at work for him, so much of the nocturnal activity was my domain. It was fine, I did it, and I didn’t resent it, but I was eternally grateful that first time around, he had been jigging the baby back to sleep and giving me a cuddle when I was crying with fatigue and frustration
We imagine that raising children is done on instinct and that the only muscle that is really needed to be in tip top form is the heart – the rest of the body can sail to hell in a handbasket. It’s true, of course, and if you love your children and keep them fed and warm, I really believe that it’s hard to go too far wrong. But I also know, that after a run of bad nights my patience is at zero, my fuse is short and my creative, physical and diplomatic energy is non-existent. The kids have a pretty uninspiring day and so do I. When I go to work feeling as tired, something about the air hitting my face, the paper cup of coffee, the banter and the focus keeps me going.
Sleep deprivation is awful, it’s painful and depressing, but it is part of the story of parenting. The night that my husband just gave up trying to get our son to sleep and watched an entire Thomas DVD at 2am is already part of our folklore. Those nights are the way we earn our stripes, our love for our children is tested almost to the limit and we learn that however much we might want to throw the crying bundle out of the window, we don’t. No body likes feeling that it’s impossible to cope, or that somehow they are underperforming at work, but for the 2 years or so that sleep is so fragile in babies, it’s worth it, just to know that you were in it together, and you came out the other side.
*At some point I will launch a campaign to stamp out the word ‘lucky’ when referring to having a partner who is so kind as to look after his own child. Now is not the time. I am lucky to have him, for all sorts of reasons.