Column: Mama Said with Emily Martin
Emily Martin hasn’t slept for six years now and wonders: how much longer will she live?
I can’t believe this is the tenth Mama Said and I haven’t yet written about sleep when sleep, really, is the thing.
I’ve perceived the last six years of my life through a thin film of woozy tiredness. Slightly bloodshot, mildly dizzy, like the old times when we’d go out out, come in at 4am and then have to go to work without having a shower. That was so grim. But now I feel like that all of the time after just being in my house.
Everyone knows a baby means sleepless nights. So, you steel yourself for a few months. Fine. We expected that. But you also expected that stage to end. Once they got older, you assumed that they’d start sleeping and that things would settle down.
And that is life’s most terrible trick. For having a baby means you will never sleep, ever again. Oh sure, you’ll shut your eyes. But you’ll never actually fall asleep again. Not really.
Ask any parent of any age of child, “How is bedtime in your house? What’s going on round there at night?” and then let the anguish of their stories wash over you like a flood of tears.
“Yeah bedtime isn’t great at the moment,” they’ll say from their pale, dehydrated-looking faces. All over the country tonight, people are facing evenings after long, hard days with the same hopeless prospects.
It’s 6pm. Iggle Piggle optimistically waves your children goodnight. It’s 6pm, but somehow this process won’t properly end until 10pm. And only then will you be able to have your own dinner. Sit down. Pour yourself a drink maybe. Unfortunately, there’s nothing we can do, but maybe if we share our stories it might help?
After a long, dreadful period of doing separate bedtimes for each child (younger goes first, then older, chaos, no dinner), we've begun (somewhat desperately) a new thing where we try to put both of them to bed at the same time.
It’s dinner at 5pm, both in the same bath at 6pm and then at 7.30pm we all troop upstairs in two teams of two, diverging on the landing with a "Night, night then" and us adults look solemnly at each other as we shut each bedroom door, resigned to our own ridiculous fates.
Going with Girl, now 6, means reading a long chapter of a book, maybe two chapters, and then she likes to have a “chat” which means she likes to have questions fired at her. "Just TEN more questions, Mummy!"
Then there's the positioning of the nightlight which has to be moved around the room to different locations until she's happy with the projections of the stars and that it’s the right colour. And then she usually starts weeping which means however hard I’ve tried that day, however good my reading was or brilliant my questions, I come downstairs feeling like a massive appalling witch.
Going into the room with Boy (nearly 2) means “reading him a story” while he just carries on playing with his cars on the floor. Then switching the light out as it has to be pitch black otherwise he just gets up and goes downstairs. You both lie in the dark for up to two hours until he stops talking and hammering on things and once you sense he’s fallen asleep you peel yourself away from him, climb silently over his bed guard and commando roll out of the door without waking him up. It’s like a Crystal Maze challenge where the prize is wine.
And this is just the current phase we’re in. There have been many phases each with its own euphoric highs and its bitter, bitter lows.
Other things I’d like to mention include a public call for children’s authors please not to write long books. What The Ladybird Heard is long and involves every single animal noise on every single page. And What The Ladybird Heard Next, the sequel, is particularly cruel in light of book one. Julia Donaldson is the greatest, agreed, but she’s definitely written those in a spiteful parent-hating rage.
Also, this is all just about the turmoil of bedtime. What about the actual night? When the washing up is done, the credits have rolled and you can finally crawl into your own bed and wait for sleep, or for someone to start crying. Hang on. . . is it you - that’s crying?