I’ve been awake since 2.30 this morning, when I was jolted awake to the screams of a five-year-old girl. She’d had a “very bad dream with monsters in it”. Despite hours spent comforting her, she could not easily get back to sleep, and she tossed and turned until dawn. When she at last found slumber, as the sun rose, my body clock was telling me to also rise.
As I blearily did so, my own nightmare began, as I faced another day of attempting to function like a normal human being, on just a couple of hours sleep. The daily tasks which you’d normally skip through after a good night’s rest now lay ominously ahead, daunting and dreadful.
Sleep deprivation is without doubt the most punishing aspect of parenting small children. This year marks for me a decade as a paid-up member of the legion of the sleep deprived, having had four children in that time. Through necessity, you do become able to function reasonably well with little sleep.
Amongst these last 10 years of broken sleep, there have been good months and bad months, but generally speaking, a good night’s sleep has been a rarity. A good sleep is noticeable by its presence – on those odd mornings when you wake with a strange sense of wellbeing, and a feeling of capability and mental acuity.
Chronic sleep deprivation is a long-term phenomenon, and one night’s sleep doesn’t cure it. That requires weeks of consistently good sleep – something that is effectively impossible for the parents of small children. And so, over the years we adjust to a new and bleary normal, a busy haze through which we somehow manage careers, families and households.
All our time, resources and our waning energies are dedicated to our children. Our hearts dictate that we would, of course, prefer to be sleep deprived and to jeopardise the important meeting the next day, rather than have a child upset and alone in the middle of the night. And so we carry on.
Yet it is a happy haze. Last weekend, in an apparently deliberate effort to avoid sleep, we all went camping, including the baby. Amid torrential showers and gales, we all woke several times during the night. Yet it was a joy to see the kids’ excitement at eating breakfast, sitting on the grass, or toasting marshmallows on the fire in the evenings and wrapping up cosily at night in their sleeping bags (ironically named, it seemed to me). We camped with cousins and the children played merrily all day on the beach and long into the dusk around the tents, while we adults reclined by the fire.
The day after our camping trip was my birthday. My wife’s present to me was a chainsaw and – best of all – a night of guaranteed sleep, where she would deal with any and all child-related disturbances. The kids had written their own birthday card for me, after a very lengthy conference as to what it should say, according to my wife.
The message was entitled, “To the Best Dad in the World” and it read, “We love you so much, thank you for being so kind, loving, helping us, giving us time and protecting us. We love you infinity times to Mars and back.” With their beautiful words, and beautiful faces, in my mind I went at last to bed for a birthday sleep, still tired – yet deeply thankful for the cause of my tiredness.