So I’m currently in the grip of what most parents would call a ‘bad sleep phase’. This time it’s hit hard because there’s been at least six or seven months of quiet evenings followed by a good, fulsome, healthy six hours kip. You quickly adjust to the luxury of sleep. It’s a bit like waking up in an army training camp with a Sergeant bellowing for you to get down on the ground and give him fifty push-ups. It’s a rude awakening.
In the early days of parenting you fully expect to be awake more than you’re asleep. It’s tragic but acceptable. But I’d mistakenly believed that sleep got better as your child grows up. It seems this is not necessarily true. It’s different. Their needs become more complex. There are four year olds who crawl under their parents’ duvets and force them to sleep on the floor. Six year olds that will only sleep if there’s a specific DVD playing (and it has to be right section). Toddlers who will only drop off if Nick Drake’s ‘Riverman’ is playing on the IPad. The list goes on.
When I was a child my parents had a simple bedtime routine. Pyjamas on, brush your teeth, lights off. Sometimes I got up and started arsing about. I sat on the stairs and edged my way down step by step. Sometimes I cried. But then my Dad put me back in bed and he’d make the sort of face that persuaded me that arsing about was not an option. The bedroom door was shut. In the half-light (cast by my Snoopy night lamp) I could see the outline of a giant salivating monster devouring my favourite dungarees. Then the sound of Joni Mitchell and the smells of fondue/ratatouille/beef bourguignon (or some other late seventies treat) wafted up the stairs and usually I’d drift off to sleep.
Why have things become so complicated? Is it because we no longer rely on our instincts? Do we read too many parenting books? Why can’t we just show them our scary face and shout ‘IT’S TIME TO GO TO SLEEP SO I CAN WATCH HOMELAND!’
Just like my parents I’m a simple creature. At the end of a long day I like to come downstairs and eat a meal with my partner. I’m not big on fondue but as long as there’s some cheese involved I’m happy. Unlike my parents in the late seventies I rarely (i.e. never) sit up smoking and debating the large philosophical issues of existence. Instead I prefer to wash my face with a hot cloth, then maybe watch a bit of TV and then off I go to bed.
At the moment all that’s changed. My partner eats dinner whilst I run upstairs at five-minute intervals (he isn’t being unhelpful- it’s just that she’s being a bit more clingy). Every time I rush up those stairs I hope the crying will stop before I get to her door. I look at the timer on my phone to get a rough idea of whether I’m being a good or bad parent. I come down and wait a maximum of five minutes and rush back up. Sometimes if she hasn’t fallen asleep after thirty minutes I start to Google things like ‘Why won’t my thirteen month old go to sleep?’ or ‘What are the proven techniques to get your toddler to sleep?’
A wave of what I can only describe as complete bollocks comes flying back in my face: Give them a bottle, don’t give them a bottle, sit with them all night, give them a banana, rub their feet with a piece of amber, don’t pick them up, pick them up, go in, never go in, sit on a chair near the door, move outside the door and sit on the landing, chant, don’t have an anxiety attack, ignore it completely, never dare ignore it, move your bed into the nursery and make your partner sleep in the shed, get rid of all the parabens and waft burning sage to clear the bad energy…
Sometimes when I’m starting to fade and feel depressed by all these shouty voices I look up ‘classic old school Nike trainers’ on Ebay and see what the going rate is. Like I said all I want is to wash my face with a hot cloth and eat a nice tea. Does that make me a bad parent?
It’s the worst sound. The sound of your child crying. Even if it’s just for a few minutes. It’s worse than the sound of your house being demolished. Worse than the sound someone with dentures makes munching on an egg sandwich. It twists away at your insides. ‘Your children can alter your mood more radically than any mind-altering drug,’ a neighbour said to me a couple of days ago when I complained about our bad sleep patch. She was right. Children have the power to make a great evening completely crap in one fell swoop (or scream).
But now I’ve spent too many nights trapped in the nursery, singing John Denver songs (they make me feel better but maybe this is contributing to the crying?), thrusting the rabbit/comforter into the cot, clutching the sides like I’m on a sinking ship. In the end pretending to be asleep on the sheepskin rug on the floor (then sometimes falling asleep for real). Perhaps I need to shake things up and change the context. Make it more enjoyable for the both of us. Put the lights and music on, bring out the toys and have some proper fun. Forget about bedtime. Who needs bedtime?
I DO. I NEED BEDTIME.
The day after a poor nights sleep is bad (not as bad as the crying but you’re living minute to minute and have probably forgotten the crying and moved onto how tired you feel right now). And if I’m at work I can’t just lie with my mouth wide open snoring. I don’t get pushed around in a buggy with someone shoving organic raisins into my mouth. There’s no one handing me a beaker to make sure I don’t get dehydrated. I have to walk! I have to make interesting points on company strategy. I need to look my age rather than someone with a thirty-year-old daughter (this was a recent low point where I was mistaken for someone in their late fifties when I went into the dentist).
I love my daughter more than anything. Certainly more than hot cloth cleansing. Even more than Homeland. I can’t wait to see her every morning. This doesn’t mean I want to see her all night. I need time to recoup and time to sleep. I need to collect my thoughts and maybe have some dreams.
So I’ve made a decision to take a leaf out of my parents’ book. I’m switching off my IPhone and trying the old-school routine. And I think as a parent it’s okay to get pissed off sometimes. Some of my strongest childhood memories are of my parents being pissed off. I remember them being pissed off lots of times about a variety of things. I broke precious things. I didn’t sleep. I stole a friend’s teddy bear and hid it in the airing cupboard. I even think my Mum boxed my ears one time (she disputes this and I may have made it up but I have a dim memory of it happening). I’m not damaged in any way (aside from all the everyday, modern neuroses). I turned out okay.
The new regime will be… Pyjamas on, brush your teeth, lights out. I’m playing some Joni Mitchell. I might make a small fondue. I’m going to practice my Dad’s scary face. It’s partly genetic so shouldn’t be hard. I’m going to use my instincts and if things get heavy I’m getting pissed off.
Let’s see how far that gets me.