My family diary: Sleepless in the Midlands

How do you juggle work and home when your kids won’t sleep?

Child's drawing with illustration of tired mum holding baby


** This blog is part of a series called The Chaos Train, a record of daily life when you have a career and pre-school children **

It’s 4.30am and I’m sleeping across the bottom end of my bed. I’m all crunched up so my feet don’t dangle off the edge, with no pillow and my duvet at a weird angle. I doubt this even counts as sleep – but I’ll take whatever I can get. 

So how did I get here? My three-year-old daughter and my 15-month-old son are just emerging from a month of back-to-back nursery illnesses, which has thrown their sleep right off course. Although, even in normal circumstances, neither of them are great at sleeping when they should or where they should. They certainly don’t sleep like the children in all the parenting books I’ve read (seriously, who are those children?).

Here’s a typical night in our house at the moment…

  • 8pm: Both kids go to sleep in their bedrooms. 
  • 11pm: My son wakes and will only go back to sleep in our bed. Husband goes to sofa. 
  • 1am: My daughter wakes and goes to sleep on the sofa with my husband.
  • 2am onwards: My son wakes 1-2 more times and I cuddle him back to sleep with varying degrees of success. Sometimes it takes an hour. 
  • 6am: The kids are up for the day.

Sometimes my son falls asleep on my lap and I have to shuffle him onto our mattress at a diagonal angle, in order not to wake him, leaving me just the bottom strip of the bed to sleep on. Sometimes he falls asleep on my arm and I have to “ninja slide” it out from under him when he’s in a deep-sleep phase. The whole thing is absurd.

Writing emails in my mind

Tired face emoji surrounded by office equipment

Of course, I still need to go to work – and working while sleep-deprived is brutal. Madonna and Margaret Thatcher, two under-slept women who were big in the 1980s, both seemed to equate a lack of rest with a passion for their job. This is questionable for a million reasons. Tracy Emin, big in the 1990s, perhaps more sensibly described her insomnia as “crippling”.

In any case, I just turn out to be a rubbish version of my usual self. My eyes burn as I read research reports, concentrating is hard, and pretending not to be tired is tiring. In meetings, part of me is listening to what everyone is saying, but part of me is just thinking about how well-slept they all look. If you’ve had a meeting with me recently and you thought I was a bit distracted, it’s because I was thinking about how great the skin under your eyes looks.

Overnight, when I’m woken by the kids, I struggle to go back to sleep as work-thoughts pop up and race around my head. I lie at the bottom of the bed and write emails in my mind. Meanwhile my son snuffles and snores like a contented little sea-lion, in his rightful place at the centre of the only double bed in the house.

I was, of course, working when I was on maternity leave last year – looking after children and running a house is a job. But I was surrounded by other women with young children, in a bleary-eyed ecosystem where everyone was tired. The professional “back-to-work” world feels very different. Arianna Huffington has said that sleep is a feminist issue, as women get far less of it than men.

The bottom of Maslow’s pyramid

In these disoriented days and nights, sleep is all I can think about – I languish at the bottom of Maslow’s pyramid. But, in the midst of it all, there are suddenly moments of pure rest.

There are endless parenting books that tell you not to co-sleep with your children, but in my family’s case it’s a balm for everyone involved. At the weekend I have afternoon naps with my daughter and her truly innocent sleep, the kind that only a child can have, calms me until I drop off too. Sometimes overnight I manage to sleep next to my son, instead of at the end of the bed. With his little round face right beside mine, it’s like sleeping next to the moon. Totally at peace, for the next at hour at least.

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