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Struggling with sleep? Emily Writes hears you

In this extract from her new book Needs Adult Supervision, Emily Writes shows how she’s made her peace with severe parental sleep deprivation….and put it to work for her.

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I used my endless night

I think I used to be a good sleeper before my kids came along. It’s hard to remember now, because I’m coming up to nine years of not sleeping.

I think I stopped sleeping as soon as Eddie was born. Our life was split between the children’s ward and home. The night-time sounds of the ward, the constant nursing checks, the babies crying, the sound of his shuddering breaths — it’s not a set-up that helps you sleep. And I wanted to be awake. I was worried I’d miss something.

At home I was more comfortable, but we continued to check his breathing throughout the night. We were never quite able to settle into a stress-free, uninterrupted sleep.

When our second baby was born, he slept, well, like a baby (waking up regularly, screaming for milk). Our first baby’s health managed to stabilise just as our second baby’s sleep just . . . stopped.

He woke every forty-five minutes. Hospital sleep tests showed he couldn’t fall into REM sleep. His brain was just wired a little differently. We, as his parents, needed to adjust because he couldn’t help it.

We tried white noise and Sleep Drops and weighted blankets and sleepy bath-time stuff; melatonin, Phenergan and magnesium — everything.

Nothing worked. So, we just waited. I wrote each night as he slept and woke and slept and woke next to me. It turned into a book. Then a job.

He’s six now and he falls asleep with a sleep story — usually the calming tones of ‘Islands of the Puget Sound’ or ‘The History of the Tooth Brush’. He sleeps beside me and wakes every few hours, and we put a sleep story on and he will fall asleep again. I still write with him tucked up beside me.

I am writing this to you now, as he is tucked up beside me.

As our younger son settled into a kind of sleep pattern that worked for his brain, our elder son hit another health crisis. We are now coming up to two years of needing to check him every two hours or so throughout the night to give him medication, to keep him safe.

My husband and I are perpetually tired. We always function on a few hours of sleep. But strangely, it doesn’t hit so hard anymore. It’s like our bodies have just adjusted to never getting as much rest as we need.

This is not the life I thought I’d have. And I do have some grief, wondering what kind of mother, wife and friend I’d be if I got more sleep. But I also know that the person I am today has been shaped by these endless, exhausting nights.

I have come to find beauty and peace in the night. The night is calm, and sitting in my bed with just the light of my laptop I can hear things I can’t during the day. I hear my son’s giggle in his dreams — it’s a completely different sound to his laughter in the day. I hear the sounds of my husband’s heavy feet stumbling into the kitchen. I hear him drawing insulin with care and precision and his voice, whispered in the dark, saying, ‘Just a top-up, buddy.’ I look out at the ocean at night, and I see lights in homes by the bay and

I can’t help but feel an affinity with those who cannot sleep.

I think it has helped me have more empathy for others. I know what it’s like to battle behind closed doors. I know how important community is.

I have stopped trying to sleep. I used to lie in bed and my brain would race. It would repeat over and over: He will wake up in forty minutes if you don’t fall asleep now. Go to sleep. Now you have thirty-five minutes. Thirty minutes.

I would squeeze my eyes closed and will myself to sleep.

Now I just read. I potter around the house. I listen to audiobooks. I write. And sleep sometimes comes. And sometimes it doesn’t. But I no longer fear the night. I let it wash over me. It simply is what it is.

In the night I think about the gifts I’ve been given by being so endlessly awake. Some of my best work ideas come to me at night. I can write quickly and usually it comes fairly easily, because I’m so used to doing it in tiny pockets of the early morning. Having hours to finish a piece of work feels like a luxury.

I simply have more hours and, in the night, half of those hours are mine.

As a mother, I feel like I belong in many ways to my children, but in the night I’m mostly mine. I settle them back to sleep, administer medication, push their sleepy little bodies into the bathroom — but the rest of the time is mine.

There are perks, too — I have almost zero memory these days due to sleep deprivation, so that has helped my tendency to overthink events because I literally can’t remember them.

I can fall asleep anywhere. Standing up, in the car, on the couch. It doesn’t have to be dark or quiet. And I can power-nap for ten minutes at a time, anywhere. It means I can claw back sleep that I don’t get at night, and I rarely get too tired when I’m touring or travelling for events because I can steal naps at any time. Some days I have three ten-minute naps or one forty-minute nap. My body is trained to snatch sleep. I can sleep from 6 p.m. till 7 p.m. and still sleep from 9 p.m to 10.30 p.m., then again from 1 a.m. till 3 a.m. I don’t view sleep as linear anymore.

I feel like the desperation I had for sleep has slid into an easy creativity I am lucky to have. I have been productive over my years of sleep deprivation. It has been rewarding, waking to see chapters of a book finished. Even if it was written somewhat feverishly.

After years of it feeling like torture, it just feels kind of normal now.

I don’t think this will be my life forever. But I am glad that when I look back on it, I can say that I was there when my kids needed me. It has been hard. But it hasn’t broken me. Years from now I’ll have sleep again. And I’ll know I did what I could with what I had.

I used my endless night.

Extracted from Needs Adult Supervision by Emily Writes, published by Penguin Random House NZ, RRP $35.00. Text © Emily Writes, 2022.

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