experiments with sleep deprivation (aka where motherhood and mental health fail to meet)

Posted on Posted in and the mome raths outgrabe, beware the jubjub bird, journal, nulla dies sine linea, squawk, stakvossi salt wives, the heart's a wilful creature, the slithy toves did gyre and gimble, whistling in the dark, writing life

Since finishing Cherry Crow Children, I've not had a true writing routine or heck, any routine whatsoever beyond the putting-out-fires approach. Namely, I do what I need to for Squawk and the dayjob and the running of my household and relationships, and try to squish thinking time on the new novel and promotion for Cherry Crow Children into whatever corners are left behind.

It's not been working. But I put up with it, for a spell, because I've needed the break, because life and health.

Six weeks ago, after signing up to Flipboard and immediately being inundated by articles on productivity and sleep cycles and writers' routines, I decided to wrest back a smidge of control and instituted a new routine: no screens in the hour before I want to fall asleep; an alarm (silent, vibrate-only, hidden on the mattress under my pillow to ensure it doesn't also wake Squawk) set for an hour before Squawk is "allowed" out of bed; leaving my notebook and slippers ready so all I had to do was stumble out of bed and into my desk chair. So far, so ambitious.

Oh, and I planned on no more than 7.5 hours sleep a night.

Most wouldn't consider this deprivation, but we all have to work within the bounds of our individual circumstances. Mine include physical/mental limitations for which sleep is an important part of staying healthy. But writing regularly is also vital to my staying mentally sound, so this, one sleep cycle, was my attempt at a balance point. Maybe, I told myself, if I could just stumble through the first few days of mismanaged sleep, I'd hit that sweet spot where I fall asleep within a minute of putting my head down, and 7.5 hours would be liveably insufficient.

The very first night, Squawk woke me one hour after I went to sleep. Not stirred, but woke. Inconsolable, sitting up in her bed with all the blankets thrown off, sobbing because she needed me and Dad wouldn't do, it had to be me, and then it took me an hour (of her begging to come into my bed) to coax her into lying back down again. One hour, and an absurd amount of cuddles and kisses and sips of water and even a few desperate verses of Baa Baa Black Sheep before I could crawl back into my bed and fail to get back to sleep for I have no idea how long.

I spent most of that time swearing at the productivity dilemma: all the advice on maintaining productivity argues against skimping on sleep; all the advice on writing whilst mothering advocates staying up late or waking early to scrape together some time sans-kinder. Ha. Ha ha ha. (There is no solution to this puzzle.)

And here's the other piece of the puzzle: all the advice on how to carve out time whilst mothering is based upon the status quo.

But what the fuck is status quo when it comes to a toddler, and thus her parents? Squawk is always sick. She is always tired. She is always wanting to be with me, or more preferably on me. She's growing, teething, mastering new physical skills, dealing with the bumps and bruises of practicing said skills for months beforehand, dropping her naps, carving out her own relationships and place in the world… She has nightmares, or she's too hot because she refuses to take off her normal clothes before putting on pyjamas, or she's too cold because she insists on going to bed with no blankets (in Melbourne, in the middle of winter, in a house with no heating) because TODDLERS. There is no daily predictability.

Even so, I have been keeping up my habit of too little sleep.

I can't say I'm getting heaps more useable time. Maybe one extra hour a day? Some days it doesn't go to writing so much as staring. Like the days something wakes Squawk and I have to spend the hour listening to her yell for me. (Yes, the door to her room and mine are both closed. Double-brick walls are no match for my kid's lungs.) Like the days Squawk has woken up so many times overnight that I can barely stop myself from throwing up when my alarm goes off.

I can say I'm crankier: more short-tempered, more business-bent, more easily frustrated. I get sick more often. I fall into despair more swiftly, and I find the world more heartbreaking and cruel than I remember it all being before.

But some days, I get a full glorious, golden, silent hour all to myself and my novel. And after a month of all this, I do have some more of the next novel world-built, if not plotted. I'm just not entirely sure how long I can keep this up.

4 thoughts on “experiments with sleep deprivation (aka where motherhood and mental health fail to meet)

  1. I feel your pain, I really do. My daughter was always sick, always clingy, always slept terribly. I remember the first time I had 7 hours sleep after she was born – she was over a year old and it seemed this amazing, incredible thing and I couldn't believe I had once taken 8 hours sleep a night minimum for granted. Writing is just a hobby for me, so I don't have your pressure, but I work full time so it must cram in around the edges by sacrificing sleep. I've had to learn to plan and find strategies to keep working on a novel when I can only do it in snippets of time, and often through a haze of sleep deprivation. Sometimes I've had to put it down for months and catch up on sleep to look after myself. My body can only do so much. My daughter's 5 now and it is getting easier. Hang in there!

    1. Thanks for your encouragement, Alex, it's good to know I'm not the only one juggling this impossible mess of conflicting wants/needs. I'm glad to know it's gotten better for you.

  2. I sympathize. My quiet time is the evening, usually just before midnight. I'm tired when I start, and I'm exhausted when I end, but sometimes it's just about finding the child's pattern and adjusting your own.

    My children are school age now, so that routine is now set. They're both morning people, and I wake grumpy, but sometimes grumpy is a necessary ingredient to kick start a school run…

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