I’ve Been Tired For a Decade

If you had asked me last year how long I would like to sleep for, I’d have said 100 years.

Ellie Levenson
P.S. I Love You


Photo by zhang kaiyv on Unsplash

Since having children, my fantasy has been to have a night alone in a hotel. “With someone?” friends would ask, hopeful of gossip. But my answer was always no, just me, alone, asleep and uninterruptible.

Sleep is of a premium in my house, which is no surprise given that I haven’t really slept properly for the past decade. My first child did not sleep through until after the second one was born, the second child did not sleep through until after the third one was born and the third one has just started sleeping through, aged five, most, but not all of the time.

We tried when the oldest was a baby, for me to wake my husband, so he could deal with them. But as he is a heavy sleeper and I, like all new mothers I imagine, would wake at the sound of the baby’s eyelash falling out. And if he did get up, I would lie awake listening to him dealing with the baby, unable to sleep until all was well — resulting in all three of us being exhausted by morning.

It turned out that what worked best for us was me doing the nights and have a short catch up each weekday morning, a long catch up every weekend morning, and early evening naps as many days as necessary. My brain can be tricked into thinking it is working by these short naps, but I don’t doubt that untold damage has been done to it. I wonder if the less sharp memory I have now compared to my student days, my inability to remember a single line of a new song whereas once I could cite whole pages of quotes of literary analysis, is natural ageing or directly related to my sleep deprived and damaged brain.

It also means that I have had no reserve of sleep to draw on for really bad nights, such as when someone is sick.

Once, when we just had one baby, the three of us were asleep when our burglar alarm went off. It was a spider, or a malfunction, not actual burglars. My baby and my husband slept on completely unaware while I, distraught at the injustice of being the only one woken by this, bawled.

Most of all I hate being woken up in that deepest part of sleep, in the first hour or two after you have drifted off, so often I have stayed awake until the youngest’s night-time wake up. This might then give me three and a half hours of unbroken sleep until the oldest got up, and came in for a cuddle. It explains why I have always been able to nap at a moment’s notice, sometimes rushing home from work in time to go to bed at 2.20pm, setting my alarm for 3.08pm which gave me time to grab some snacks for the kids and dash to school for pick up.

After one of these power naps and dashes, a school mum friend said to me that whenever she asked how I was I always said, “Okay, a bit tired, it was a bad night,” and given she was only at the school gate on a Wednesday was there something specific about Tuesday nights that made them bad. Oh god, when someone asks you how you really are and questions your answer, it is impossible not to cry, especially when tired.

“Well, every night is a bad night,” I managed to say gaily before rushing off so she didn’t see me start to sob.

I have lived out my hotel room fantasy a few times. I was invited to the wedding of a friend when my middle child was nearly a year, to which no children were invited, so I set off alone for one glorious night, leaving the festivities before the end because the lure of a hotel bed was just so strong.

I’ve had three short trips away with girlfriends in the past decade, for one night, two nights and three nights, meant I twice had my own room to sleep in. I tacked an extra night onto a trip away to speak at an event at the other end of the country, giving me two glorious nights alone in a hotel and the choice between setting an alarm for the sumptuous breakfast or sleeping for as long as I needed.

And once, a one night trip to a nice hotel by the seaside alone to live out my fantasy. My husband sent me recommendations he had researched for nice places I might like to eat, but all I wanted was a sandwich from the supermarket and bed.

Three times my husband and I have gone away without children for a weekend, thanks to very kind friends of ours, which wasn’t quite the fantasy of being alone, but was pretty good. No good deed goes unpunished though, and no night of sleep either. Once home, the night waking would intensify — some nights all three children waking once or twice in turn.

Once, while writing my text book, published between my second and third child, another friend lent me her house while she was away and I did two solid days editing and polishing my draft — you are more efficient when you have less time — with eight hours sleep in between. It works out as about one and a half nights without children per year of being a parent.

Basically, for the past decade, I have been exhausted. As a consequence I have also been quick to snap, quick to cry, and absolutely obsessed with how much sleep I do get. This became worse during the pandemic’s first lockdown in the UK, as the complete lack of time alone and without demands on me meant that I grabbed it when I could when the rest of the house was asleep, staying up late to watch tv alone, cutting into my own sleep even more. My husband’s lack of commute to work at this time, with everyone working from home where possible, at least meant that I could have longer catch ups in the morning.

But even before the pandemic I obsessed about sleep. Someone kind once asked me how much sleep did I think I needed in order to catch up. About one hundred years I said without thinking. Maybe we’d been reading too many fairy tales. But anything less felt like it wouldn’t be enough. In fact when I hear stories of women having terrible times post birth, and postpartum mental health issues, it seems to nearly always goes hand in hand with utter exhaustion.

I wonder how many people would be fixed by a prescription of a night alone once a week — completely impractical of course for most families, and for breastfeeding mothers. Plus I know that I would not have felt comfortable not being with my babies overnight — they needed me, I needed them — however much I also needed not to be. My first child and I did not leave hospital for five days after she was born, plus an overnight labour before that — starting our life together once home on the back foot before it had even really begun. I only started to feel I had caught up with sleep from that time a few years ago.

She is ten.

I knew things were getting better earlier this year when I had the thought, while yawning, that I would like to sleep for a week. A week! One hundred years had become a week without me even noticing. And then this week I felt a little tired and thought to myself I would love to have one good night’s sleep to catch up. Just one night. I couldn’t stop laughing once I realised that I had thought this. After all, most people could do with a little bit of extra sleep. Just a little over a decade after my first child was born, I felt normal again.



Ellie Levenson
P.S. I Love You

I am a writer and lecturer based in the UK, writing for adults as Ellie Levenson and for children as Eleanor Levenson.