Clare Mackintosh: The night shift

Years of listening out for babies means I wake at the slightest sound

Years of listening out for babies means I wake at the slightest sound - Credit: Archant

The 1am anxiety wake-up doesn’t present me with huge problems. The anxiety call specialises in pointless details with the sole purpose of keeping me awake

They say youth is wasted on the young. You know what else they fritter away? Sleep. Like most of us, I spent much of my teenage years in bed, grunting when the alarm went off for school, and rolling my eyes at any event scheduled any earlier than midday. Even in my twenties my capacity to sleep was worthy of an Olympic gold medal; I thought nothing of curling up under a night club table and catching 40 winks while my hardier friends partied away the hours.

Police shift work served only to strengthen the bond with my duvet. I would drive home after a night shift, fall in to bed at eight o’clock, then scramble to get up and dressed in time for that evening’s shift, a full 14 hours later.

Like most enjoyable things in life (disposable income, perky breasts, a pelvic floor…) sleep disappeared once I had children. Well, strictly speaking, as soon as I fell pregnant, when my wails about thrice-nightly toilet trips were met with sage head-nodding from my parent peers. ‘That’s your body getting you ready for night-feeds,’ I was told.

Mother nature’s a bitch, I thought. Could she not have instead enabled us to bank several thousand hours of sleep to be released months later, when our babies are teething and colicky? Apparently not. So sleep and I broke up in 2006, and have since then shared only fleeting moments together; the occasional one-night stand in a dark hotel room, and once - daringly - in the marital bed, when the children were away and I had no place else to be in the morning. But for the most part sleep is a luxury I no longer enjoy.

Years of listening out for babies means I wake at the slightest sound; the milk delivery, next door’s dog, the foxes in the woods at the back of the house. Whilst the children generally sleep straight through, they are young enough to need their mother should they have a bad dream, or when they wake with a worry that can’t wait till morning. I am adept at clearing up vomit with my eyes shut; at yawning my way through a lullaby, and making up stories in the dead of night. Come morning, the offending child bounces happily to the breakfast table, while I drag myself downstairs persuaded from my bed only by the lure of caffeine.

Even a night free from child disturbances is not an unbroken one. I have long accepted the permanence of the 3am wee - perfecting the art of navigating my way to the bathroom and back with my eyes shut - but I am less enthusiastic about the recent appearance of the 1am anxiety call. Did you do the packed lunches? it whispers, prodding me awake. You know I did, I respond. But it won’t be silenced. You know you’ve got a column deadline this week, don’t you? And two birthday presents to buy. And the committee meeting on Tuesday’s been moved to Wednesday, and there are avocados in the fridge that need eating. On and on it whispers, till my head feels tight with pressure, and I am more awake than if someone had thrown cold water in my face.

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I know all that! I tell my head. It’s all under control. The column is half-written, the presents are ordered, the meeting’s in the diary and I’m making guacamole tomorrow. “You worry too much,” my husband said, when I told him about the 1am anxiety call. “I’m not worried about avocados,” I tell him, worrying then that I came across as the sort of person who worries about avocados.

I explained that the anxiety call doesn’t present me with huge problems to solve at 1am. The anxiety call specialises in insignificant details, presented to me with the sole purpose of waking me up.

I tried making a list before going to bed; the idea being that I could ‘off-load’ my problems in an organised way, reassuring my brain that everything was under control. Make guacamole, I wrote (having forgotten once again to do so). I woke at one as usual. What if the avocados have gone off? You won’t be able to make guacamole. The voice is judgemental. Then I’ll throw them away, I told it, boldly. What will you make instead? If you checked them now, you’d know if they were off, and you could make a plan. My head was beginning to seriously piss me off. I’m not checking the avocados at one in the morning, I told it firmly. That’s ridiculous.

You know the food bin needs emptying, don’t you? You’ve been meaning to do it for days. Why don’t you do it now? I lay in bed, my eyes squeezed shut. I would not go downstairs. I would not empty the food bin. I would not check the bloody avocados. Slowly, I succeeded in muting the voice. I concentrated on my breathing. In and out, in and out. I lay in the dark, realising that not only was I wide awake, I now needed the loo. I sighed, and peeled myself from beneath the covers; padded to the en-suite and back again. I paused by the bedroom door. Now that I was up, I might as well check those avocados

Follow Clare on Twitter: @claremackint0sh