Once, when I was a new mum, I summoned a 'sleep expert' to the house. Four-month-old Emily been waking through the night, sometimes up to eight times, and I was at my wits’ end. I’d read all the books – Gina Ford, The Baby Whisperer, and books on attachment parenting – but the advice seemed so wildly divergent that I didn’t have the confidence to follow any of it through. I was pinning all my hopes on the sleep expert because I was going back to work the following month and knew I couldn’t function with so little sleep.
When she arrived, I produced reams of paper, on which I'd charted weeks' worth of Emily's sleeping times to the minute, how much milk she'd drunk, how we’d got her to sleep (rocked her, patted her, fed her, sang to her, given her a dummy, put on her magic lantern, played a special white noise machine that was supposed to be a miracle but sounded more like a Hoover). I was convinced the expert would look at all this and see the solution, but she brushed my charts aside, and suggested we try out her technique there and then, since Emily was due for a nap.
This involved putting Emily in her cot, leaving the room, and waiting until her screams were frantic before leaving her to cry for a further period of three minutes. The idea was to lengthen the period of leaving each time. After two minutes I went in ("No, no!" urged the sleep lady. "Listen - she's just angry, not frantic.") But Emily, who’d somehow pulled a blanket over her head, was so distressed her head was jerking to the side in shuddering spasms and she was gasping for breath. I picked her up and buried my face in the crook of her damp, milky-scented neck, whispering words of love and apology. The expert sat me down and started to explain where I was going wrong. Then she broke off and said, 'Has it been a hard old four months?' That's when my own tears started. All I could see was this exhaustion, stretching on forever. There would be no end to it. I sat there, unable to say a word until my husband came home and ushered the expert away with her £100 fee.
We struggled on for a few months, until one day when I took Emily for a walk in the park. We sat down, in a quiet spot under a tree where the sunshine played on the grass, and I said, 'Emily, what are we going to do about the sleeping? I'm so tired, and I think you are too.' She just gazed at me with her beautiful wide baby eyes, and a new feeling came over me - that we were in this together. I invented my own, gentler, sleep training technique, that was tailored to everything I knew about my daughter, and solved the problem in two nights.
This lesson - that sometimes you have to step up and be the expert – was one I had to learn as a writer, too. To begin with I took all the advice that was going, and worried about all the ‘rules’. I agonised over every criticism of my beloved novel, and tried to change it to please everyone. Until I learned to tune out all those conflicting voices and listen to the only one that really counted.
It was a question of intuition, and by this I don’t mean acting on a whim, because first you need to gather the information and consider it carefully. But then you make yourself quiet, and let the thing you have created (which could be a novel, or it could equally be a child) guide you. You’ll feel the pull of what they need, what works for them, what will help them in their journey of becoming what they are meant to be.
Sometimes it takes a long time, and it will feel like you are making no progress - your child is still waking up every forty-five minutes, can’t get the hang of potty training, or is refusing to eat anything but jam sandwiches. Or the characters in your book remain wooden, mired in a plot that seems more turgid than yesterday’s porridge.
When you’re not sure what to do, sometimes the best thing – the bravest and most sensible thing - is simply to stay in that place of not knowing. To stay quiet and open and let the answers rise up to the surface.
Which is not to say that you’re doing nothing. When you’re a parent, not a single day – not a single hour – goes past when you’re doing nothing. You’re providing the stability, stimulation and one-to-one attention that enables your child to grow and mature emotionally, as well as the food, shelter, warmth and comfort that their bodies need. Making such offerings, repeatedly, day after day, can seem tiring and mundane, but there are no shortcuts, no substitutes for these tiny acts of love.
The writing process is comparable. It’s a question of putting in the hours, even when you're exhausted. Simply getting words on the page, because a book cannot grow without words.
And then, in both writing and parenting, you get those times when it feels like magic. Like when a reader tells you they felt like your novel was actually about them. Or like the other day, when I told Emily about the sleep expert and she fell about laughing.
‘Tell me again, Mummy! Tell me how you saved me from the bad sleep lady.’ Then she launched into a re-enactment of the story, covering her head with a blanket and thrashing about screaming. I was caught short by a shift in perspective – by how she’s grown from a little, milky-smelling bundle into a funny, wise, companion, reframing that rather traumatic episode into something full of laughter and tenderness.
In writing, and in parenthood, in any pursuits that really matter to us, we reach heights of joy and also, sometimes, we come close to despair. That’s when you have to remember – or somehow have faith, when that memory seems distant - that the magic is there under the surface, waiting to come out if you just give it time.
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