In Haruki Murakami’s short story Sleep the female protagonist suffers a bout of insomnia that lasts for weeks. Rather than crippling her with fatigue she finds strength in her nocturnal existence, realising that she has become a crushing stereotype of the Japanese housewife; dutifully making love to her dull, dentist husband, refusing alcohol because he didn’t drink and being the perfect mother to a child she comes to despise.
Ultimately, she realises that she has lost everything that makes her, her. She breaks the mould and starts to drink, eat chocolate, undertake long nighttime drives and refuse her husband’s advances. Her life is framed by the narrative of Anna Karenina and just like Anna, she eventually faces destruction for her choices.
It is a stunning work exploring of the psyche of a repressed woman and it lends itself to both a psychoanalytical interpretation as well as a sartrean existentialist reading; to wit the construction of a moral code that is defined by the individual but suffers the consequences laid out by society.
Which is, of course, absolute bollocks because after having had a month of broken sleep I am not having an awakening of my repressed self. I’m just exceptionally grumpy.
In my early twenties I used to suffer from stress-related insomnia. As a new teacher, I was struggling to keep up with all of the work and the level of scrutiny from management and inspectors was crushing. I’m sure the two litres of coffee and packet of cigarettes every day didn’t help either.
When I’d had a bad night it would generally mean the next day would be spent dozily working my way through the classes I had to teach, often with me sitting listlessly at the front of the room, photocopied worksheets on desks, no questions please. Dynamic pedagogy was certainly not evidenced.
Now I can sleep for two hours and still deliver better lessons than in those early days.
Perhaps there is some innate ability that is created at the moment of birth, some reserve of sleep that is stored up during the teenage years and released just when it is needed.
Of course I’ve had sleepless nights with the first son. But you kind of take it in turns, shouldering the burden equally, giving each other a break.
When you have two that just straight up doesn’t exist. Knowing that you’ve got an important meeting first thing in the morning whilst having stereophonic screaming at two in the morning is a horrible place to be. And they can really scream. Honestly, it’s like have rival black metal bands in your house undertaking a rock off. Just with less corpse paint. And faux-Satanic imagery. Well, unless you count the young one’s nappies. Those things are utterly evil.
But somehow the meeting goes okay. And those lessons are pretty decent if I do say so myself. Sure, my quick put downs are not as sharp as they once were, my temper is a little shorter and marking takes me longer but hey, what the hell do you want from me people? Your grades? Oh. Well you can’t have them poo face.
If I’m honest work becomes a respite from the children, an inversion my newly qualified self would never have thought possible. But this respite is a luxury not afforded to my wife who, on several occasions has said goodbye to me in the mornings as the aforementioned black metal bands start up for round two.
This isn’t a complaint more a statement of fact. Having two children is not a little bit harder than having one. It is significantly harder. Like the difference between a 5k fun run organised by the local scout group and an Ironman. Okay, they’ve got similar stuff going on but you’re going to feel different at the end of each respective race.
I don’t know if I’ll get to a point where my body just shuts down and resets for a while. I have no idea when I would have the time to do that. Or perhaps I’ll just start drinking brandy, reading Russian literature and start having psycho-sexual dreams where an old man washes my feet.
But unlike the protagonist in Sleep I could never grow to despise my children.
This is mainly because I’m not a fictional and repressed Japanese housewife, but also because despite the sleep-murder children bring, they give a healthy sense of perspective on other aspects of your life. It’s hard to get stressed about work when you’ve spent the night changing nappies, deploying Bonjela and chasing away bad dreams.
I often feel that it is all too easy to allow work to define us. I am a nurse. A salesman. A fireman. A teacher. Any critique of your ability in that role is felt as a critique on your person. A feeling that, for me at least, has diminished markedly.
Whilst it is not true to say that I no longer care about my job – I really do – it is true to say that my sleepless nights are no longer caused because of that job.
And that’s really quite liberating.