Sometimes, in the evenings, I get to thinking. I think as I sit there, tethered to my bed because my 14-month-old son is tucked under my covers. He cannot get to sleep – or stay asleep – without my presence.
And what I’m thinking is usually this: hey, I wonder what other parents are doing right now?
You know. Them. The proper parents. Parents who’ve got their shit together. Parents who persisted, perhaps, in getting their child to take a bottle at night, or who managed to get through sleep training. Those guys.
The ones who can leave their sleeping infant in a cot, go downstairs and calmly eat dinner, just the two of them. Maybe spend a few hours together. Glass of wine, takeaway, wild sex in front of the latest Netflix box set, I don’t know.
My husband, fed up of being booted in the face and woken several times nightly by a wriggly little body crying for my breasts, has long since exiled himself to the spare room. Can’t say I blame the guy. I don’t think either of us imagined that mine and my son’s one-night stand would become a long-lasting, full-blown affair.
Because sharing my bed with my baby does sometimes feel like an affair. Like an affair, it has a whiff of secrecy, of slightly sordid shame about it.
I don’t know many people who practise bedsharing – and those who do report being ticked off for it, despite rigorously adhering to safe sleep guidelines. Maybe because it often goes hand-in-hand with feeding to sleep, that other notorious bête noire of health visitors, baby sleep consultants, and the author of the perennially popular What to Expect series.
Boy, do those folks make you feel bad. “You’ve given your son a sleep issue,” said a community nursery nurse, when I asked for advice with the whole cot-refusenik business.
I explained that I didn’t want to do the cry-to-sleep thing, but despite having tried many other gentler methods, he would only ever feed to sleep. It was that or screaming meltdowns. He would never settle in his cot, and would sleep in no longer than 20- or 30-minute snatches unless he was lying alongside me. “Keep trying,” she said, “you’ve got to keep trying.”
Maybe she was right. But this was back in the middle of a lockdown (I forget which one). My husband works long hours, and I couldn’t risk being exhausted to the point of collapse during the day. There was, quite literally, no one to pass the baby to.
So one night, around 3 am, I took my son into bed with me. And behold! WHAT WAS THIS WITCHCRAFT? We both slept. For hours.
It was bliss. It was magic. It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. The nights were no longer dark and full of terrors. I gave up giving up bedsharing, and gained a bit of perspective.
A bit of perspective. A smidge. Because although the night-time hours have eased, the evenings can still be hard.
Our bedsharing has brought with it a weird liminal twilight zone. From 7:30 pm each evening until when I go to sleep myself, I need to sit next to the snoozing bundle of my son, who for some reason will only go to sleep in the middle of my double bed. I need to remain within sniffing distance of him if either of us is to get any respite at all.
I know it’s a phase. I know it’s to do with separation anxiety, and that it will pass. I know, thanks to the excellent work of people like Sarah Ockwell-Smith, that bedsharing with breastfed babies is both normal, safe, and even to be recommended. I know I’m lucky to have been able to breastfeed at all.
I know, now, that there are organisations like La Leche League where bedsharing is not demonised, and even celebrated as a choice.
And there’s a joy to it too, of course there is. My arms curled around my son at night, cupping him in a snug little horseshoe. The malty biscuity smell of his head, his feathery hair tickling my nostrils. I know I should treasure this closeness, I know I should drink it all in while I can.
But still I feel it, most nights. The slow drip-drip of guilt. The guilt that in order to qualify as a “proper” parent, my son should sleep separately from me, in his own space.
And that I should be whizzing around in those hours before my own bedtime, busily doing STUFF. Handwashing, meal prep, life admin, other general acts of adulting. Date night (*husband gives a hollow laugh*). Maybe even Zooming with friends. God help me when the world opens up more and people want to socialise on an evening.
And yet. I’ve had a small epiphany. These evening hours stuck next to my sleeping son – it’s not dead time. It’s still my time, isn’t it? I can read, watch crap on TV, whatever I want. Research how not to kill my houseplants. The possibilities are endless, right?
Bedsharing hasn’t snatched time away – it’s bestowed it! Sort of. Maybe. On a good day. If I really squint at it and try and look for the positive, etc., etc., you know the drill. Then I thought, hey, what if I used this time to let other bedsharing mums know that they weren’t the only ones sinking into secret puddles of despair on their duvets come evening time? And, well, this is what I came up with.