My Wild and Sleepless Nights is part memoir of a year in the life of a mother of five and part exploration of the push and pull of motherhood. At forty-one, Clover Stroud finds herself pregnant with her fifth child, Lester, and the book takes place over his first year. At the same time, her oldest son, Jimmy, is a teenager who tests boundaries and questions the confines of life with a big, messy family in the middle of the British countryside. While Lester pulls her into his newborn world, Jimmy is pushing himself away from his mother. Along the way, Stroud seeks to answer the question: what does motherhood feel like? She is not trying to answer this question for all mothers, though she does include conversations she’s had with friends throughout the book. Rather, My Wild and Sleepless Nights is a deeply personal exploration of the feelings that motherhood inspires, both the highs and the lows. As Stroud puts it: “Nothing makes me as angry as motherhood does; nothing makes me as happy.”
Five children will probably seem like two or three too many to some, and Stroud addresses why she has ended up having five: because she was one of five, because on some level she likes the mess and the chaos, and, perhaps ultimately, because five seems to be the number that makes her feel complete, that has finally satisfied an insatiable hunger, “shaped exactly like a baby.”
Stroud comes back to her desire for more children—a desire she refers to as an “addict’s hunger”—throughout the book. She resists the idea that the newborn phase, and particularly the first few weeks, is the peak of motherhood. But she also acknowledges that those weeks with each of her children were her most fulfilling as a mother; the moments when her babies were brand new are the ones to which she most longs to return. Those first days also seem to hold a kind of promise for Stroud; they are a period in which she feels like a different person: “someone who can make the things I have gotten wrong as a mother all better and right.”
In reality, as much as becoming a mother again has changed her, Stroud is also still the same person, still “irritable, detached, bored, impatient, frustrated.” Stroud is open about the negative emotions that come with motherhood and feels there is too much silence around these feelings. She feels guilty for wanting to escape from her children, but she is also often filled with a “dark reddish-blue despair” at the prospect of another day spent caring for her baby and preschooler. Stroud also points to the negative role that social media highlight reels can play in the spiral of questioning: “Am I getting this right? Am I doing enough? Am I a good enough mother, or barely close? And is good enough good enough, anyway?” Stroud’s husband travels a lot for work and on one trip he meets with an old friend. Stroud is surprised to hear that her husband’s friend is struggling with the demands of family and work and that she also finds motherhood hard:
Somehow, hearing this from another woman was deeply reassuring. I have seen her on Instagram and I have imagined that she ran her life, and that of her family, with a control and order I could never achieve.
My Wild and Sleepless Nights is unique in exploring pregnancy, birth, and mothering a newborn, alongside the experience of parenting a teenager. Just before her fifth child is born, Stroud is called in to her teenage son’s school. He has been found in possession of weed, and the school has taken the decision to expel him and move him to a new school. Stroud is completely sideswiped. Instead of focusing on the upcoming birth of her baby, she now has to deal with the administrative and emotional fallout of her son’s school situation. In comparison, mothering a newborn is easy; when it comes to her teenage son, she feels completely lost. Yet she also sees similarities:
There are sleepless nights, just as there were when Jimmy was a baby, and a strange new world to decode. Just as I do with Lester, I’m worrying about Jimmy’s developmental charts, about how much food he’s eating and what its nutritional content is. Once again I’m searching, furtively, for slight changes in his skin colour, his smell, his ability to focus.
Mothering Lester and Jimmy is similar in another way too—they are both moving away from her. As a newborn, Lester is almost permanently attached to Stroud, whether nursing or sleeping curled up on her chest, but in seemingly no time at all, he is sitting up in a high chair and feeding himself, calling out for his sister in the morning instead of Stroud, and taking his first faltering steps. Jimmy is also portrayed walking away from Stroud (and often away from an argument with her) throughout the book. Stroud is terrified of losing her oldest child, partly because she feels that she will have to let go of the person she was as a young mother to Jimmy. Toward the end of the book, she describes taking a walk with Jimmy, and as he walks on ahead, she realizes this distance is also an opportunity for her to really see her son. She writes, “I am seeing who he really is more and more now.” She feels guilt that she hasn’t been able to give Jimmy her full attention during his teenage years, because she has spent the last five years pressed up close to newborns and sticky toddlers. Caring for Lester takes her back to being a new mom to Jimmy, but she is learning to accept that that time of chaos and physical closeness with her oldest son has passed. In its place, there is “a special sort of stillness which comes with the company of an almost-adult child.”
As the title of the book suggests, Stroud thinks of motherhood as something wild and primal—words she uses throughout the book. Nowhere is this more evident than in labor. She describes herself in the last few days before the baby’s due date as “contemplating the wilderness.” The birth itself is “primal,” it brings out a part of her that is “like a viper in a jar,” and when the placenta is delivered, she has the urge to eat it, “like a wild animal.” She also experiences labor as a moment of absolute presence and clarity, so different from the rest of her life:
Beds have been made up with new fresh sheets and I have slept in them. I have dreamed of a life I wanted and then gone forward to create and live it. All this has happened in the everyday without me really noticing. But the moment before birth is quite different, as if it’s been crystallized: it’s the moment I can touch, when I can say, truly, yes, this life is happening to me right now.
While not everyone who has given birth will recognize their experience in Stroud’s words, readers can appreciate Stroud’s attempt to get to the core of what it feels like to give birth, beyond the obvious descriptions of blood, sweat, screaming, and pain.
Stroud’s writing style is deceptively effortless, and My Wild and Sleepless Nights can be easily devoured in one sitting. But Stroud also deftly captures the chaos of family life, and her writing is peppered with similes and metaphors that bring it, and her experiences, into vivid focus. A folding chair in an empty theatre slamming shut, marbles scattering across a floor, and a sloshing cup of tea capture some of the tension and fraught emotions of motherhood. Stroud beautifully describes the feeling of beginning another day of caring for a toddler and a baby: “time settles around us, as invisible and quietly uncomfortable as lightly falling rain.” And when her children play with their father, “swimming from his arms like comedy bananas,” she is pushed aside “like a silenced scullery maid.” There is humor throughout the book too. At one point Stroud is out for dinner with her oldest son and discovers that he has played truant from school with a friend. They had sneaked out of the school grounds to buy a whole roast chicken each from a local supermarket. Stroud tries to admonish her son while suppressing the urge to laugh at the image of him and his friend scoffing an entire roast chicken each.
My Wild and Sleepless Nights explores the push and pull of mothering a newborn and a teenager, as well as the push and pull of time, the desire to both stop it and also press fast-forward. The book is filled with anecdotes of family life, and Stroud even offers some marriage-saving advice to parents (put a lock on your door). But perhaps its most endearing quality is the fact that Stroud has written a book about motherhood now, as the mother of five children. She doesn’t claim to be an expert. She doesn’t claim to have all, or even some, of the answers. Instead, she is out in the wilderness, struggling and triumphing, like a first-time mother.