Hot summer nights: ‘My family was running on fumes – like a dummy I took them camping’

My youngest son is almost four, so the sleep-deprived agony of newborn parenting has fully receded. My sleep is no longer jittery and surface-level, primed to be wrecked by the tiniest disturbance. When I sleep now, I expect to sleep.

Then last month, like a dummy, I took my kids camping. True, I did everything to maximise the amount of sleep I’d get. I booked a slightly upmarket campsite, complete with actual beds, and did some sums. The sun went down late and came up early, so my sons would wake up at the crack of dawn. But if I drifted off when they did, and everything worked out perfectly, I could just about cram in six hours.

Everything did not work out perfectly. At 2am on our last night, my youngest woke up in floods of tears. He wanted his mum. I couldn’t blame him. We all wanted his mum.

This hasn’t exactly been a vintage period for anyone, but my wife has had an especially rough ride. She was already suffering from poor mental health when her mother died of Covid in a care home 100 miles away, three weeks into lockdown. Like so many others who lost loved ones this way, she found it impossible to find closure to her grief in all the fog of uncertainty. Additionally, lockdown itself caused her agoraphobia – which had left her housebound for much of her 20s – to roar back with a vengeance. To put it bluntly, it was a breakdown. She couldn’t leave the house. Some days she couldn’t leave her bed. She was unable to work and started to speak darkly about finding inpatient care to prevent her from acting upon her worst impulses.

It’s a challenge to keep a young family running under these circumstances. Ensuring that the logistics of the house – the shopping, the laundry, the school run, the income – continued, while keeping the children happy and engaged, aware of the broader situation without being overwhelmed by it, took it out of everyone. As a family, we’ve been running on fumes for as long as I can remember.

So the camping trip ultimately served two purposes. The first was to let the kids run around outside for a weekend, the second was to give my wife some peace. If it wasn’t for the agoraphobia, we would have sent her somewhere nice for a couple of nights. Instead, a plan was hatched. She would stay at home and have two days of uninterrupted quiet, and we would set off on an adventure.

And it worked. For a day and a half the trip went without a hitch. The three of us chased one another around fields and visited zoos, nobody wet themselves and everything was great. But then, on our final night, the three-year-old woke up and started crying. Inconsolable, violent tears that couldn’t be stopped. It was a newborn tantrum, with the added bonus that he could now verbalise his anguish.

“I want mummy!” he screamed.

“We’ll see her tomorrow,” I whispered.

“No, we won’t!” he cried.

“Yes, we will. The sun will come up and then we’ll go home and see her.”

“The sun won’t come up! We won’t see her!”

His older brother reached over the darkness and hugged him, sleepily murmuring, “It’s going to be OK.”

“No it WON’T!” came the reply.

The poor kid had convinced himself that the night would last for ever, that he’d never see sunshine again. I knew the feeling.

In the end, I crawled into their bed and held him. Slowly, after what felt like half the night had passed, his screaming turned into sobs. The sobs turned into murmurs. And as his brother cuddled him from the other side, the murmurs finally turned into sleep. We all passed out as one, clinging to each other for dear life.

Approximately 35 seconds later, the sun screamed back into the air and everyone woke up again.

I took a picture as soon as we were awake, and it is not particularly flattering. We are all red-eyed and exhausted, and my face looks like it’s been pummelled with a hoof. But I haven’t deleted it because it means something. It’s proof that we got through the night. And if we can get through that, we can get through anything.

My wife didn’t have the best weekend, either. Without anyone around, she found it difficult to get the rest she craved. Maybe a break wasn’t what we needed. Maybe we need to start taking it slowly, together, as a family. She’s doing better, by the way, but it’s a long road back.

We’ll get there. For starters, we’re going camping again before the summer ends. This time, she wants to come.