Health And Wellness

How I Reclaimed My Ability To Sleep Without Shame

Photo: hoekstrarogier, g-stockstudio | Canva
Woman getting peaceful dreamy sleep

If I could give just one piece of advice to my 20-year-old self, it would be to go to sleep.

When I became a mother at age 31, I cursed myself for every hour of sleep I had ever denied myself for no good reason. So much sleep was squandered in my 20s because I fancied myself a Busy and Potentially Important Person. I was trying to make my mark, trying to launch a company while bartending to pay rent, and everyone knows that entrepreneurs can’t be bothered with such frivolous pastimes as sleeping.

In my early 20s, I got home from my Sunday bartending shift at 3 a.m. and arose at 7 a.m. to start my workweek. I stayed up too late on Fridays — because I was young and didn’t yet get hangovers — and stayed up too late most other days just because.

But still, when I did sleep, I did so with gusto. I routinely enjoyed uninterrupted, untroubled hours of sleep, all stacked up one after the other. I made up for staying up too late by sleeping in on the weekends, a luxury I didn’t yet know to cherish.

How I Reclaimed My Ability To Sleep Without ShamePhoto: fizkes / Shutterstock

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I have, in fact, always been partial to sleep.

As a child, I never protested my 9 p.m. bedtime; in fact, I even continued to honor it through my freshman year of high school. My parents were confused. “You don’t have to keep going to bed at nine,” they said.

I was that obnoxious kid who was no fun at sleepovers. I’d try my best to stay awake, but at a certain point, usually just when the other kids were revving up, my sleeping bag would beckon. I’d zip myself in and fall promptly asleep under blazing overhead lights while sugar-fueled chaos reigned around me.

When I spent the night at my friends’ houses in middle school, they always wanted to talk until the wee hours of the morning. I’d give it a go for as long as I could, but eventually, as exhaustion overtook me, I had to feign sleep, willing them to get the message and shut up. One friend, in particular, was tenacious in her late-night banter and would carry on through my long, pointed silences, intermittently kicking me because I was being lame and it was only 1 a.m.

It was during my sophomore year of high school that the homework started to pile, and I had to push my bedtime to 10 p.m., then 10:30. But still, while batchmates regularly pulled all-nighters, I saw to it that by the time 10:30 rolled around, I was properly tucked in my top bunk, ready to lapse into my precious 7.5 hours of sleep before my alarm brutally ripped me awake at the godforsaken hour of 6 a.m.

I was a teenager, after all, and could have easily lounged in bed for another four or five hours. Now, when my adolescent daughter stumbles from her room at noon, blinking under the kitchen lights, I can’t help but feel a little jealous. Not only because of her physical ability to stay in bed until noon but also because of her utter lack of shame.

I’m not a morning person.

I can fashion myself into one when life requires it, which is far more often than I’d like. But I never delight in my pre-dawn wake-up call. You’ll never catch me bounding out of bed. During these dark winter months, it takes everything I can muster to disentangle myself from my down comforter and confront the darkness and the cold.

I spend most of the winter months feeling jealous of bears. Perhaps I romanticize hibernation, but few prospects sound as glorious as tucking into a warm cave for a few months to rest. I’d easily give up Christmas for a warm cave.

They say that bears raising cubs hibernate longer, which makes me think of the winter months after my daughter was born. That time was a kind of hibernation in itself. I spent entire days intermittently sleeping. The rest of the time I spent nursing — she was a hungry one — and making faces at her while she seared me with her burning black eyes. The days fell away quickly, though I couldn’t understand how. For the first time in decades, I had all the time in the world, yet there was no time, it seemed, to shower or make a proper meal.

The notion of a “good night’s sleep” suddenly became laughable, a relic of a previous era in which I dictated the terms of my nights and days. Sleep was no longer something that I had the luxury of lolling about for hours at a time. It was something I snatched bits and pieces of whenever I could.

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It amazed me, how these little bits of sleep added up, and how energized I felt. My new sleep patterns felt more natural, somehow, more animalistic. It occurred to me that the holy grail of eight consecutive hours of sleep is, like so many things, something that modern humans just made up, much like the eight-hour workday.

It was when I had to return to this eight-hour workday, after 10 short weeks, that everything began to unravel. I no longer had my cat naps to sustain me, and my body raged against its once-familiar rhythms. My breasts swelled at inopportune times, longing for my baby’s latch. Exhaustion settled into every crevice of my body, pressing its unwelcome weight against my shoulders, etching itself under my eyes.

During my leave, I found a certain coziness in the nighttime feedings. Me, tucked into the living room armchair, a single lamp spreading its buttery light beside me. My daughter noisily suckling, her sharp eyes softening, both of us drifting into sleep.

But after returning to work, I began to dread these feedings and began to resent my daughter’s insatiable appetite. As I collapsed into bed at night, I muttered to myself, “Let the wild rumpus start!”

The days were a wild rumpus of their own. I’d thought a 10-week leave would feel like an eternity, but it slipped through my fingers and before I knew it, I was squeezing myself into Work Attire, negotiating crushing metro crowds, frantically smearing concealer across the dark circles that seemed to have settled permanently under my eyes.

It’s not the babies themselves that deprive us of sleep. It’s the Babies + Everything Else.

When it was just me, my baby, and our leisurely looping rhythms of eating, dozing, and making faces at one another, there was always time to recharge. But when I found myself once again at the mercy of a 40-hour workweek, the hours of sleep I lost during the night dripped away and dissolved, like water into sand, never to be reclaimed.

During those intensive early years of parenting, I once commiserated with a father of three young kids. He confided to me that he frequently fantasized about being in a coma. He said this somewhat sheepishly, as though it were a ridiculous — even shameful — fantasy. But I completely understood. I told him that I fantasized about hibernation, which was more or less the same thing.

My day job at the time entailed profiling local entrepreneurs, many of whom took a perverse sense of pride in how busy they were and how little they slept. I remembered how I once derived the same smug satisfaction from my own tightly packed schedule, how I made sure the world knew it when all the Important Things I was doing infringed upon a good night’s sleep. Like my overachieving peers, I wore my sleep deprivation as a badge of honor.

There is a big difference, I came to learn, between sleep deprivation in the name of Achievement and sleep deprivation in the name of Caregiving.

Society applauds achievement; we have no patience for caregivers. We give achievers the spotlight and relegate caregivers to the shadows. When caregivers are tired, we don’t want to hear about it.

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I asked one entrepreneur about an unexpected lesson she’d learned during her journey and she said, “I’ve learned how well I can function on hardly any sleep.” At this particular point in time, I hadn’t enjoyed more than three consecutive hours of sleep for the better part of four years. I wanted to grab her shoulders and shake her. “GO TO SLEEP!” I wanted to scream.

I saw in her the same raw hunger I’d had in my 20s, the desire to make a mark, to do something of significance. I saw it in the entrepreneurs all around me, and I respected it, but I no longer bought into the other crap that comes with it — the inflated sense of self-importance, and the personal price entrepreneurs and business leaders believe they have to pay to achieve that oh-so-desirable state of nirvana that we like to call Success.

It’s now been 12 years since I had my first baby, and it’s only in the last couple of years that I’ve reclaimed my ability to sleep. My son’s feet no longer patter to our bedroom in the middle of the night; I no longer doze in his bed at 2 a.m. before gently extricating myself and attempting to snatch a few more hours of shallow, restless sleep before my alarm insists that I start another day.

Even after both my children more or less slept through the night, I often found myself waking and tensing, waiting for cries or patters that never came. It took practice to slip into slumber with the relief that external forces were unlikely to interrupt it for a good long while.

I now sleep deeply and long enough to dream again, even if I spend the majority of these dreams racing about, always trying to get somewhere but never quite managing to arrive. Occasionally, I wake up in the morning with strands of drool glistening off my chin, and I mentally high-five myself.

I recently woke up on a Saturday to find my son standing over my bed, tapping my shoulder and peering at me curiously. “Mom,” he said, “It’s 9:30. Are you ever going to get up?” I thought he must have read the clock wrong, but lo and behold, it was actually 9:30 in the morning. Not only had he allowed me to sleep until such a late hour, I had somehow managed to.

At first, I felt sheepish. I had so much to do, what was I doing frittering away my time in bed? I even started making excuses to my son, but then I caught myself. Outside, drizzle flickered like static and a charcoal sky pressed down upon us with a firmness that said, “Rest up. Stay in bed. Your to-do list can wait.”

If bears can hibernate for four to seven months at a time, I told myself, I can sleep until nine friggin’ thirty on a Saturday. I patted the bed next to me to invite my son to join me, and he rolled his eyes. All those years I spent trying to get my son out of our bed, and now, at age eight, he was too cool to cuddle. But he clamored in with a sigh, and my partner wrapped his arms around me, and I wrapped my arms around my son, and all of us dozed just a little bit longer.

I thought, “Maybe when I open my eyes again, winter will be over.” I had no such luck, but our late-morning catnap was glorious just the same.

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Kerala Taylor is an award-winning writer and co-owner of a worker-owned marketing agency. Her weekly stories are dedicated to interrupting notions of what it means to be a mother, woman, worker, and wife. She writes on Medium and has recently launched a Substack publication Mom, Interrupted.

This article was originally published at Substack. Reprinted with permission from the author.