Having It All, Means Having No Sleep

Helaine Olen writes a great column about Ada Calhoun’s new book, Why We Can’t Sleep: Women’s New Midlife Crisis.

…Calhoun’s subject is exhaustion and anxiety, experienced by all too many women who were brought up in the 1970s and 1980s to believe we could somehow “have it all” — domestic harmony and perfection, children and fulfilling, lucrative work that mattered.

It turns out that promise was a fairy tale for the early years of feminism’s second wave. But, as Calhoun recounts, the myth was accompanied by a simultaneous ratcheting up of expectations placed on women, even as government and societal support crumbled. Parenting turned into a vocation, with the result that, even as the number of mothers with jobs has swelled over the decades, mothers of today spend more time with their children than the mothers of 50 years ago. The millions of Gen X women who have given birth in their 30s and 40s have found themselves confronted by the double whammy of needing to care for those children — as the cost of child care has surged — while also caring for older parents. (Let me note here that men, on the other hand, rarely fall for the tripe that they can do it all. Gen Xer Beto O’Rourke claimed his wife, Amy, raised their children “sometimes with my help,” while Andrew Yang, of the same generation, routinely references his wife, Evelyn, “who’s at home with our two boys.”)

My Fitbit measures my sleep. I have never scored higher than a “fair.” Usually, I get a poor. Partially, it’s due to hormones. But when I’m wake up at 2:00am, I find that I’m thinking about the chore list. I’m making lists in my sleep.

I do a lot. I’ve got a various writing projects — some for fun, some for money, some for promotion. I’m managing kids’ issues. Even the college kid still comes with responsibilities, because college has way fewer supports than in the past. It’s terrible to think of our loved ones as ticking time bombs, but our parents will need more help soon.

As Helaine’s article sort of points out, some of this is our fault. Do we really need to putting so much time into parenting? Do we really need cool, but poorly compensated jobs? Why can’t we just admit that we can’t “have it all” and make some compromises?

I still do “want it all” though. I’m not ready to give up yet. So, after an hour of sponging off wallpaper glue off the office walls, mapping out the weekend schedule, and signing up the younger kid for a sports program, I’m heading to the coffee shop to work for a while. All with about five hours of sleep.

25 thoughts on “Having It All, Means Having No Sleep

  1. Ironically, I just woke up from 12 hours of sleep that I got in 3 increments. I fell asleep around 9:30, woke at 1:30 and was up reading Twitter for a while, then slept again until 7 or 8, when my husband was getting ready for work. Then back asleep till around 10. I have started to embrace the waking up in the middle of the night. But I am also always far more tired than I used to be.

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  2. I am not this kind of woman. I was only willing to try for “all” when it wasn’t too hard and do not regret giving up the things I couldn’t fit. I’m also really good at saying no to do things I don’t want to do. But, I do not sleep well. I think my sleep was disrupted when the children were small and has never returned. The east facing windows probably don’t help, either. But I hate missing sunrises.

    And, this morning, my kiddo, the one with great executive functioning skills for a 16 year old, woke me up at 5:30 AM to ask for files. I was so mad. My kids are pretty good at respecting my needs, but they also seem to think I don’t sleep, that I just lie there waiting for them to need something (mostly a joke, but also a little bit true). In their defense, I do sleep really lightly, so am almost always awake by the time they approach me.

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    1. “I am not this kind of woman. I was only willing to try for “all” when it wasn’t too hard and do not regret giving up the things I couldn’t fit. I’m also really good at saying no to do things I don’t want to do. But, I do not sleep well. I think my sleep was disrupted when the children were small and has never returned. The east facing windows probably don’t help, either. But I hate missing sunrises.”

      I’m also not that kind of woman!

      Nevertheless, I also don’t sleep a lot at night. I’m usually good for a 6 hour block at night and then I try to sneak an hour nap in the afternoon. This is not something I advertise in real life, though, because adult napping is un-PC in North American culture. It’s kind of important to get that extra hour, though, because I put in a full “shift” after that.

      5 hours or less of sleep per day and I would not trust myself to drive safely. (There are all kinds of stats on how being a sleepy driver is as bad as being a drunk driver.)

      I’m doing pretty much everything I feel like I ought to be doing, except exercise and personal care. It’s the next item on my to-do list, but it’s not very appealing without adequate resources to tackle it. Soon, real soon! An extra $100 or $200 a month would cover it.

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  3. I recently read a ranty debunking of a graph that was circulating on the internets correlating lack of sleep with early death. I think the debunker just hated the graph (though he might also have been one of those tech bro-ey supporter of body optimization, involving no sleep and liquid diets). As I read the debunking, I did consider the fact that people like me need to convince people like Laura to sleep more, if we were trying to accomplish the same tasks (i.e. we were both computer programmers at Google) because Laura would just get so much more done than I did. I mean, sleeping less does mean that some people get more done. Not everyone, because some people don’t function. But some do.

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  4. I like the Helene Olen article better than Ada Calhoun’s interview on NPR. I do think she’s whining a bit. It is true, life isn’t fair. But as my mother says if it was fair, we’d probably have a lot less. I think women all over the world have it tougher. I also think that its mostly white women who complain like this. My asian friends, my black friends…they work hard and they complain but not about this. They just get shit done and maybe their priorities aren’t my priorities but they don’t sit around saying “life isn’t fair”. I like what Helene says: lets take this frustration and get medicare for all so we don’t have to haggle with insurance….let’s vote the right people in, let’s help in our communities and change things for the better as we can. That said, I am a gen-x woman who only sleeps through the night 3 times a week. But I guess I just feel lucky that that’s my problem.

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  5. Having a “first sleep” and a “second sleep” is an old, normal pattern. https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-16964783

    It could be that the 8 hour sleep custom is unnatural, brought on by electricity.

    I found using a fitbit to track sleep negatively affected my sleep quality. Like a watched pot. Interestingly enough, though, 23&me predicted my natural wake time pretty well.

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  6. The ability to be surprised or see it as a revelation that “life is not fair” does seem like an experience that comes from a charmed life. I once saw a group of girls at a elite private school in our area working on motivational art that said something along the lines of “I will exceed the low expectations others have for me” and had the immediate thought that this was not the message that reflected their lives. These are girls whose families have high hopes, expectations, and resources and they are surprised when they meet the barriers. And, yes, women of color are less likely to be surprised.

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  7. And then again, why is there this attempt to complain about life’s unfairness, and guilt women about their life choices?

    After all, difficulty sleeping in one’s 30s and 40s could be hormonal: https://thesleepdoctor.com/2018/01/05/menopause-affects-sleep/

    Postponing childbearing into the third decade, means that you might be entering perimenopause parenting small children, while taking care of aging parents. Incidentally, delaying childbearing by a decade means the grandparents are also a decade older, and less able to help out with babysitting.

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  8. Cranberry said, “Postponing childbearing into the third decade, means that you might be entering perimenopause parenting small children, while taking care of aging parents. Incidentally, delaying childbearing by a decade means the grandparents are also a decade older, and less able to help out with babysitting.”

    True!

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  9. Speaking of having it all, Laura asked on twitter, “Looking for a four-day getaway from NJ over president’s weekend. Must be a 3 hour or less flight from NJ/NYC, great food, exercise, music. Can be warm or chilly. Can’t be a million dollars.”

    People were mentioning Nashville and Charleston. Those are both supposed to be fun.

    If you can manage 4 hours at some point, I always recommend San Antonio as a really fun location. There’s always some kind of festival going on, there’s a lot of historical stuff in the area (mission churches, the Alamo and other old Spanish stuff), there’s the River Walk and there’s a Six Flags and Sea World (check calendar for operating hours for the latter, though). Hotels are astonishingly inexpensive for it being such a major tourist area. And it’s quite compact.

    But do not go to San Antonio in the hot weather months. You WILL MELT. It’s quite pleasant much of the winter, though.

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  10. I used to have issues with lack of sleep due making lists in my head instead of sleeping – as soon as I got into bed, in the middle of the night, etc. It was like my brain turned on and would not turn off. Then I read something in an Oprah magazine about what to do, and I was like – I guess it can’t hurt, so I tried it. Surprisingly, it works really well for me. Passing along in case it’s any help. Oprah interviewed a sleep researcher who recommended thinking of a letter (any letter will do) and then thinking of every word you can that starts with that letter. It’s harder than it seems, which is I guess why it works? None of those things, like counting sheep or deep breathing, ever worked for me before, so I was surprised at how effective it has been. Most of the time, I am out like a light while working on my first letter. If I have to move on to another letter, I know that means I am hosed – no sleeping for me that night.

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    1. The difference, I think, between counting sheep or meditative breathing, is cognitive load. I need enough cognitive load to diminish cognitive engagement that is preventing me from sleeping (i.e. thinking about the world, the day, the next day, . . . .).

      Counting sheep (except, maybe, for children, where it might be a cognitive load) is repetitive, potentially meditative, but not sufficiently engaging.

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  11. I highly recommend this podcast, from a Stanford researcher, on sleep problems: https://itunes.apple.com/WebObjects/MZStore.woa/wa/viewPodcast?id=385767111&i=1000085472933

    Basically, your brain is a tricky organism. Lying in bed trying to sleep increases the chances you won’t be able to sleep. There are ways to create good habits for good sleep.

    If I can’t sleep at night, I leave the bedroom and do something totally different, like unloading the dishwasher. Then I go back to bed. In essence, worrying about not sleeping is practicing the skill of not sleeping.

    I’ve found that I can’t read anything interesting before going to bed. Stupid stuff is fine.

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    1. I have spent several (or more like 10) years working to repair the damage done to my sleep habits by motherhood and grad school. I don’t let anything screw with my sleep anymore and I am healthier and happier for it.

      This won’t be popular, but if you frequently wake up in the middle of the night and you drink, you need to stop drinking.

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  12. Pfft. Call me when men start getting shamed for “having it all” (i.e., a career and a family). Especially call me when they get accused of seeking “perfection” because they’re daring to earn their own money and not be totally financially reliant on a spouse. I’ll just be over here on the couch nibbling See’s Candies and watching something science-fiction-y, because I’m less stabby than when I’m reading another umpteenth hand-wringing piece of work about how “having it all” is destroying not just society, but women, too!!11!

    Good Lord, what year is it? Ain’t a damn thing wrong with having it all—men have had it all forever, with nary a whisper about it. DOING IT ALL is the problem—so don’t. Prioritize. Triage. Expect more from the people you live with, because you aren’t their servant.

    Now, if you can’t sleep, I highly recommend physical exhaustion. Do something hard and physical with your body on a regular basis and you should have no problem falling asleep. Works great for perimenopause too.

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      1. MH said, “I thought men were supposed to half-ass the family part. I may have been doing it wrong.”

        The guys are pretty notorious for not going 50/50 on gestation duties.

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    1. Men can’t have it all either. They can have a career and a family, but when the job requires them to be an always available ideal worker, they don’t really get their family (though they might be able to reproduce with the assistance of a partner).

      Someone recently posted on a time diary of caring for her newborn in the early months, with time spent on breastfeeding, sleeping, caring for kid and it was a reminder of how frequent breastfeeding is when babies are new. I remember being roundly shocked at the concept of every two hours, with the time feeding included in the hours with my first. I didn’t do it. With my second, I had more support but having my day divided up in two hour chunks (and then, when they became variable, it was even worse) was a nearly impossible fit for my personality and workstyle (which requires “flow”).

      Gestation/breastfeeding aren’t shareable, and I think they can fundamentally change the relationship to work.

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    2. Ain’t a damn thing wrong with having it all—men have had it all forever, with nary a whisper about it.

      Well, they do commit suicide at 3.5 x the rate of women. Whereas women report suicide attempts 1.4 x more frequently than men. The squeaky wheel gets more grease, maybe, in that such articles create awareness of stress. So some women complain about the stress they feel in trying to meet their own, internal, expectations of success, and people pay attention.

      Whereas, men generally don’t complain, but take action. And everyone’s surprised.

      White men committed 69.7% of the suicides in 2017. https://afsp.org/about-suicide/suicide-statistics/

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