Yes, You Can Have it All … If You Don’t Sleep

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It’s 8:38 a.m. and two of the three rugrats are still snoring soundly in bed. We are fully entwined in the dog days of summer: slow mornings and late nights. Part of me wants to revel in this deliciously slow pace — to wake up naturally sans alarm, to enjoy a hot cup of coffee sitting down while my kids chill on the couch with their morning cartoons. But I know that well rested nights and lethargic mornings are a luxury in our house. And although it is easy to slide into this routine now, I vividly remember how things used to be, and how I used to feel.

Perpetually exhausted.

So goes the life of a parent, right? My oldest — the first of three — is nearing nine. I was prepared for nights of interrupted sleep when she was born. That’s what newborn babies do. But I wasn’t prepared for the intensity with which she would fight the urge to rest. Or the fact that she would demand we hold her hand until she fell asleep. Or wake us multiple times in the night well beyond her toddler years.

I didn’t know that the few months of sleepless nights I expected to have with my newborn would become years. Years.

Our second child was a better sleeper, but not much, and so I returned to work long before either kid had settled into a consistent sleep routine. This meant that my sleep was under constant attack — if not from tiny feet pattering into my room to wake me up in the night or a call of “Mom!” from somewhere in the dark, then from the threat of the alarm clock set to go off in the wee morning hours. There was never enough time for sleep, and what time I did have was involuntarily squandered listening for restless kids or the pending alarm.

After years of not sleeping, we figured, ‘What the hell? Might as well have a third kid.’ Only this time, low and behold, the baby settled into a solid sleep routine much earlier than the others. And this time, I took an extended leave of absence from work. Which meant that for the first time in forever, I have been able to really, truly sleep.

Why sleep matters

Scientists tell us that a lack of quality sleep can be detrimental to our physical and mental well-being. It affects our judgement and mood. It limits our capacity to learn and retain information. It decreases our productivity and increases our risk of injury. And, over the long-term, it can have serious consequences on our health, leading to things like obesity, disease and premature death.

Sleep has such a huge impact on our lives that Arianna Huffington (think Huffington Post) has made it her new life’s mission to educate the world about it. She even wrote a book: The Sleep Revolution. Forget about thinking big or leaning in or winning friends and influencing people; the real secret to success is sleep.

It’s not just the amount of sleep that matters. It’s the quality. Some people — like my husband — appear fully functional after only a handful of hours of sleep. But during those hours, they are in deep and dead to the world. Others, like myself, require hours of rest in order to get in those few quality hours of deep sleep.

Of course, we don’t need science, or the media, or even celebrities to tell us that not getting a good night’s rest makes us feel bad. Most of us know this from personal experience. The older I get, the more a sleepless night leaves me feeling hungover; it’s all of the suffering, but none of the fun.

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How to “have it all”

I am at a crossroads in life. The countdown until my return to work is in full swing, and while part of me is looking forward to it, part of me is freakin’ the freak out about how I’m going to manage, well, everything. There are only 24 hours in a day, and a full-time job takes up a fair chunk of those. And no matter how much pressure I put on my brain to devise a schedule that fits everything I need, and want, to do, the math simply doesn’t add up.

Something will have to give. But what?

The biggest demand on my time is my family. But once work and school and sports start up in the fall, time with my kids will run at a premium. And I will guard those precious moments — even the ones where they’re all acting like jerks — with everything I have. So, no, I can’t cut back on family time.

Then there is the time spent doing day-to-day tasks, like cooking and cleaning house, or time spent socializing. But I already spend a minimum amount of time on the former, and time on the latter is virtually non-existent. Any less, and I might be classified as a hermit (although that does have it’s appeal).

Then there are the two things in my schedule that I do entirely for myself: writing and exercise. Personal time is usually the first thing to get cut when life gets busy. And exercise is an easy thing to just … stop … doing. Because I don’t love doing it. I just love having done it. But these things are so beneficial to my physical and mental health that I just have to keep them.

So what else? T.V.? I’ve already put my summer binge-watching of Big Brother on the block. I pretty sure I can cut television out of my life (almost) entirely by fall, if need be. Time wasted on my smartphone? That can also go (I guess). But those things alone aren’t enough.

Something else has got to give. And that something is sleep.

Finding the sleep balance

I have spent the past few months relishing in a fairly consistent eight-plus hours of sleep each night. Sometimes nine hours. Sometimes even 10. It has been glorious!   

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According to the National Sleep Foundation, my current sleep habits fall on the top end of the recommended range. I could cut back to six hours and still stay within the “may be appropriate” bucket.

Cutting back to six hours of sleep would buy me at least two extra hours each day. And if I improve my sleep habits (and my kids stay in their own beds, and hubby doesn’t snore, and nothing in the house makes a mysterious noise, and my brain doesn’t rebel with a laundry list of things to do and other ridiculous thoughts), there is a chance I’ll still wake up feeling rested. I am hopeful.

So the real question, now, is how do I spend my remaining days of guaranteed slumber? Do I start setting my alarm earlier and earlier each morning, slowly acclimatizing to my new lack-of-sleep schedule? Or do I bask in slothful glory until my first day of work, then cut my sleep off cold turkey, like ripping off a band-aid?

My head says, “Ease in.” But my heart say, “Enjoy it while it lasts.”

Realistically, these may be the last days of good sleep I’ll ever have. By the time I retire, my pending old age will have me “naturally” waking up at 5 a.m. or earlier. Life is cruel that way.

So for now, I’ll go with my heart. And come September, I’ll sleep when I’m dead.

If the research on not getting enough sleep is correct, that day will come soon enough.