Thursday, June 9, 2011

Sleep as a Choice

Sleep is overrated. Or maybe it's not; maybe it's simply overestimated. Although there isn't a lot more scrumptious than climbing into bed and pulling up the blanket to complete the day, the barrage of print devoted to the harmful effects of not getting enough is superfluous, if not boring. Jane Brody has just devoted a two part series on the subject. In A Good Night’s Sleep Isn’t a Luxury; It’s a Necessity she outlines all of the obvious benefits of a good night's sleep: better health, improved physical appearance, easier ability to maintain proper body weight, increased efficiency at work, elevated mental acuity, healthy state of mind. It's that simple: if you can sleep at least seven hours a night it's all right out there for the picking.

Of course that's in a perfect world, and how many of us live in a perfect world? I was always a decent sleeper, preferring to go to bed early and get up early but usually able to get a good night's rest. My issues with sleep developed with the birth of my first born; convincing this long white spaghetti-strand of a child to close his eyes and settle in was a twice daily, gargantuan chore. My only option was to "Ferberize” him. For those who don't know, Dr. Richard Ferber has written the guide on how to "ease" (love that choice of verb) your children through the night. While I’ll admit that at the height of its usage I called this book the “Bible,” singing its praises for helping me to “break down” my son’s iron will to remain awake, I now understand that my own goals might have been misguided. After all, my objective was based entirely on my own desire to get to that lovely moment at the end of the day, or even indulgently in the middle!, where I could put my feet up on the coffee table and enjoy the “absence” of that constant pitter patter. Wasn't I justified in letting that poor blond thing "cry it out?" But sixteen years down the road my eldest is still amongst the last to go to bed and the first to wake up-- persistently forgoing hours of sleep for the many other things that give him pleasure (triathlon work-outs, reading, American sit-coms, computer games and more reading).

Inattentive to his particularly "alert" temperament and desperately thinking of my own needs (shame on me!) I was trying to force him into the "ideal" sleep pattern encouraged within most literature on the subject. A point in fact is Brody's second recent article which concludes that children are simply not getting enough sleep. There's absolutely no surprise there. In fact, just about every social get-together I've attended over the last few years has eventually rolled around to the subject. Brody's excellent suggestions for assisting our sleep-deprived teenagers include a later start to the school day, the curtailing of late night stimulation (i.e. screen time), the establishment of more "appropriate" (i.e. "realistic") bedtimes and the incorporation of the biological sleep cycle into the school curriculum (if we explain to them why they need to sleep maybe they'll actually do it!)

While this article, with its particularly effective guidelines for frustrated parents, presents a few germane ideas, it joins a bevy of others which miss the point: It is simply fashionable to complain about how long it takes to get our children to sleep! If we can't blame our exhaustion on our children we'll have to look for answers in our own lives! Oh no! Worse yet, solving this common problem would prevent us beleaguered parents from getting all worked-up over the issue and that wouldn't be much fun at all. The proof of our obsession with our children's unwillingness to go to sleep is the excitement over the imminent publication of Adam Mansbach’s Go the F**k to sleep. The unprecedented amount of attention this book is getting in the press (it's at the top of Amazon's best seller list and hasn't even appeared on the shelves) indicates that the author has hit upon a major bone of contention. Not only are millions of parents desperate to get their children to sleep, or anywhere within spitting distance of their beds, but additionally, they're hinging their own sleep deprivation on this predicament.

The fact is, when push comes to shove, I can't blame my children for the sleep I've lost (although it's pretty darn convenient). Indeed, as they age I have more and more opportunities to hop into bed, whether for an early bedtime or a midday nap on the weekend. But here's the bottom line:  I’ve benefitted so much from those hours not spent snoozing that I've begun to see sleep as a poor option.

When I first moved to Israel in 1992 I was astounded by the number of business establishments that closed between 1-4pm. In Binyamina the shutters went down along the main street, leaving clouds of static dust and a look of the long-abandoned Wild West. Apparently the whole town was going home to take a nap! I soon understood this to be an Israeli/Middle East/ European (how big is that net?) phenomenon. I was amazed: How could a whole country run on a siesta schedule? The biblical admonition "Love not sleep, lest you come to poverty; open your eyes, and you shall be satisfied with bread" (Proverbs 20:13) obviously held little sway in the Holy Land. Over the years I tried to adapt and have, off and on, succeeded in taking advantage of this afternoon shut down, but I'm still not a convert. After all, with air conditioning fairly universal, making the original "heat" excuse no longer tenable, this "daily yawn" is somewhat ludicrous.

For years my husband's participation in this ritual, at any given hour, has irked me to no end. But I've lately come to understand that my resistance is entirely due to choice and has nothing to do with a so-called "Western" inability to wind down! As far as I'm concerned, albeit necessary and delicious, sleep is a terrible waste. With a limited number of hours to each day why would anyone choose to fritter them away sleeping? Take that siesta as example: What a perfect opportunity to catch up on, let's say, reading! Just how many words are lined up next to my bed waiting to be consumed! My children's resistance to sleeping is beginning to make sense. Maybe their desire to keep on ticking, fighting tooth and nail to avoid napping and going to sleep later and later each night, is indicative of their own awareness of how many interesting things the world has to offer! Small cracks in the age-old argument of sleep advocates suggest that they may have gone overboard in their recommendations. Allowing our children to engage with the world for an extra hour or two may actually be reasonable!

When I first joined the local triathlon group I stuck solidly to evening workouts and turned my nose up at the 6am option. I knew exactly where I was going to be at that hour and it was far, far away from any swimming pool! But two and a half years down the road I've been converted—or some might say, broken. While each night I revel in that glorious feeling of lying horizontally beneath the sheets, eyes closed, the imminent loss of consciousness filling my body from tip to toe, I effortlessly shake off the cloak of somnolence when my alarm rings at 5:15am. I burst from the bed like the barely-bridled Secretariat at the starting gate. Although this transformation didn't happen overnight, I’ve gradually become convinced that being outside, at dawn, moving my body, is one of the "greats" and definitely worth the sacrifice.

This doesn't mean that I don't experience those days when it's absolutely painful to leave my cozy down comforter and hurl myself out of the house. After all, I'm still human! And obviously the result of my lifestyle is that by midday I'm tired. Not knock-down fall over tired--but still, tired. After all, although possibly overrated, sleep cannot totally be forgone. Its embrace is incomparably healing: especially when overcoming an illness or suffering from serious deprivation. But in general, despite its overwhelming appeal, I am prepared to forgo those extra "winks." Albeit morose, there is much to Warren Devon's famous saying, "I'll sleep when I die" as the overwhelming physical and emotional gains of that one hour of lost morning sleep always outweigh its loss.

 This isn't about triathlon. It's about choice. With so many people to keep track of, as well as daily household and work demands, grabbing the hour when most of the protagonists are still tucked cozily into their beds makes the most sense for me. And so, with a respectful nod to Ferber and those other sleep schedule advocates, I've come to the conclusion that one should march to the beat of their own drum. Accordingly, when my son pops up at 7am, after too brief of a night's sleep, I will not wrestle him back to bed (difficult at 6 foot in any case); when my husband stays up into the wee hours and then catches up on his sleep with a 6pm power nap, I will respect his biological clock as I respect my own; when my daughter opts to cozy up with her dad and watch some inane late night reality show, obviously leading to a difficult morning wake-up call, I will allow her that luxury; in the end, each to his own. The need to push harder, achieve more and "do it all" cannot be easily extinguished and is beautifully described (in reference to a surging horse) in Job (39:34): "With fierceness and rage he swallows the ground; he cannot stand still at the sound of the trumpet." Sleep is only one prerogative amongst life's offerings.    


  1. What does it say, though, that even when they tower over us, they look so sweet sleeping?

    Sounds like naps may become your personal answer. Over time.

  2. In fact there's nothing sweeter than watching one's children sleep; but I wonder if that's more about me or them!