For the past few weeks I’ve been doing something radical. Almost every night after the girls’ story time, bedtime prayers, and tuck-in time, instead of resting beside them for a few minutes before popping up to conquer the world (one dirty sock at a time) I’ve instead slipped into their warm nest of covers, and I’ve stayed put.
The first night I fell asleep with my children was born out of sheer exhaustion. My husband’s hours had been long (which makes my days and nights long, too), and I’d been playing the single mom game (except some very generous in-laws had stopped by last week to offer a lending helping hand, so I wasn’t completely on my own).
We’d been going full-throttle and by the time the girls’ bedtime arrived, I was as worn out as they were. They fell asleep quickly. I felt their warm bodies pressed against me. I watched their tummies rise and fall. They looked so content and peaceful. I wanted what they had. I wanted, I realized, sleep.
It was quiet, and so was I. Normally the absence of noise causes my mind to run like a ticker of endless thoughts. Often during our bedtime routine my girls’ bodies won’t stay still. Madeline kicks her feet. Rae pushes the covers off of her. They physically fidget while I mentally fidget.
But for some reason on this night I was just too tired to think or to care about my to-do list. I emptied my mind of worries over the wet clump of clothes balled up in the washer that I should have shoved into the dryer. When I remembered the few dirty dishes left in the sink and the crumb-covered kitchen floor that was in desperate need of sweeping, I let these thoughts go. I rolled over. I closed my eyes.
And I slept.
The next morning I woke up feeling more refreshed than I’ve felt in ages even though I still woke up to nurse M.E. several times in the night and unfortunately endured a blow to the nose when Rae inadvertently started head banging in her sleep.
When night came the next day, I decided I’d rest with the girls again. Sleep came even more easily than it had the night before. The next morning I felt even better.
I have continued to enforce a strict bedtime now for more than a week.
Since disciplining myself to retire early in the evening, my days have been brighter. I’m still waking up in the night, but I’m cumulatively getting more sleep than I have in a long, long time.
When I was sprinting across our lawn with the dog and the girls the other day, it hit me that I’d not only been taking care of myself better physically (I was running, and my legs didn’t feel like lead), but I’d been tending to my spiritual life as well.
Could it be that I was fighting sloth with sleep?
While I did often take care of domestic duties in the evening, I also often sifted through email when my kids were asleep and before I knew it I was sucked into the consuming vortex of the Internet. There was a temptation in the evening when my children slept and when my husband wasn’t around or was still busy signing reports for work for me to waste time. I rationalized my late night hedonistic binges easily. I’ve worked hard all day. I deserve some me time.
But the best “me” time I can give myself is a quiet, restful night.
And in order to give my best to God as well as to ward off sloth, I must embrace true industry – that is prioritizing my duties using prudence and temperance and doing what is the most essential to my vocation as a wife and mother. And getting adequate sleep is essential to being a giving wife and mother.
For too long I’ve viewed sleep as negotiable. Sure, it was a nice perk, but there were far more important things to do with my time than to conk out horizontally – say, dust, pray, read, Google “how to stop 19-month-old from trying to kill herself,” alphabetize our DVDs, jot down another to-do list, obsess over acres of mismatched socks in my laundry room… Anything was better than wasting time drooling on a pillow.
I prided myself on being the opposite of slothful. Sloth was one deadly sin I assured myself I’d never have to worry about. I gave up sleep to get things done, to glean knowledge via books, the Internet, and writing. Type A to a fault I’ve always been someone who gets things done, but in recent months it’s dawned on me (when I could barely face the dawn) that producing is meaningless rubbish if what you’re producing is taking you away from your true work or if in order to complete your work, you’re sacrificing a basic human need such as sleep.
When I was little, I never shortchanged myself on sleep. My mom recalls watching me crawl to my crib and ask to go night-night. I can remember even as I grew older, I’d rather miss out on some of the fun than skimp on sleep. When we had big family gatherings and everyone stayed up too late, I’d quietly excuse myself and wander into my bedroom. I never pulled an all-nighter in college. I figured getting more sleep was more beneficial to my intellectual pursuits than cramming in the wee hours of morning. My husband remembers me going to bed regularly at 9 p.m. early on in marriage. Then I sprung out of bed at 5 a.m. for early morning runs. He thought I was a freak being a night owl, but I loved my quiet mornings and my early evenings in bed. And I loved going to bed. Sleep was something sacred, not to be missed, no matter what was going on around me.
Then came motherhood. Feeding little ones throughout the night and believing that my nighttime parenting was as important as how I cared for them during the day (something I continue to believe), I grew accustomed to sleep deprivation. I scoffed at the “sleep when the baby sleeps” advice. No, my mantra was work, work, work while the babies sleep. There were only 24 hours in a day, and I could squeeze in more if I sacrificed those hours that normally were devoted to sleep. Besides, a baby or a toddler would probably be waking me up at any moment, so why even bother trying to sleep? I began to equate slumber time (especially naps) with laziness. The more sleep I lost, the more writing I could do. The more laundry I could tackle. The more quiet time I’d have. The more I could cram into one day.
So I got into the bad habit of staying up too late. I’d consistently blame my perpetual exhaustion and the dark circles under my eyes on my wakeful nursling and being the mom to young kids. Sleepless nights were just a part of the deal. You just sucked it up and plowed on ahead bleary-eyed, mushy-brained, but you didn’t stop moving. If you did, it just meant you were weak. Sleep was for wusses.
Yes, I became quite the mommy martyr. My children need me more than I need sleep.
But I’m finally waking up to the fact (it’s only taken me about six years) that my children need a well-rested mom more than they need extra clean socks on deck, a blog post documenting the cute things they say, or an elaborate meal plan. I need sleep more than I need an evening of chores and Googling. All those things I crammed into the evening hours robbed me of a physical need and detracted me from having the stamina to carry out my vocation in a gentle, present way.
Even when I stayed up too late to pray (something that seemed like a noble pursuit on the surface), I was forfeiting the sacred gift of sleep and a renewal in spirit I desperately needed in order to serve the Lord through my children. In turn, during the day I found it increasingly difficult to “pray unceasingly” (or to pray at all) and to stay focused on any one task. I was like a hummingbird buzzing at frenetic pace. I was like an overtired, hyperactive child. I forgot what it meant to be fully present, fully alive, and joyful. My lack of sleep clouded everything. A dearth of shut-eye also made me increasingly vulnerable to sloth – not only in the sense that I was compromising energy I needed in order to be a good wife and mom by burning the midnight oil – but also because it my constant fatigue started to make me spiritually apathetic. My question of why even bother try to sleep began to overlap with my prayer life: Why even bother to pray? It didn’t seem to bear much fruit. Nothing seems to bear much fruit when your head, heart, and entire being is heavy with exhaustion.
After my miscarriage, several kind friends encouraged me to take care of myself. Actually, those the closest to me have been saying this for a long time, especially after I admitted defeat and started talking about my postpartum depression. I thought taking care of myself meant eating regularly, exercising, and finding some time to write; yet, sleep remained a luxury. Even as I encouraged other moms to get the sleep they need in my health columns, even as my body began to shut down, I refused to recognize that what I needed was as simple as a few more hours of sleep.
Even if I wanted sleep, it didn’t seem possible to get much of it. So as an “all or nothing” kind of person, I opted for the nothing since eight hours a night seemed impossible with a little one who frequently nursed, a preschooler who was starting to have nighttime fears, and a 5-year-old who still sometimes woke me up in the night (not to mention a snoring husband who, on a really bad night, I’d fantasize smothering with a pillow in order to muffle out the horrendous sawing of humungous, old growth forest kind of logs). You snooze, you lose. I told myself I could get by on less and less.
But that’s all I was doing: I was just barely getting by. And you’re not meant to live life just getting by. God purposes us for more than that. He wants us to savor life, to make our days a holy liturgy, and to have the strength to carry life’s crosses.
Eventually I broke. It wasn’t the depression anymore. It wasn’t anxiety, although I’ve had my share of that to confront lately, too. This was a mental, physical, and spiritual breakdown. It was the recognition that I was living a life shrouded by chronic sleep deprivation, stumbling through days that no longer felt real, grappling with emotions that were heavier than anything I’ve ever experienced, and not resting in Him because I wasn’t resting at all.
One night while the rest of the house slept I began to weep, alone. At first, I cursed the residual hormones from my lost pregnancy, on my loss. But my tears were about something else, too. I was crying out in my humanness. I’d been trying to be a god, and that’s more than anyone can bear. Even Jesus was exhausted after praying all night in Gethesemane. How could I expect to endure more than a year of late nights and fragmented sleep? I could not go on like this. I could not trudge through my day with heavy feet and an even heavier heart and just get by.
Yet, I knew I also could not guarantee long, uninterrupted stretches of slumber. Not with a nighttime nursing and my kids’ sleeping habits. But my situation was not completely helpless. I could go to bed earlier.
Even after this breaking point, I continued to wrestle with wanting to stay up later than my body wanted. Yet, when I finally collapsed and joined my children in sleep at an ridiculously early hour (8 p.m., folks), I found everything was different the next day. My energy levels. The ability to bask in the presence of my children. My happiness. My prayers. It’s tough to turn your life into a prayer when you don’t even feel like you’re living because your flattened out with lethargy.
I don’t go to sleep at 8 every night. I can’t. I don’t sleep through the night because my toddler still wakes up to nurse. I still fight going to bed at a reasonable hour. Lights off at 10 p.m. is my new rule. This bed time has taken some getting used to. I’d grown so accustomed to staying up too late and fighting my natural body clock. (I’ve always been a morning person but when I started staying up past the point of tiredness and getting my second wind, I could no longer face the early morning with anything more than a defeated grunt and grimace.) It’s not easy when I have to make the decision to crawl into bed rather than getting housework done or reading a favorite blog or catching up with the news.
In fact, almost every single night when the sky turns dark, it’s a struggle against my will and His will. Yes, His will. I want to stay up late. He calls me to bed, to rest, to be still, to cast my anxieties and my to-do list that will never be completed aside. But when the morning comes and I greet it not with dread but with joy, I’m ever thankful I chose His will over mine. That’s when you find peace in bed or not: When you rest in God’s will alone.
Some people may be more of night owls, so staying up late may suit them. There are moms who may have a little one with a little tummy who needs to nurse frequently all day and night. Sleep is more elusive during different seasons of motherhood, but all of us can likely squeeze in more shut-eye than we might think.
What are you doing with your time? Are you being a good steward? Are you depressed or just exhausted or a combination of both? Are you weary because you’re fighting His will or trying to be super human? Drop off your superhero cape at the dry cleaners. Leave the dirty dishes in the sink. Turn off the glowing rectangle (whether it’s a television or computer screen or an iPod), and rest. Give yourself permission to be still and to do nothing but refresh your mind, body, and soul. Sleep is not wasted time. Sleep is a grace period in which we entrust ourselves to the watchful eye of God. In slumber our bodies are restored, our spirits renewed. Sleep begets joy. Sleep makes life Technicolor bright. Sleep, glorious, sleep is peace personified, an offering to God and to the family I love.
Sleep and peace be with you.