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    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.

Mothering at Mid-Career: Strategic Napping
September 24, 2012 - 8:45pm

Saturday afternoon, I took a nap. Somehow that feels like a confession, something I should feel a tiny bit guilty about. And yet it was, after all, the weekend. And my sleep had been a bit interrupted the night before -- the cat was chasing things around, or my son was up playing computer games, or something -- so it was completely understandable. But it still felt a tiny bit self-indulgent. I had a to-do list that included grading, house-cleaning, laundry, grocery shopping ... most of which went undone while I slept. I wasn't sick, I was just tired.

So, apparently, are a lot of us. I've read before about the dangers of sleep deprivation, the need for 8-9 hours of sleep a night, but I just can't figure out who has the time. And it's not that I want to brag about my own busy-ness--that's something I've actually been trying to reduce lately. It's just that late night is a nice quiet time to get one last paper graded, one last e-mail sent--and then early morning rolls around with the need to get my son on the school bus and myself out of the house to work. That's been a rhythm that's worked for me for a while now -- and I heard President Obama confess to a similar schedule in his interview on “60 Minutes” this past weekend.

But the nap, now -- what if I could find the time for a nap now and then during the day? I woke up from Saturday's nap so refreshed and enlivened that I began to think about the possibilities. And I'm not alone in this--today I read a piece in the New York Times that suggested that perhaps our current tendency to try to get 8-9 hours of sleep all in a row is in fact merely a convention of modern life, something that goes along with the 8-hour workday. I was struck, reading the article, by the wisdom of the Texas Rangers strength and conditioning coach who told his players to wake up with the sun, but then offered them the opportunity to nap before games. I believe in the 70s and 80s we called this the "disco nap" and indulged in it, like my Saturday nap, somewhat guiltily--but, like the baseball players, strategically as well.

One of my worst memories of parenting is when my daughter, then aged four, was giving up her nap. She was supposed to nap at preschool but no longer needed or wanted to sleep at their mandated times. She became so disruptive -- not acting out, just staying awake and wanting to be able to make some noise while she did--that we started to bring her home at naptime, and she would play in her room or with one of us during the preschool's set nap hours. But a few hours later, tired and frazzled, she'd melt down, not able, really, to keep it together for the long afternoon and evening. We didn't really want her to nap that late in the day, though, fearing that she'd then not be able to sleep at night, so we simply fought through the tantrums with whatever patience we could muster (and food, which helped). It took several months before we came up with a routine that worked, but the scars still linger of the horrible tantrums, the complete inability to function (which for a while was on all our parts, not just hers). She was too little to know that what she needed was sleep, and we were too new at this parenting game -- and we'd heard that all preschoolers went through something like this, so we figured we just had to wait it out. Like all conflicts regarding children and sleep, it was painful -- and perhaps unnecessary.

A more flexible nap schedule might have worked here, but of course it didn't conform with the needs of the preschool, which wanted to maintain order and regularity for all the kids, nor with our desire for a few hours of quiet at night after she’d gone to sleep and before we wanted to. Similarly, the public school day often offers a mismatch with kids' sleep schedules: most teenagers, for example, want to stay up late and sleep late (their bodies are programmed that way), but high schools almost always start earlier in the morning than elementary schools. So the teenagers stay up late anyway, are groggy in the mornings, and--if they're anything like my son, anyway--sleep until noon on the weekends in a desperate effort to catch up. (Luckily we seem to be mostly beyond the tantrum stage by high school, however. Mostly.) Interestingly, college students may be the demographic most able to fit naps into their routines, at least those with flexible class schedules and, say, no afternoon athletic practices. My daughter naps more now, I believe, than she did when she was four.

We Americans are generally so focused on productivity and on maintaining regular schedules that we don't have room for the nap in our schedules. Yet Thomas Edison, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, and Ronald Reagan are all said to have been regular nappers. Winston Churchill, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Gene Autry, too. University professors, unlike many other professionals, typically have relatively flexible schedules--what if I were to include a nap in my afternoon routine? Who would know, or care, as long as I got my work done? Would I actually be more productive?

I have to confess, I pretty much gave up the habit of napping when I was a child. It was a mark of pride, a badge of adulthood, to be able to stay up late, get up early, and to stay awake all day. Even when my kids were small and everyone said to sleep when they did, I always felt as if I had too much to do, and that I had to make productive use of the time when they were sleeping. But how productive can you be when you're sleep-deprived?

Most of us don't know how productive we could be if we weren't sleep deprived, I'm coming to see. And I'm not sure I'm ready, yet, to move a cot into my office, or a "nap mat" like my children had in preschool. But another weekend afternoon on the couch? It might be a start.


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