Many things change upon becoming a parent, but among the most profound is one’s relationship to sleep. However you previously felt about the inherent human need for rest, having children alters that dramatically – at least for a few years (I’ve heard it gets better, but my oldest is nearly five and my youngest is six months so I’m not there yet!).
As parents, it is easy to attribute every meltdown, shoving incident, or otherwise embarrassing/ unpleasant child behavior to lack of sleep. “Oh, she missed her nap so is acting out.” Or, “he’s had a long day so doesn’t feel like sharing right now.” These excuses may often be true, but the kid won’t admit it. For reasons I may never understand, my kids hate to go to sleep. Even when their utter exhaustion is causing them to stumble and slur their words, they insist that they are “not tired at all!” When I point out that their actions are demonstrating that they are indeed overtired, my children shriek their disagreement as if I had just accused them of being monsters.
I recently discovered that I suffer from the reverse blind spot. I insist on finding reasons for my work blunders, double-scheduling, cooking failures, missed deadlines, messy house, and bad moods. I tell myself (and anyone who will listen) that I have too much on my plate, allergies, a lot of my mind, crazy hormones, frustrating clients, and three small kids. That may all be true, but the root of all that ails and irks me these days is not what I have, but what I don’t have: enough sleep. The trouble is, I have become so accustomed to my sleep-deprived state that I tend to forget what it was like to function on adequate rest. Recently, I have been wondering if my failure to appreciate the effect that a lack of sleep has on me is due, at least in part, to insufficient vocabulary to describe this condition.
If Eskimos have 50 words for “snow,” overstretched Americans ought to have at least as many for “sleep deprived.” When someone tells me I look tired, I’m tempted to reply, “I’m tired like the ocean is wet.” To say I feel “pooped,” “wiped out,” or even “exhausted” suggests a temporary condition, as if I’ve had a rough day but will bounce back tomorrow. As my baby starts teething and my toddlers enter cold and flu season, the light at the end of the tunnel seems very dim.
The British “knackered” or “buggered” come closer to capturing how I feel on a daily basis. Like my mind is in a fog and my senses dulled. Beyond my new status quo, however, I also need a word for impaired-due-to-insufficient-sleep, like “drunk” for impairment caused by too much alcohol. A sleep under-dose, if you will. As a teen, I would say I was “nauseously tired” after a poor night’s sleep (which back then, meant 6.5 to 7.5 hours, my goal these days) to capture the queasiness that accompanies the other symptoms of fatigue. Now, as the mother of three young children who do not sleep through the night, what was once “nauseously tired” is now my baseline; I need a new word to describe an even deeper level of deprivation for those mornings after someone has been throwing up all night or wet the bed three separate times.
I am not alone in this affliction, of course. For one, my husband is right there with me. But I see puffy eyes and stifled yawns everywhere I go. It’s not just parents; there are as many reasons for insufficient sleep as there are yawning zombies walking around. Saying we are “just tired” minimizes what is actually a widespread societal ill. I think the first step in addressing the problem is to create a new vocabulary to describe it. The second step is to alter the socio-cultural expectation that to be “successful” Americans should be working ten hour days, plus spending another few hours socializing and exercising, and at least an hour or two on some interesting hobby each day. Unfortunately, I can’t take on that challenge right now. I’m too tired.