Sleep is a Feminist Issue?
Well, I really don’t know, even if Arianna Huffington and Cindi Leive—the publishers of the Huffington Post and of Glamour, respectively—have proclaimed such about sleep, citing studies that about the effects of sleep deprivation in women. Now Naomi Wolf (author of, among other books, The Beauty Myth), is saying so too, in a February 6th article in the Times of London. While Huffington and Leive argue that women’s sleep deprivation keeps them from the corridors of power (“After all, we’ve already broken glass ceilings in Congress, space travel, sports, business and the media — just imagine what we can do when we’re fully awake”), Wolf thinks that “we need to add another set of reasons to persuade women to drop it all for a bit and take a nap.”
Sleep, according to Wolf, is not all that women are deprived of. Sleep is a “metaphor”:
Some women are tired because they are working second shifts on the factory floor. And some better-off women no doubt, such as the ones whom Huffington and Leive cite, are indeed working longer hours than men because they don’t fit the old-boy culture. But still other women — Huffington’s and Leive’s demographic, and mine [Wolf's], and my editor’s, women who are privileged enough theoretically to just turn out the light at 10pm — are sleepy because they are doing something punitive to themselves; to compensate psychologically, I would argue, for their very success.
Because there is a third shift in this demographic — after work and family, there is a self-imposed, not obligatory, shift that involves aiming at perfection. Men aren’t the ones kicking us out of bed at dawn as they sleep in. Neither, for most of us, are our employers stealing our sleep.
We woman, Wolf argues, are not letting ourselves get the sleep we need because we feel that we need to do it all, not only to excel at our careers. We also feel pressured to be perfect in our personal lives as mothers (“baking for the damn bimonthly bake sale”) and in regard to our bodies and appearance (we’ve got to be “toned,” perfect coiffed, dressed to the nines when we’re dropping off those homemade cupcakes). It’s not only that women are not getting what we need, but that (Wolf says) we seem to feel that we can’t even give ourselves those most basic things, such as sleep.
Wolf ends by calling on women to “unplug the phone” and to be “willing to be a little less than you can be,” to be “willing to be imperfect.” This is in itself a “form of revolution,” a way of asserting our rights to live and “have a life,” and also, indeed, to pamper ourselves, to give ourselves that “luxury” of sleep. Indeed, the Times of London‘s AlphaMummy blog is having a 7-day sleep challenge.
I know I qualify as “sleep-deprived.” I work full-time as a college professor at a small, urban college where I wear a couple of hats. I’m a mother to a 12 1/2 year old boy who’s autistic and who also has a diagnosis of sleep disturbance disorder. My son sometimes wakes at 3am and is up for the day. He’s also had periods when he just could not fall asleep until midnight. We’ve been able to regulate his sleep thanks to a careful combination of lots of physical, aerobic exercise during the day, melatonin, and an established bedtime routine. Any work I do at home mostly happens only after my son is sound asleep—9.30 or 10 pm, most days.
If I didn’t have my job, I suppose I could get more hours of zzzzz’s. But being able to manage my job and my family life has been, for me, a mark of success, if one wishes to use that word; of being able to do the work I feel I need to do and to be (to get a little grandiose) to be the woman and the person I am proud to be. It is the case, I have to prioritize and leave meetings at work early (classes and anything involved with students are carefully scheduled in the middle of the day, to overlap with Charlie’s school hours). And these days, I am at times able to do some grading and reading while Charlie’s at home, before he’s in bed.
I’m frankly proud of the fact that I’m able to work, especially through the many, many challenges Charlie—who’s on the moderate to severe end of the autism spectrum and minimally verbal—has faced. Thanks also to a fervently supportive and loving husband and a solid extended family structure, I’ve been able to keep doing the work of teaching and writing that I love, while being Charlie’s mother.
Doing what we love, despite seemingly insurmountable obstacles—I rather think that’s a feminist thing, always.
Photo of woman sleeping in an office by Sarah G....
Kristina Chew, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of Classics at Saint Peter's College in New Jersey. Since 2005, she has been blogging about autism, disabilities, and education, previously at Autism Vox and now at We Go With Him, a daily journal about life with her 12 1/2 year old son Charlie. Her essay, "The Wages of Autism," will be published in Gravity Pulls You In: Perspectives on Parenting Children on the Autism Spectrum, ed. Kyra Anderson & Vicki Forman (forthcoming, Woodbine Press).