Yes, you’ll get to sleep

In the introduction to 168 Hours, I quote a young woman who was answering a survey question about combining work and motherhood. Asked about her strategy, she said “I plan never to sleep.”

While that might be extreme, we certainly hear, frequently, that working mothers — and perhaps these days, fathers — must be exhausted. The National Sleep Foundation’s press release on its poll on women and sleep in 2007 claimed that working moms of school aged kids spent less than 6 hours in bed per night on weekdays. (I recently read through the whole report, and it appears that this was incorrectly reported in the release — the summary of the “briefcases and backpacks” demographic says they spend less than 6 hours in bed, but the small print just says they’re more likely to spend less than 6 hours in bed than other women — 17% vs. 12%. But the 6-hour average is how this was widely reported).

But here’s a different statistic. According to the American Time Use Survey (which generally has a better methodology than the NSF), working moms of kids aged 6-17 sleep, on average, 8.36 hours per 24-hour period. Working moms of pre-school aged kids (under 6) also average more than 8 hours.

When I use that statistic in conversation or speeches, people look at me like I’m crazy. But I’ve had a lot of people keep time logs over the years, and even very successful people (and perhaps “even” is the wrong word in this sentence) tend to get adequate amounts of sleep. Recently, I gave a speech at a company with a reputation for long hours. This was for the women’s group, and so I had several of the more senior women keep time logs. Guess how much they were sleeping?

51-56 hours per week, which comes out to 7-8 hours per night.

That doesn’t mean that some nights weren’t bad. Someone getting on a 6 a.m. flight was up at 4 a.m. That was not an 8-hour night. But even without sleeping 13 hours a night on weekends, people manage to make it up over time. We need a certain amount of sleep to function, and so we figure out ways to get it. We skip a TV show and go to bed early some nights. We demand a partner take the baby in the morning after a particularly bad night. We plan to get up early…and don’t. Over time, this averages out, even if our impressions of our life are sometimes different.

When I say that, in general, even busy parents tend to sleep, sometimes people get angry. That’s because they’re remembering the bad nights. Indeed, if I didn’t know these statistics, I might be angry at the moment. I’m posting this at 6:50 a.m. after a lousy night that involved being up with the baby from 1-2:45 a.m., then back up with her at 5:45 a.m. But since I do know the stats, rather than being exasperated, I find these statistics inspiring. I’d love to find that young woman in the survey and say “Hey, guess what! You will get to sleep!” The idea of combining a big career with a big family is less intimidating if you know that it doesn’t have to mean chronic sleep deprivation.

11 thoughts on “Yes, you’ll get to sleep

  1. I’ve been much happier (and slept much better) when I stopped worrying about getting enough sleep after too many nights of laying awake worrying about not sleeping. Now, I just figure my body will sleep when it sleeps.

    That said, I hope that you and your baby have a better night tonight!

    1. @Joy- thanks, that’s what I’m hoping too. Part of what made it bad last night is I didn’t get to sleep until late. Working too late on various things, so at the 1 a.m. wake up, I’d been asleep less than an hour. I’m having some crazy dreams these days, though. I seem to go into dream sleep immediately…

  2. 17% or 12% is certainly not a majority… this is why I never bothered with sleep training… we all sleep when tired .. or if we don’t you can get medication etc. but everyone wants to sleep a certain amount.. and there are ways to do this … limit caffeine etc. but your body is going to take sleep

  3. I found helpful the chart of “ranges of normal” in the Ferber sleep book. One of my twins was about 25th percentile and one was between 5 and 10. And they didn’t sleep at the same time. And I did NOT get 8 hr/night that first year, no matter what the average statistics say.

    I think it’s unfair to use statistics for working mothers of kids 6-17 when that’s NOT the time when most parents who choose to leave the workforce, choose to leave due to lack of sleep. While pregnant with twins, I got up at 4:45 to be in by 6 AM shift change, when I was expected. I was also up at night with a 1 year old, and struggled with going to bed early. So the year before twins stunk too.

  4. You know that I think we pretty much lost the sleep lottery with my kids- at least in the baby/toddler years. My first was a terrible sleeper for 1.5 years (up 5 or more times per night at the worst), and then slowly got better and started sleeping through the night when she was 2. My second was never that bad (up at most 3 times per night during the worst phase, usually only up 1 or 2 times), but is taking longer to get to the magic “I can count on her sleeping through the night” place. She’s 2.5, and tends to wake up once and then I just end up spending the rest of the night with her.

    So I know sleep deprivation. (Although I think see the end coming- the “baby” has started sleeping through sometimes.)

    But… I don’t think the “working” part of being a “working mother” is what is to blame. It is the “mother” part. And honestly, my husband and I found staying home with a baby while seriously sleep deprived worse than working, so back when we were splitting our weeks, the person going to work the next day was the one who had to get up more in the night.

    Now, we were on the extreme. Most babies sleep better than my first one did, and most toddlers sleep better than my second one does. But my job isn’t what is keeping me from sleeping. It is my kids! I rarely do work at night or on weekends, but when I do, it usually cuts into my “fun” time, not my sleep time. My husband would say the same, I think.

    And as you say, I get more sleep most nights than I get on the worst nights- I don’t feel that sleep deprived these days.

  5. Neither of my kids were great sleepers, and it does make you feel like you’re going to lose your mind sometimes. I think one thing that people need to keep in mind is that the sleep thing is only tough for a year or two, but it’s definitely hard while you’re in it.

    1. @Kelly- this is what I was telling myself last night. If my daughter is like my sons, in another year I’ll be good for sleeping pretty regularly.

  6. A couple of points because I think this assessment is way too simplistic:

    1. Working moms of kids 6-17 seems like an odd group to survey for this purpose. I’d think at age 6+ kids can put themselves to sleep or entertain themselves without needing much from their parents in the middle of the night. The real problem is when they’re between 0 and 3.

    2. Time use surveys of 8 hours don’t show whether it was an interrupted 8 hours, does it? I probably got 8 hours+ a night when my daughter was a newborn but was up a few times every night (thankfully we did win the sleep lottery with her). That’s not the same quality of sleep as someone who’s not getting out of bed in the middle of the night.

    3. Some people need more than 8 hours of sleep to function well. (I’m definitely one of those.)

  7. I think Americans are overly obsessed with children and sleep. It seems to be the main topic of conversation with any new parents around here. And this whole “sleeping through the night” phenomenon is really a modern idea that started after electrification. There’s nothing wrong with sleeping in shifts or getting up to go to the restroom or whatever so long as you listen to your body.

    However, the desire to have a flexible sleep schedule is a good reason to get a PhD and try to become a professor (or at least a professor with a reasonable teaching load and no 8am classes). Jean Kerr wrote in one of her books that the reason she was a working mom (a writer) was so that she could afford to have someone come in and look after the kids in the morning while she slept in. (Also important when your husband is a theater critic and keeps you out at night.) That’s a good use of exchanging money for services.

  8. I love that these stats flip the mindset from “worrying that we won’t get enough sleep” to “realizing that we will average enough sleep over time”. It’s those short spurts like you had last night (without the deep sleep) that make having a little one difficult. Wishing you some deep sleep very soon! 🙂

    1. @Dawn- Thanks! Last night was much better. She woke up at 4, but I let her fuss and get herself back to sleep, and she woke up at 6. So I slept roughly 11-6 with one wake-up. Infinitely better!

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