Some women complain they just can't sleep on it

May 22, 1994|By SUSAN REIMER

I slip softly back into bed, but my husband wakes anyway. It is 5 a.m. He is groggy and annoyed as I explain that I hadn't been able to sleep -- again -- so I'd gotten up to do some writing.

"I have been at work when I felt like sleeping," he says in the gray light of early morning. "But I have never been asleep when I felt like working."

No sympathy here, I think as he quickly resumes the even breathing of someone asleep. But if I want understanding in the middle of my sleepless night, I can simply pick up the phone and call any friend. None of them sleeps, either.

"I have no trouble getting to sleep," my sister says. "But I wake at 2 a.m., angry and frustrated."

She wakes, she says, in mid-thought. As if she is disturbed by the grinding of her brain as she processes her troubles.

"The wheels start turning, and I can't shut them off. I mull over an incident with my child or something stupid or unkind that I said. Sleep might help me process these things. But now I have to do it all on my own."

Researchers have concluded that women are much more likely than men to report sleep disturbances of all kinds. The hormone swings that affect women at almost every stage of life are usually blamed. But it is just as likely that the multiplying demands of home and work play as big a part.

"I don't know any women who sleep," my sister says. "But all of our husbands sleep just fine. It doesn't seem fair. We work harder than they do, and we don't sleep. There is a lot of anger there. I have a friend who is ready to suffocate her husband with a pillow."

A study out of Michigan State University indicated that working women sleep about 20 minutes less each night than their male counterparts, and part of what they lose is the deep, dreaming sleep that is thought to refresh the mind.

The result is a brain that is irritable, confused and depressed. That means troubled relationships and clouded judgments.

"If I haven't slept, I tell my kids right away," says another friend. "They know what they have to do, or punishment flies. I am nasty and I am mean."

"By 3 in the afternoon," says another friend, "I feel like I am running on electricity and my kids know it."

Part of the problem may be that sleep isn't valued in our culture. We have a president who brags about how little he needs. To admit that you need eight or 10 hours is considered a weakness, slothful. That dovetails nicely with the pressure many women feel to accomplish everything, to be all things to all people.

"Sleep has no purpose for me," my other sister says. "I'd rather not have to do it. I feel so busy, it bothers me that I have to take this time away from what I want to accomplish."

"Why did God make us need to eat, and why does he make us sleep?" asks a friend. "Those are

the two biggest worries in my day. What am I going to serve for dinner, and will I get any sleep tonight."

Not all women suffer tortured wakefulness in the night. Another friend comes alive at 10 p.m., just as the last of her children goes to bed. She reads, does her exercises, watches TV or does some chores. When she finally slides into bed beside a husband who has been sleeping for hours, she falls immediately to sleep and wakes refreshed.

"It is nice, knowing that it is finally my time, that I won't be interrupted by a child or the phone," she says.

Still another friend has given up the frustration that used to be waiting for her when she woke each night at 3 a.m. "I expect to wake up, and so I use the time to think about the things I don't have

time to think about during the day," says this mother of four.

Life is fun for her at this hour. She plays Tetris on her children's Game Boy, watches CNN, reads a stack of newspapers. "I need to know no one is going to talk to me for a couple of hours."

The most rested people on earth, scientists tell us, are children ages 8 to 12. Exhausted by the business of growing up, and with no hormones to flood their little bodies, they sleep the sleep of the just. That may be more true in families where mother doesn't sleep.

"I am sure my children need the sleep I am not getting," my sister says, "so I jealously guard their sleep. The more tired I am, the more sleep they get."

And she is awake to watch over them.

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