Like many Americans — and especially after four months of sheltering-in-place without access to our go-to gyms, yoga or spin classes, or many of our favorite family-owned restaurants — I’m making an honest attempt at cultivating and maintaining a healthier lifestyle. Who knows what pushed me over the edge. Maybe it was the increase in days I order takeout or delivery, the decrease in my overall physical activity, or the harrowing realization that our collective meat consumption is destroying the planet. And all of that is to say nothing of the fact that I have two sets of eager kid eyes watching and mimicking my every move. All told, I’d say I have more than enough of an incentive lately to be mindful about how I move and what I put into my body.
But, like many Americans, my attempts at a “healthier lifestyle” are often futile, at best. An estimated 45 million people in the United States go on a diet each year, and I’ll be honest: I’m usually among them. I’ll try whatever is guaranteed to give me energy or boost my immune system or “cleanse my system.” I’ll drink the shakes, with their proteins and their amino acids; drown myself in curly kale, beetroot, and sweet potatoes; sweat my way through a SoulCycle class or whatever the latest, over-priced fad workout may be, only to feel just as depleted as when I was eating $20 worth of Taco Bell and watching entire seasons of Friends in a single evening.
Even when I’m objectively at my healthiest — when I’m eating fish, fruits, and vegetables, working out at least 30 minutes a day, and ignoring socially constructed, harmful messages that equate “healthy” to “tall, thin, and white” — I still don’t feel healthy. I feel exhausted. I feel overwhelmed. I feel frustrated by the fact that for all my best efforts, I still feel depleted — physically, mentally, and emotionally.
While a reported 93% of consumers say they want to eat healthy at least some of the time, according to a 2018 food and beverage survey, 43% of Americans said the modern lifestyle makes it difficult to live a healthy lifestyle. We’re constantly inundated with “best workout practices” and “this food is healthy, no wait this food actually isn’t.” In the chase for a healthier way of living that is sustainable and gives us a return on our investment, we’re overlooking the one thing that’s guaranteed to improve our health: sleep.
Like our nap-hating children, we just need to go the f*ck to sleep.
To be clear, I know you know this. We’ve all heard it. And sleep, of course, is a luxury that evades so many working moms’ grasps. So we look for other fixes; magic workouts or elixirs that will compensate for our lack of sleep, because frankly, it’s easier for us to pile on more than it is for us to get our minds to do less so we can sleep. But it’s time to turn and face it: we just need sleep. And we need to do anything possible to get it.
Working moms aren’t the only ones: Between 50 and 70 million Americans suffer from a chronic sleep disorder, according to an estimation from the Institute of Medicine, and a reported 35% of Americans say they average fewer than seven hours of sleep at night, per a 2019 survey conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In a society where 13.5 million Americans work more than one job, we’re often sacrificing sleep in the name of deadlines, deliverables, time with our families, and our ability to pay rent. It’s capitalism’s world, baby, and we’re just red-eyeing our way through it.
And sans access to structural support systems like mandatory paid family leave, universal or even affordable child care, and equal pay for equal work, it’s moms who’re working outside the home who end up sacrificing their sleep the most.
A 2017 study found that 48% of women with children report getting at least seven hours of sleep each night, compared to 62% of women without children. A woman’s chances of becoming sleep deprived increase by 50% with each child she has, yet men’s sleep are unaffected by the presence of children in their home. This is no doubt a byproduct of lingering gender stereotypes that, while outdated, are still powerful enough to leave the majority of childrearing and household responsibilities to working moms. But it’s also evidence of how little we, as a society, care about a mom’s postpartum health and her ability to rest after the grueling act of labor and delivery. How much we expect of working mothers, 25% of which return to work a mere two weeks after giving birth.
This culture does not care about the health of moms, yet it endlessly peddles health products promising a wholesome lifestyle that will not only benefit us, but will set an example for our kids. For a recurring monthly payment, we can have this supplement or this box of pre-cut food sent to our door — we just have to fit a few more hours in the day to find the time to work out, make these elaborate, healthy meals, and meal plan for the week. We buy these products — myself included — because we’re encouraged to “lean in” instead of taking a beat and saying, “No. I need to rest.”
And we’re doing it to the true detriment of our mental and physical health. Sleep deficiency has been linked to a number of chronic health issues, including heart disease, kidney disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, stroke, obesity, depression, and anxiety. Single working moms are the demographic most at risk for heart disease, a lack of sleep is believed to be a contributing factor to postpartum depression and anxiety, and it is when a mom is most sleep-deprived that she’s most likely to make a mistake that could harm herself or her children.
So does this cold reality check mean I’ll be giving up my curly kale or my SoulCycle classes? No. Working out is beneficial for both my mental and emotional health, and I, for one, think kale chips are fantastic. But I am making a conscious effort, as we enter another month (and probably more) of quarantine in the hopes of avoiding even more COVID deaths, to prioritize my sleep. Because when experts at the American Psychological Association say, “both psychologists and psychiatrists have been arguing for years that one of the most significant and overlooked public health problems in the U.S. is that many Americans are chronically sleep-deprived,” we should all listen. Because, science.