It’s an old, familiar battle. And I’ve fought it on both sides.
The battlefield is drawn either early or late in the week, but seldom in the middle. The wartime conditions are often dictated by health, food, weather or stress. The veterans who have seen multiple conflicts can almost instinctively see when another battle inexorably looms on the horizon. They take a deep breath and fortify themselves for the weeks ahead, but as for the new, green soldiers… they haven’t learnt how to cope. How to adapt. They are still fighting… and because of how they fight, they lose.
I’m talking about ‘Sleep Wars’, when people seem to have the need to not only share, but almost compete with how little sleep they’ve had. Which is bloody ridiculous.
First, I want to make a distinction between lack of sleep empathy… and competition.
‘How was your weekend?’
‘Just average, with the heat the kids didn’t sleep well so we are all functioning on about 5 hours over the entire weekend.’
‘Yeah, it’s been awful, hasn’t it?’ Mine have been the same.’
‘How was your weekend?’
‘You have absolutely no comprehension how bad it is without aircon and the kids not sleeping. I know your kids sleep through everything, so you wouldn’t understand, but it just makes parenting so much harder…you are SOOOO lucky!’
‘Really?! Little George is teething, Lucinda was accidentally given milk at childcare and she’s lactose intolerant. So although I have aircon, my children aren’t WELL, and I’m ALSO worrying about WORK because I have an upcoming deadline’.
I can do the empathy easily. But I’ve probably been guilty of the competition too.
Often the competition is not deliberate… it’s not necessarily from a need to say ‘I’ve done it tougher’. No, for me…and for many others…it’s generally a cry for help. An unspoken request for tolerance of dropping working standards as exhaustion blurs all cognitive thought. It’s the silent scream for a night off…either by myself in a bubble bath with a sub standard book-or with good friends and a champagne in hand and not having to worry about what I look like, think or say. Or, it’s just me desperately hoping for at least a solid 5 hour uninterrupted block of sleep. Bliss.
But that’s not how it comes across. Let’s face it, we judge ourselves by our intentions, and others by their actions. And when sleep is lacking, emotional intelligence flies out the window.
Let me give you a classic example of the Sleep Wars in action. A new father with the all too familiar shell shocked look. A week of incredible heat, a teething baby who was just going into childcare for the first time and his wife was returning to full time work to a new role and a promotion. He was greeted by a female colleague who had the work week from hell, meeting a tight deadline and delivering to a high standard I couldn’t have met. She then spent the weekend away in a competitive team sport. She was physically and emotionally drained…just like her male colleague.
Having followed advice, she got an early night-and was asleep by 8.30pm – leading to 10 hours of good sleep. The new dad was extremely jealous and told her just how lucky she was. And the battle lines were drawn.
His female colleague reminded him he CHOSE to have children. The counter argument of course is that she CHOSE to work. But let’s face it, neither argument is effective. Or particularly relevant.
When we are sleep deprived, let’s just uniformly agree that none of us are fully competent or pleasant to be around, contrary to how well we think we are hiding it. I’ve found that some people are just more aware of how the lack of sleep affects them than others. I know, for instance, that after a bad sleep week, following a close second to my shortened temper, is my loss of peripheral vision. Then it’s my balance, leaving me staggering like I’m drunk. Any high level strategic thinking dissolves …I can only think two steps ahead. And even then it’s not productive…my thoughts buzz like bees…I can’t pin them down and if I do they sting of incompetence.
I know this not just because of having two children…but when I was forced to stay awake for days during my deployment to the Middle East. Fortunately I wasn’t required to do anything too physical. But I had a new respect for our soldiers and emergency workers who do similar hours on a regular basis, either due to operational need or a lack of staffing. And they have lives depending on their actions.
No-ones lack or sleep is more valid, or noble than another persons. We all have equal right to complain, to be grumpy, to wish we had more help. Sometimes, having a friend or colleague say to you ‘This is horrible, I get it. Hang in there, it will get better’ is all you need to hear to survive the next night-just having that hint of hope and understanding.
I sincerely wish, whoever and wherever you are, that you sleep well tonight so you are ready for tomorrow. But please, let’s put down our weapons of comparison and instead just support one another. That way, we all win the Sleep War.