It is 3am. I know because I’ve checked the clock three times since I crept to the loo at 1.45am. Within minutes of my return to bed I feel the delicious fog of slumber evaporate, my heart rate rises and my brain begins its relentless scan for topics to keep me engaged. Occasionally, I get a laugh out of what I dream up as a priority worry; more often I’m shocked by the banality. A thank you note I failed to send a year ago; the small part for a kitchen appliance I keep forgetting to order; whether I booked Ocado for Friday; whether Stormzy will agree to talk to me about his favourite books; the shirt my son needs; guilt because I didn’t call my friend with breast cancer; where to go on summer holidays; how to get the car to its service in Yeovil; why the person I discussed documentary ideas with hasn’t replied; did I book a blowdry on Tuesday? And where has that blue dress gone?
I look at the clock again, it’s 3.15am and I’m getting closer to the moment when I’m going to have to medicate or resign myself to staying awake. Now adding to my copious preoccupations: what do I have to do in the morning? Can I afford to be exhausted or should I resort to the cornucopia of drugs and sleep aids crammed into my bedside drawer? While I attempt to follow the cognitive behavioural therapy advice I’ve been given and count my breaths – five in, five out – to restore my equilibrium and compartmentalise the turmoil, my husband snores deafeningly beside me.
He’s deep in a contented sleep that not even the alarm clock can halt, but if he knew how close to homicide this nightly inequity takes me, he wouldn’t be so relaxed. The tedium of my thoughts is frequently alleviated by a switch to murderous intent as my addled, sleep-deprived brain imagines how easily I could slide the pillow over his face and banish his noisy presence permanently.
I counsel myself by remembering it’s not his fault. The British Snoring & Sleep Apnoea Association estimates that between 24-50% of men snore, and are more than twice as likely to snore as women. Could there be a connection? It’s certainly not helpful that so many women’s attempts to get back to sleep are challenged by their noisy partners. The only upside to this nightly encounter with insomnia is that I am not alone. In October I posted a tweet asking whether any women over 50 were getting a good night’s sleep. The tweet got an unprecedented number of likes and replies from women keen to share their stories of insomnia. A survey last year found that 65% of women aged 55-64 experience sleeplessness, confirming it as a symptom of menopause, less well-recognised but more common than the hot flush. In the mid-menopause years this increases to 85%.
Anxiety and regular insomnia may be synonymous with hormonal changes in our 50s, but that doesn’t explain nocturnal struggles in younger women. In the same survey, 52% of women aged 35-44 reported similar troubles.
So why can’t we sleep? A new book from the US purports to hold the answer. Helpfully titled Why We Can’t Sleep: Women’s New Midlife Crisis by Ada Calhoun, it appears at first glance to be more of a feminist manifesto for Generation Xers than a self-help manual for insomniacs. On closer inspection, though, a picture starts to form that’s recognisable to any woman who is knee-deep in the mothering, marriage and career years. Disregarding the generational focus of the book’s premise, it offers, not a cure, but insight and some unpalatable news about the lives of women today. Every right we’ve earned, every advance we’ve made, every career we are now free to embark on continues to co-exist with our near full-time engagement in the oldest job in the world: keeping hearth and home.
Despite a century of emancipation, women still do most of the backstage work that keeps the show on the road. Scratch the surface of this national insomnia pandemic and you discover that inequality is at the heart of the malaise. Aside from sexual politics and headline grabbers, such as #MeToo, most women’s lives aren’t improving quantifiably, they’re just different from 50 years ago.
“It’s great that men and women are equals in the workplace, but what this means in reality is that women are effectively taking on twice the load,” says Dr Elle Boag, associate professor in social psychology at Birmingham City University. “Only too often we do the work, the domestic labour and the childcare (to be fair, sometimes these chores are shared). We’ve adopted this multitasking role and it’s become normative.” So, it’s no surprise that when we go to bed we find we can’t switch off.
I’m one of the lucky ones. I married a man who can cook, adores being with his kids, can put up a shelf and, if I scream loud enough, will pick his dirty clothes up from on top of the laundry basket and put them inside it. He’s also brilliant at labelling, especially now he has a little machine to do it, and all his cupboards are helpfully marked up: socks, cardigans, long-sleeve T-shirts and so on.
It may not feel like it, but apparently family structure has changed. “It’s all about expectation. Within almost a generation-and-a-half, we’ve shifted from the extended family to the nuclear family,” says Russell Foster, professor of circadian neuroscience at Oxford University. “This means that childcare is focused on the parents, and usually the mother, meaning she’s on call all the time. This in turn leads to awful guilt about not coping, which translates to stress, and therefore sleeplessness.”
This certainly explains the medley of uncompleted chores that plays on repeat through the small hours to the accompaniment of rain falling on my Calm app.
There’s also scientific speculation as to why men should be so deeply and contentedly asleep while women stay awake. “The data emerging suggests women tend to be more conscientious, as well as more flexible in the workplace. Work duration extends, meaning there isn’t enough time for everything else. So, you invade the night, and sleep is the first victim,” says Foster. In other words, women are sacrificing sleep in order to get everything done.
It’s not quite the portrait of “having it all” we battle-weary veterans of three waves of feminism were expecting – millions of our sex, faces illuminated by the sleep- banishing blue light of our smart phones and PCs, organising play dates, ordering groceries, answering emails and trying to maintain our social lives into the early hours.
Sometimes I have to laugh at what my mind dreams up to worry about
The more cynically inclined might ask, who cares? You’re going to be dead soon enough, so you’ll get to catch up on your 40 winks for all eternity. It’s a fair point except that we’re all expected to stay active until we’re well into our 70s and 80s and the downsides of lack of sleep start with exhaustion and continue down a depressing spiral of health concerns, including increased risk of diabetes, heart disease, obesity and depression.
In the light of these health dangers, getting enough sleep becomes an imperative. Foster agrees: “If you have a racing mind and continuously turn on the stress axis, elevated levels of cortisol suppress the immune system, which predisposes you to infection, and may even be responsible for higher rates of cancer. You’re throwing glucose into your circulation and changing the metabolic hormones: ghrelin, the hunger hormone, is released when you’re tired, and leptin, the satiation hormone, is reduced.”
But how do we break this vicious cycle? So many of the health issues that are costing the NHS millions and debilitating the population in middle age are directly related to or influenced by the amount of sleep we get. And the gender gap is as apparent in our inability to sleep as it is in division of childcare.
“Men and women have different circadian rhythms, meaning that men are likely to go to bed later,” says Dr Neil Stanley, a sleep expert and author of How to Sleep Well. “This is evolutionary, from the times when women went to sleep with the babies and men stayed up later to ensure there was no danger. Only then would they too go to bed.”
These days such “protection” of their nearest and dearest is more likely to take the form of a bottle of red wine and a couple of episodes of Fortitude. “When men do go to bed, they often disturb the lighter-sleeping women, who then struggle to go back to sleep,” adds Stanley.
Although it’s tempting, I can’t lay the entire burden of a nation of insomniac women on men not picking up the slack. Another reason experts give for our lack of quality sleep is that we simply aren’t moving enough.
“In order to have a healthy balance of sleep and wake you have to physically burn off energy. We lead sedentary lives these days. Releasing endorphins in exercise helps with stress, and therefore with sleep,’’ says Boag. According to a 2018 global study by the World Health Organisation, 40% of British women are not doing enough exercise for their health, compared with 32% of men. I don’t mean to make huge assumptions here, but could it be because women simply do not have the time?
Women’s sleep deprivation may once have been synonymous with menopause, but as Why We Can’t Sleep outlines, being wide awake while the (male) world sleeps is no longer the preserve of the 50-plus struggling with hormone deficiencies. Young working mothers are almost as afflicted as Generation Xers, suggesting that it’s societal pressure rather than biological programming that’s at the root of our nocturnal nightmares. I know I’m not unique. The hardest part of becoming a parent, in my case extremely late, has been the extending of my working day to include two jobs: one running our home and the other my paid labour.
At a family get-together, I listened to one of my brothers arguing for the principle of a universal basic income, citing experiments in wealthy countries like Norway. It struck me as I listened to this impassioned, childless, metrosexual that the real “equaliser” would be something much more specific – bring back the pioneering Wages for Housework campaign of the 1970s, led by an international collective that described housework as “capitalist abuse”. The domestic burden shouldered by the majority of women has a long-term devastating impact on women’s finances.
The facts recently revealed in a shocking report on women’s financial journey, from the Chartered Insurance Institute, highlighted many unsustainable disparities. The most disturbing finding was than the average woman’s pension pot will be 80% less than that of her male colleagues at retirement, largely as a result of time out for childrearing and working part-time in what should be the high-earning middle years – another obvious contender for late-night angst.
A report from Oxfam International has put the value of unpaid carework by women aged 15 and over at $10.8tn annually. Introducing a “domestic wage” or, for starters, a marriage contract that sets out an agreed percentage that the higher earner (or sole earner) agrees to have deducted as “wages” for the partner shouldering the lion’s share of the family burden, would be a start.
Having established some of the contributors to our insomnia, I’ve been looking for answers. So far I’ve tried CBD (quite helpful); having a bath with lavender oil (occasionally helpful); sleeping pills (very helpful, but I don’t want to be addicted); white noise (better than just the sound of my thoughts rattling around); melatonin (in small doses and taken regularly it definitely helps and it’s available on the NHS, but only for over 55s); Horlicks (just makes me thirsty); doing less work (works a treat, but hard to pay the bills); the Calm app (pleasantly distracting); and HRT (studies show it can help with sleeplessness in menopause, although it didn’t resolve the problem for me).
Now, a new book, Fair Play by Eve Rodsky, sets out a plan to highlight the real cause of so much of our insomnia: the less-burdened partner sleeping next to us. Promising to press the reset button on your relationship by equally dividing the domestic burden, it gets the thumbs-up from none other than Reese Witherspoon. The actor describes it as “a hands-on guide for navigating the hot-button issues that so many families struggle with”.
With chapter titles like “Living in Your Unicorn Space”, it seemed to me a bit dubious, but the rules Rodsky asks us to enforce, starting with All Time is Created Equal, are sensible enough. More compellingly, Reese looks like she gets plenty of sleep and remembers to book her blowdry, and runs a successful company and has her own book club – and even has two children. How does she manage to have it all? There’s something to fixate on in the small hours.
Meanwhile, join me in one last great revolutionary moment – where we recognise, call out and reapportion the domestic burden that’s trapping women in an unsustainable pattern of insomnia and stress. That way we will finally get some shut-eye.
6.41 hours is the amount of sleep that the average woman aged between 30 and 60 gets during the working week
65% of women aged between 55 and 64 experience sleeplessness
11% of women go to bed at 9pm-10pm (compared with 8% of men), and 37% go to bed at 10pm-11pm (compared with 30% of men), with men being more likely to stay up until after midnight (22%, compared with 16% of women)
19% of women have taken medication to help them fall asleep (compared with 15% of men). Women are twice as likely as men to take over-the-counter sleep remedies (18% compared with 9%)
20 minutes is the amount of extra sleep women need a night compared to men
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