Sleep is Over-Rated

October 1, 2007 | 23 comments
By

Mary had a little lamb; it was a little sheep,
but then it joined the Mormon Church and died of lack of sleep.


All my life, I have been taught the importance of marriage and family. I was raised in an active, loving, Mormon family in rural Utah – where the sky is blue, the grass is green only when irrigated constantly (and, often, not even then), the water runs through the tap cold, fishing and hunting are a short walk from home – and all else is right in the world. With my parents’ example, I took domestic peace and marital joy for granted growing up, and my early married life did nothing to disabuse me of my adolescent assumptions. After all, I married the only girl I have ever loved – the girl who, at the ripe old age of 15 stole my heart and completed my soul. Once she turned 16, she was the only girl I dated – and we were married less than two months after I returned from my mission. I valued marriage, and I loved my wife – and I slept well each night.

I attended college as a visible anomaly – a 22-year-old, married freshman – the first married freshman in institutional memory, according to the Freshman Dean’s Office. By the time I graduated (six years later, but that’s a story for another time), we had our first three children – again, the first such situation in institutional memory. I didn’t sleep much during those six years, since working full-time, attending college full-time, serving in the Church in various callings, loving a wonderful woman and helping raise small children didn’t leave much time for trivial things like sleep. (If I tried to live that schedule now, it would kill me.) However, when I slept, I slept soundly.

Through the years my family grew to include six children, various non-paying boarders at the house that is known among our children’s friends simply as “Hotel DeGraw” and, at its foundation, the girl who continued to amaze me through it all. I loved her more each year, particularly as I watched how deeply she cared about being a good person and helping others no matter the pain it caused her. For all those years, I ended each night at her side – talking about the day, our kids, our cares, our joys and our sorrows until we fell asleep – sleeping as happily and contentedly and soundly as it is possible to do.

I tell you all of that to tell you this: When we first moved to Ohio, we did so for a job that required I travel. Eventually, I worked into a position where I was traveling extensively. I like to travel. Driving, flying, seeing new cities, staying in hotels, just about everything associated with travel I enjoy – except for those multiple thousand mile drives with multiple tired children in multiple foul moods after multiple days on the road. Otherwise, I like the open road and sky – and the opportunity to think (uninterrupted) for hours at a time.

On the other hand, I quickly found that I have a hard time sleeping alone when I travel. You see, ever since we have had kids, we have had an open bedroom door policy in our house. This means that for the past 19 years I have spent most of my nights either crammed up next to my wife or crowded to the edge of our bed, hoping a strong gust from the fan (or a random push or kick) didn’t send me tumbling to the floor – crammed or crowded by as many as 7 other bodies sprawled any which way but orderly and consuming every available square inch of the bed.

I remember so vividly, years ago, when I first started traveling overnight, how much I looked forward with anticipation to that first night away – my chance to sprawl in imitation of my children – to sleep diagonally if I so desired – to use the blanket and sheet however I pleased – to sleep the deep sleep of the quiet and undisturbed – to wake up refreshed from a deep sleep for the first time in many years. That simply wasn’t my experience.

I lay there, eyes closed but unable to sleep, and I couldn’t understand why. There were no bodies crowding me to the edge – no kicks to my unprotected kidneys or eyes – no incessant snoring or muttering or additional body heat in the summer. It was peaceful – and I couldn’t sleep – at least not until about 4AM, and then for only two hours until the alarm shattered the shallow, fitful sleep I had not enjoyed. This lasted each time I traveled for about a month; then one night I discovered the solution: PILLOWS!

One night, in the middle of my sleep-deprived state, I had an epiphany – truly, I believe, inspiration from someone who took pity on my plight. I missed my ridiculously cluttered and cramped nights. I missed those toes in my nose – those knees in my back – the hair in my eyes whenever they opened. Most of all, I missed the sense of peace and contentment that came amid my chosen chaos. Quietude and solitude, I discovered, are not all they’re cracked up to be – at least not when fulfillment has been defined and wrapped up in noise and family for years. So, I asked for seven extra pillows, packed them around me on the bed (cramming myself into a small space within their embrace) and slept like a baby – at least like a baby whom others apparently have who sleeps through the night without a sound.

I tell you all of that to tell you this: The past few weeks, my wife has returned to work – since our youngest child started school this fall. She (my wife) has been working overnight a couple of nights each week, taking care of the elderly – and spending those nights away from me. It has not been easy, and I have found myself up late, falling asleep on the couch – even as our three youngest children lie sleeping in our bed upstairs.

I learned years ago that I like to have my children around me – even as I sleep. I learned this last couple of weeks that such a situation is not enough – that to be wholly happy and completely content my wife needs to be there, as well. I can sleep soundly with her by my side, with or without the children around us; I cannot sleep soundly without her there, even when they are crowded around me. I love my children with all my heart, but they are no substitute for my soul-mate – my split-apart – the other half of the whole I hope to be throughout eternity.

I tell you all of that to tell you this: I truly am blessed, and I recognize now – a little more than ever before – just how grateful I am and should be. I know many people who are not blessed in this way – who never marry, who are divorced or widowed or abused or living in un-fulfilling relationships – who sleep alone for many unplanned years or lengthy separations – who want to live the standards of the Gospel of Jesus Christ but must subdue inclinations that would bring companionship in this life in order to do so. I understand how relatively painless my learning of this lesson has been. After feeling a small portion of what many live with day in and day out, I am much less inclined to judge them for the choices they make – and much more in awe of those who remain faithful to the difficult ideal required for temple attendance.

Eternal marriage and family mean just a little more to me at this moment, since I have caught a tiny glimpse of isolated immortality, living as half the whole she and I are meant to be. If I can’t handle each night we are apart, I can’t fathom living endlessly without her – feeling alone in a vast cosmos – sleeping in a great and spacious hotel – forever, fitfully alone. I want to live on with my arm around her – in a universe surrounded by our children – even if that means I only get a little edge of it as my own and never get enough sleep.

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23 Responses to Sleep is Over-Rated

  1. Ardis Parshall on October 1, 2007 at 7:26 pm

    Um, Curtis, with this set-up, how did you ever get a second child, much less a third, fourth, fifth … ?

  2. Curtis DeGraw on October 1, 2007 at 7:28 pm

    Ardis, if I knew that, maybe I wouldn’t have six!

  3. Curtis' Wife on October 1, 2007 at 7:37 pm

    This is that amazing-sounding wife whom Curtis mentioned. (Don’t let him fool you. I’m not that much a sucker for pain, nor am I a saint.)

    I tell him that now he knows what I felt like when he started traveling! On the nights he was traveling, I watched more late night Law & Order episodes than I ever had previously… simply because I didn’t want to go to sleep alone. I also tell him that he really does need to go to bed on those 3 nights a week I am now working… but it hasn’t done much good yet! Maybe you guys could help out with a bloggernacle nudge occasionally… He likes to comment while I’m at work, so you’ll know right where to find him.

    Good job, babe! This is very well-written. I am proud of you!

  4. Adam Greenwood on October 1, 2007 at 7:59 pm

    Good post. My wife and I both stay up late reading when the other is away, because you can’t fall asleep unless you are *very* tired. Its pleasant that the brain can make a habit of good stuff as well as bad.

  5. Sarah on October 1, 2007 at 8:20 pm

    Yay for Ohio Mormons (even of the transient variety!)

    I have difficulty sleeping in any bed that doesn’t have something keeping me from falling off — when I was little I’d routinely get wedged between the mattress and the wall. I also have trouble sleeping in an empty house; my family going on vacation while I’m stuck at home working is pretty much a recipe for insomnia. One of the reasons I don’t mind living at home still is that they only do that occasionally.

    Oh, and yay for little kids, too. But I’d go crazy if I had six of them trying to sleep in my bed, unless said bed were approximately 12’x12′.

  6. Curtis DeGraw on October 1, 2007 at 8:34 pm

    Ardis, my wife just left for work tonight, but she asked me (OK, she ordered me) to let you know that our open door policy isn’t *that* open – and that I wasn’t traveling *every* night. Yes, Dear.

    Having been good Mormon kids growing up, I could claim that it took us a few kids to figure out why we were having them, but that’s a threadjack I don’t want to encourage.

  7. Margaret Young on October 1, 2007 at 9:02 pm

    Lovely post!
    I have learned to sleep without Bruce, but I always sigh when he’s home and we can snuggle before sleep. I’ve said it’s my favorite moment–the moment I move into my husband’s arms at night. Nothing too erotic, but very tender and sweet.

  8. john scherer on October 1, 2007 at 9:23 pm

    Curtis,
    This post is great! I can relate to most everything you wrote about. I woke up this morning with three of my four kids in our bed. It’s amazing what we become accustomed to. I have not found a way to sleep peacefully while traveling yet myself….

    And I’ll provide the third hurrah for Ohio Mormons (I’m a transplant myself).

  9. Naismith on October 1, 2007 at 9:31 pm

    This is such mush. Have you thought about writing a Mormon romance novel?

    I particularly take issue with this bit, where you stray from singing the praises of your own marriage to pitying others, “who never marry, who are divorced or widowed or abused or living in un-fulfilling relationships – who sleep alone for many unplanned years or lengthy separations…”

    The fact is, many happily married couples sleep alone. I’ve been married 29 years, and although we sleep in the same bed most nights, I go to bed at 10 and he at 12:30. So I go to sleep alone most nights, and have trouble getting to sleep the few times during the year when we go to sleep at the same time.

    This says nothing about the quality of our relationship. (It’s actually practical because I drive to early-morning seminary and he drives home from late football games.)

    And I do love solitude and hope I will always have a job that requires two conferences per year.

  10. john scherer on October 1, 2007 at 9:39 pm

    Wow! I guess it is getting close to your bed time, Naismith. : )

  11. Curtis DeGraw on October 1, 2007 at 9:43 pm

    Naismith, I only will point out that your situation doesn’t fit what I described in the passage you quoted.

  12. Adam Greenwood on October 1, 2007 at 10:09 pm

    “If this be mush, make the most of it.”

    –Dr. Patrick “Feelgood” Henry.

  13. Kathryn Lynard Soper on October 1, 2007 at 11:19 pm

    Curtis, this is my kind of mush. I just returned from a week away from my husband, and I feel like a starving woman set loose at Chuck-A-Rama. Thanks for this sweet post.

  14. TMD on October 2, 2007 at 12:57 am

    And another hurrah for Ohio Mormons!

  15. Jonathan Green on October 2, 2007 at 3:12 am

    Nice post, Curtis. I’m looking forward to the next one.

  16. kevinf on October 2, 2007 at 12:12 pm

    At first, I thought this post would be about how little sleep we get, period. It’s interesting to note that my patriarchal blessing actually says to make sure I get enough sleep, and I don’t.

    I don’t travel as much as I used to for business, but my wife is occasionally gone to visit family, or the odd educational conference out of town, and I generally have a hard time getting to sleep when she is gone. She also remarks the same thing. However, we have had mostly a closed and locked door policy. It used to drive me nuts when our kids were young to awaken in the night and find them thrashing and flipping the way the little ones do. Never seemed to bother my wife, but I would always pick them up and haul them back to their own rooms. My wife being a much sounder sleeper than me, the kids learned that when they were feeling sick, they came to my side of the bed. I had to train them that if they needed to come tell me that they felt they were going to throw up, to go directly to the bathroom, and the retching sounds would awaken me in time to comfort them.

    That seemed to define the division of labor for us. I was the nighttime comforter, and my wife the daytime comforter. Our youngest used to awaken in the night with nightmares, and I’d haul him downstairs, plug in the Disney Dumbo video tape, and then fall asleep on the floor while he watched the movie to calm down. After 20 minutes or so, then I’d haul him back upstairs and he’d go right to sleep. Dumbo is still one of my favorite Disney movies.

  17. Ray on October 2, 2007 at 12:34 pm

    Kevin, Disney is a wonderful 2AM babysitter. I have done just what you describe too many times to try to remember.

  18. Curtis DeGraw on October 2, 2007 at 12:36 pm

    Maybe sometime I will write something about the effect of the concept of eternal progression and endless work – and the effect it has on Mormons’ sleep patterns. For now, when someone asks shy I am tired, I usually tell them, “Children suck all the energy out of their parents. I have six.”

  19. Curtis DeGraw on October 2, 2007 at 12:38 pm

    Make that why. I’m not shy about my fatigue.

  20. Susan M on October 2, 2007 at 12:42 pm

    I thought this was going to be a post about early-morning seminary. Which I have given up on, BTW. My daughter gets a ride from a friend; my son doesn’t go. It was killing me.

  21. kevinf on October 2, 2007 at 2:14 pm

    Ray, I should point out that watching Dumbo make me feel sleepy, though.

  22. Curtis DeGraw on October 2, 2007 at 8:15 pm

    Susan M, I actually heard the rhyme at the beginning of this post from one of my teenagers – who heard it at early morning seminary.

    Fwiw, there are three families in our ward who share the transportation duties: We drive twice a week, as does one of the families, and the other one drives once a week. (In deference to full disclosure, however, even in Ohio we all live within 1.5 miles of the church – and the school bus stops right outside the building after class. That doesn’t hurt – even though seminary starts at 5:30.)

  23. nita on October 13, 2007 at 6:29 pm

    What a nice tribute to your wife. As one who also works w/the elderly, I know that those who she helps during the night will appreciate her.

    Personally, I also thank you for the empathethic statement you shared about those who are single, etc.:

    “I know many people who are not blessed in this way – who never marry, who are divorced or widowed or abused or living in un-fulfilling relationships – who sleep alone for many unplanned years or lengthy separations – who want to live the standards of the Gospel of Jesus Christ but must subdue inclinations that would bring companionship in this life in order to do so. I understand how relatively painless my learning of this lesson has been. After feeling a small portion of what many live with day in and day out, I am much less inclined to judge them for the choices they make – and much more in awe of those who remain faithful to the difficult ideal required for temple attendance.”

    I know Nainsmith disagreed (and I do realize some married people do need to sleep apart so they can rest adequately. Awhile ago, the Washington Post Health section had an article that discussed the value in this).

    Anyway, as a single person, I for one appreciated your statement, thank you.

    Years ago I worked at a job caring for those w/developmental disabilities). During this time, I had a coworker who had a husband who would expect her to make him his breakfast upon her return from being up all night! We tried our best to educate her that HE needed to be making her breakfast!! Hope that sometimes you can surprise her w/a special welcome home breakfast!