Why Mothers Stay Up Late

by Clint Edwards
Originally Published: 
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A little after 8 a.m. on a Saturday, my wife, Mel, told me she didn’t get enough sleep the night before, and I asked her what time she went to bed. We have three children. All of them slept through the night. Mel and I are good about splitting the night, so I would have known. In fact, our youngest, Aspen, got up after 7:30, which is a good hour and a half later than usual.

I didn’t really understand why she didn’t get enough sleep unless she stayed up late again, which she probably did.

“A little after 1 a.m.,” she said. She looked at me with tired red eyes, and I scoffed a little under my breath and went into lecture mode.

“Why did you stay up that late?” I asked. “I just don’t get it. Why didn’t you go to bed when I went?”

I went to bed the night before around 10 p.m., and as I left the living room she said, “I’ll be there in a bit.”

But obviously that didn’t happen.

I gave her a tight-lipped “I don’t have pity for you” face, mostly because this wasn’t the first time my wife had stayed up late for, what seemed to me, no good reason.

Ever since we had kids, I’d started to go to bed early. In fact, sleep was now my number one priority in life. Between getting up in the night with children and working two jobs, I honestly didn’t know when it would happen, so I jumped on every sleep opportunity I could. But Mel, she wasn’t that way.

We’ve been married for about 12 years, and for nine of those years, we have had children. Around the time our oldest son became a toddler, Mel started staying up late. In fact, over the years, we’d gotten to the point where we almost never went to bed at the same time. And while that bothered me because I missed falling asleep together, what bothered me the most was how she stayed up late doing heaven knows what, and then the next day complained about not getting enough sleep. In so many ways, she reminded me of my teenage self, burning the candle at both ends for no real good reason.

We were both always running on low sleep. We both got up in the night. I worked, and until recently, she attended classes during the day. I suppose I understood when she was in school. She often stayed up late doing homework. But that wasn’t the case anymore.

Mel didn’t answer my question, and I wondered if it was because she didn’t get it either. She was still in her pajamas, her brown hair in a loose ponytail. Our kids were eating breakfast.

She sat down on the sofa, crossed her legs, and thought. I sat next to her. I was about to poke at it some more because I wanted her to commit to going to bed at a decent time, when she said, “I spend all day with the kids. All day. And when the kids aren’t around, I’m with you — which is great — but when I’m not with you, I’m with the kids or I’m doing school. I just…” She thought for a moment. “I just need some me time.”

I leaned back into the sofa and thought about what she said. I didn’t fully understand it. I’ve never really needed “me time.” I knew that I needed sleep, but obviously that wasn’t the same thing.

“What do you mean by me time?” I asked.

Mel let out a breath, and I couldn’t tell if she was irritated, or just struggling to describe something she’d never given language to.

“I want to sit on the sofa and not have someone climb on me. I want to not be touched for a while. Sometimes, when the kids are around me all day, clinging to my body, it feels like sensory overload. It makes me want to crawl into a bubble. I need a little time to just sit and watch a show that isn’t about a family of pigs or Minecraft. I want some time when the house is quiet and no one is screaming and I can read a book that I actually want to read. I just want some time to be…” She raised her eyebrows and said something that really gave me pause.

“Late at night is the only time I get to feel like I did before I was a mother.”

Never in our marriage had I thought this was an issue. I assumed Mel loved being a mother. This isn’t to say that we hadn’t talked about the challenges of being touched out, or how parenting can be overwhelming — we had. But I didn’t know that she saw herself as needing time to feel like a non-mother.

“Do you not like being a mother?” I asked with hesitation. I got a little nervous then and I couldn’t decide if I felt that way because she was such a wonderful mother and I didn’t want her to ever stop being that way, or if it was because there was some part of her that I clearly didn’t understand.

Mel gave me a half grin. “I love the kids, but this has nothing to do with being a mother. It has everything to do with just being alone. I don’t even want you around sometimes.”

My eyes opened for a bit, and she put her hand on my knee. “It’s not that I don’t love you, or the kids. It’s just that I need time to be me. To not have someone asking anything of me. To not have someone arguing over this or that. To not have someone asking for my attention. Right now, that’s more important than sleep. Does that make sense?” she asked.

“Not really,” I said. I paused for a moment. “I mean, it’s not something that I need, but I can respect what you are saying.”

Mel crawled into the hook of my arm and rested on my shoulder. I put my arm around her, and we just stayed like that for a while, not speaking.

“So are you going to stay up late again tonight?” I asked.

She nodded.

“All right,” I said. “I’ll be sure to leave you alone.”

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