Thinking back, I've always needed solid sleep. It's true I can function -- and function surprisingly well -- on only a few hours of rest, but I don't consider it a strength. It's an essential skill when you are called to travel last minute, covering a story that involves a solid amount of research and a devoted focus. I'm convinced in those moments I survive purely on adrenaline, and I know exactly when it starts to run out. When my energy is literally gone, I can feel it; I can feel those final, precious few ounces draining out of my body. I've been known to tell my husband my teeth hurt from exhaustion. When that happens, I know I'm in rough shape.
I never wore my lack of sleep as a badge of honor. I knew it would catch up to me, and silently feared it was taking years off of my life. I've read the studies, and I know first-hand how important sleep is. Yet for years, I blatantly ignored the warnings, telling myself there was little I could do short of adding extra hours to the day. My days were packed and started well before the sun. But I kept telling myself this schedule was giving me what so many working parents struggle to find: more time with my children. The one catch? That "time" may have had quantity working in its favor, but the quality was sorely lacking.
My younger son, Sawyer, just celebrated his third birthday. His first year was tough, not because he was a difficult baby, but because I was on an emotional roller coaster. Looking back, those months were the start of my low point. They were also the beginning of my battle to regain both my sleep and my sanity.
After a long illness, my wonderful father passed away six weeks after Sawyer's birth. Three weeks after his memorial service, I was back at work on CBS' network morning program, known at that time as The Early Show. I had joined the network full time just a few weeks before giving birth, trading in later nights at CNN for early mornings at CBS, and more time with my family. I was still adjusting to the schedule, which came with a 3 a.m. alarm clock six days a week.
While I did dial back to five days a week at one point, I also began a chaotic roller coaster that would see me contribute to three very different incarnations of the morning news show I had come to love, with varying degrees of success.
Adding to the stress was a body that felt bloated and simply wouldn't cooperate. Despite my healthy diet and regular exercise, I couldn't seem to lose the baby weight from my second pregnancy, and had a tough time producing enough milk for my growing boy. I nursed both my sons for a little over a year, and pumped in some questionable locations to meet their needs. Yet the second time around was nothing like the first. I was convinced my limited production was a direct result of my lack of sleep. Most experts I spoke with agreed. As any mother will tell you, feeling like you can't give your child everything he needs only adds to your stress.
On top of everything, I didn't really like myself. Not because I was feeling chubby or slightly lost in my career, but because my exhaustion had turned me into a far less pleasant mother and partner. I was constantly on edge, my patience was nearly nonexistent, and, in hindsight, I seemed to use up all of my energy at work, leaving me drained by the time I got home. The most important people in my life were the ones suffering.
I eventually settled into a routine, which as recently as July had me up at 2:45 a.m. daily, and passing out sometime between 8:30 p.m. and 9 p.m. each night while reading to my children. I rushed from work to the gym, then snuck in a quick walk with the dog before racing to the subway to get my boys at preschool. At the playground after school, there were days I could barely keep my eyes open. There was never time for a nap. And every time I thought about how tired I was, I reminded myself there was a mountain of reading to be done for the next day's show. Just thinking about it all exhausted me even more.
Then, everything screeched to a halt. At the end of July, CBS decided to replace me on CBS This Morning (the successor to The Early Show). Suddenly, there was no alarm clock. There was no reading for work the next day. Slowly, there was no more stress about "fitting it all in" before I lost the battle with my body and sleep took over. There was only time -- time to sleep, time to read for pleasure, time to play with my boys, time to wait for them to slowly put their shoes on without constantly checking the clock... time to relax with my husband on a weeknight, without counting the minutes of sleep I was giving up.
I didn't know how long this time would last, but I did know it was a rare gift not to be wasted. I made a bucket list. Nothing fancy, just things I knew I could achieve, and I knew we all needed. Number one on the list: sleep. I also wanted to find that quality time I'd been missing with my family. Most of all, I wanted to be a better, more engaged, more patient partner and parent.
As the weeks went by, I couldn't believe how much better I felt. I was sleeping more soundly -- not to mention longer! I had more energy. My skin was brighter and less irritated. I was more productive and more focused. I was relaxed. My family seemed happier and somehow lighter. I found my patience again. I found myself.
I had the privilege of three months with my family before I began my current job at NBC News. In the five months I have been back at work, there have been plenty of moments when it's tough to juggle. My schedule changes daily, and I'm traveling more often. I don't always get the sleep I need, but I am still sleeping better than I was just a few months ago, and I have made sleep a priority.
I'm also easier on myself. I no longer beat myself up for choosing to spend more time at the playground and less time on the computer. I put my BlackBerry and iPhone down, and focus on the fleeting, precious ramblings of my sons, now six and three. I sit on the porch with my husband after the boys are asleep and catch up on the day over a glass of wine. I take my dog for long walks to the beach. I've stopped trying to read three newspapers before sunrise. And yet, I somehow feel more knowledgeable. Perhaps because I've finally awakened to the world around me and all it was trying to offer. Reclaiming my sleep made me realize how much I was giving up when I let the exhaustion win, and how much there is to gain in letting go and listening to my body.
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