For a good night’s sleep, ditch the sex­ism

The Guardian Weekly - - Mind & Relationships - Oliver Burke­man

Among peo­ple who study such things, it’s broadly agreed that in so­ci­eties with more sex­ual equal­ity, ev­ery­one’s hap­pier and health­ier: the women, un­sur­pris­ingly, but also the men. (It’s not quite unan­i­mous, but close enough.)

Even so, I was sur­prised by the re­cent find­ing that both men and women sleep bet­ter in more equal so­ci­eties, too. For women, that’s be­cause they get to off­load some of the bur­den of ris­ing at 2.45am to set­tle a scream­ing baby. In more tra­di­tional coun­tries, the ra­tio­nale is that women in het­ero­sex­ual re­la­tion­ships should do all that, be­cause the man – be­ing the main bread­win­ner, or per­haps want­ing to think of him­self that way, even if he isn’t – needs his sleep to keep the fam­ily pro­vided for. Yet what hap­pens in such places, the re­searchers found, is that men sleep fit­fully, too, be­cause they’re wor­ry­ing about job se­cu­rity and house­hold fi­nances. Plus, they may well be stay­ing up late, or get­ting up early, in or­der to work.

There’s an in­trigu­ing point here about why, pre­cisely, strict stereo­types cause so much trou­ble, aside from the basic eth­i­cal point that sex­ism is un­just. The more rigid the ex­pec­ta­tions at­tach­ing to each mem­ber of a fam­ily (or any group, pre­sum­ably), the less re­silient the re­sult­ing group as a whole, be­cause it’s less able to adapt to shift­ing cir­cum­stances. From an in­di­vid­ual woman’s per­spec­tive, it may be ex­as­per­at­ing to be obliged to get up through the night, ev­ery night, for a baby. But from the group per­spec­tive, it’s also less sus­tain­able: dis­trib­ute the bur­den more equally, and the whole fam­ily can keep go­ing longer, avoid­ing burnout. Like­wise, when there’s more work­place equal­ity, the task of earn­ing a liv­ing gets dis­trib­uted more evenly, so more hours can be worked, and more money earned, with­out any sin­gle mem­ber stretch­ing the lim­its of their ca­pac­ity for work – and with­out a sin­gle job loss elim­i­nat­ing a house­hold’s en­tire in­come.

There are emo­tional gains, too, from not be­ing the sole per­son in charge of any­thing. If it’s your job, and your job alone, to see the kids through the night, or keep the money com­ing in, you nat­u­rally feel as if you can’t put a foot wrong; share the bur­den even slightly, and you’re no longer in such an all-or- noth­ing sit­u­a­tion. (What no­body tells you is that tend­ing to a baby in the small hours can ac­tu­ally be an oth­er­worldly joy, pro­vided – and this is key – you don’t have to do it ev­ery damned night.)

Be­sides, we’re sim­ply not de­signed to perform one role, un­remit­tingly. Karl Marx fa­mously looked for­ward to the abo­li­tion of the dis­tri­bu­tion of labour, when he might be free “to hunt in the morn­ing, fish in the af­ter­noon, rear cat­tle in the evening, crit­i­cise af­ter din­ner, just as I have a mind, with­out ever be­com­ing hunter, fish­er­man, herds­man or critic”. Marx didn’t give much thought to par­ent­ing, but the point’s still a good one: forc­ing peo­ple into rigid boxes may serve some­one’s agenda, but not our own.

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