Tasha Werner, 43, gets up at 3:30 a.m. twice a week for her part-time job at a fitness centre in Calgary. After a five-hour shift, she is back home by 9 a.m. to homeschool her two children, aged 9 and 12. The hardest part of her position – stay-at-home mom, homeschool teacher and part-time worker – is the downtime “lost from my life,” says Werner.
A study by Howard M. Kravitz, a psychiatrist in Chicago, showed that up to 60 per cent of women experience sleep disorders due to hormonal changes linked to menopause. But there is an increasing prevalence of insomnia symptoms in women that may be attributed, in part, to societal changes.
“We live in a world that didn’t exist a generation ago. Now everyone is trying to figure it out,” says Michael Grandner, director of the Sleep and Health Research Program at the University of Arizona.
While women are no longer expected to stay at home, many who are employed outside the home also have the primary responsibility for family matters. And women aged 40 to 60 commonly fall within the “sandwich generation,” caring for both children and parents.
As women juggle their responsibilities, these duties can take a toll, both emotionally and practically.
Both Werner and her husband were raised in traditional homes; their mothers stayed at home to oversee childcare, cooking, grocery shopping and household duties. Initially, Werner and her husband followed a similar path, mirroring their parents’ lives as homemakers. “I think we just fell into what we were used to,” says Werner.
However, a notable shift in their family dynamics occurred once she started working outside the home.
Her children’s physical needs and illnesses have had major consequences on her sleep. If one of the children is sick with the flu, that’s “a week of not a lot of sleep during the night,” she says, “because that’s my job.” Many nights, she finds herself waking up between 1 a.m. and 3 a.m., worrying about how the kids are doing academically or behaviourally.
“We face a specific set of anxieties and a different set of pressures than men,” says Emma Kobil, who has been a therapist in Denver, Colo., for 15 years and is now an insomnia coach. There is so much pressure to be everything as a woman – to be an amazing homemaker and worker while maintaining a hot-rocking body and having a cool personality, to “be the cool mom but also the CEO, to follow your dreams and be the boss b****,” says Kobil.
And there’s an appeal to that concept. Daughters grow up viewing their moms as superwomen juggling responsibilities. But what isn’t always obvious are the challenges women face while managing their lives and the health issues they may encounter.
A study revealed that women are 41 per cent more at risk of insomnia than men.
A thorough study revealed that women are 41 per cent more at risk of insomnia than men. Beyond menopausal hormonal shifts, societal pressures, maternal concerns and the challenge of balancing multiple roles contribute to women’s increased susceptibility to insomnia.
Cyndi Aarrestad, 57, lives on a farm in Saskatchewan with her husband, Denis. Now an empty nester, Aarrestad fills her time working on the farm, keeping house, volunteering at her church and managing her small woodworking business. And she struggles with sleep.
Despite implementing some remedies, including stretching, drinking calming teas and rubbing her feet before bed, Aarrestad says achieving restful sleep has remained elusive for the past decade.
Two primary factors contribute to her sleep challenges — her inability to quiet her mind and hormonal hot flashes due to menopause. Faced with family and outside commitments, Aarrestad finds it challenging to escape night time’s mental chatter. “It’s a mom thing for me … I can’t quite shut it off.” Even as her children transitioned to young adulthood and moved out, the worries persisted, highlighting the lasting concerns moms have about their kids’ jobs, relationships and overall well-being.
Therapist Kobil says that every woman she’s ever worked with experiences this pressure to do everything, to be perfect. These women feel like they’re not measuring up. They’re encouraged to take on other people’s burdens; to be the confidante and the saviour in many ways; to sacrifice themselves. Sleep disruptions simply reflect the consequences of this pressure.
“They’re trying to fit 20 hours in a 24-hour day, and it doesn’t work,” says Grandner, the sleep specialist.
Grandner says that consistently sleeping six hours or less as an adult makes one 55 per cent more likely to become obese, 20 per cent more likely to develop high blood pressure, and 30 per cent more likely to develop Type 2 diabetes if you didn’t have it already. This lack of sleep makes you more likely to catch the flu. It makes vaccines less effective, and it increases your likelihood of developing depression and anxiety.
When is the time to change? Yesterday. Grandner warns that the sleep sacrifices made at a young age impact health later. But it’s never too late to make changes, he says, and “you do the best with what you’ve got.”
Kobil suggests a practical approach for women struggling with sleep. She emphasizes understanding that sleeplessness isn’t a threat and encourages a shift in mindset about being awake. Instead of fighting sleeplessness, she advises treating oneself kindly, recognizing the difficulty.
Kobil recommends creating a simple playbook with comforting activities for awake moments during the night. Just as you would comfort a child who’s afraid, she suggests being gentle with yourself, gradually changing the perception of wakefulness into a positive experience.