I remember Saturday mornings as a kid being a time to sneak and watch cartoons with my younger brother while cramming all the sugary cereal and milk down before our mom got up and made us do “something productive.” We would eat and watch and laugh, listening for footsteps that told us our cartoon time was limited. Dad was likely already up and into his projects for the day. Mom, however, who was an elementary school teacher, did NOT play with her sleep on the weekends and also did not play with us having too much time in front of “the idiot box.” Yes, she called television the idiot box.
We knew when she was sleeping in on Saturday to keep the noise down and let her rest. She worked hard at school and at home, but when she needed to rest she demanded that we respect that. My dad also knew to let her rest, even though he would be up and about. Now that I am also a mother of two and have been a (very tired) working mom, I know how important it was for her to have this time to reset her body and mind before returning to work on Monday morning. She showed us how to prioritize sleep, even though she seemed to work non-stop taking care of us and her students.
I cannot claim to have great sleep habits, even though I know better. I can basically give a TED Talk speech on the need for sleep and how to set up great habits for proper rest, but I still do not follow my own advice. I know about cutting screen time at night two hours before bed, avoiding blue light, leaving the phone outside the bedroom, having the right pillow, setting a solid bedtime and routines, using meditation and nature sounds, and sleeping in a pitch dark room. Still, I am a night owl and my creative juices tend to flow only after midnight, so I am up writing, researching, and working on projects or listening to music way too late. I seriously have changes to make, as do most people in this age of falling asleep with their phone in hand.
What I have learned during this time of racial and viral pandemic is that rest is revolutionary. Let me say that again. Rest is Revolutionary. As the great writer/poet and queer activist Audre Lorde advised:
“Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”
There is nothing like trying to maintain sanity while working, caring for a family, being politically and socially active, trying to change the world, and remembering to eat and sleep. There is no balance in that – unless you create it. We have seen so many people burn out as they try to balance their personal responsibilities with making a difference in the world. It often ends in giving up, turning to substances, or worse. Giving of yourself without taking care of yourself is not sustainable – or wise.
Black women have historically taken on the role of leading or sustaining movements for the greater good without leaving space for their own health and mental well-being. Doing all the hard work and dying too soon because we have not stopped to rest or to take care of our health and manage stress is kind of our thing. We are good at it. Black women have an unfortunate history in America of being forced to carry the literal weight of hard work in the fields, or running a household and raising other people’s children, in addition to birthing and caring for their own. Of singing and praying through hard days to survive when they were not allowed to rest.
This carried over into our lives as free people and showed up in our grandmother’s way of working way too hard for way too long, and often getting little in return. It has shown up in our parent’s complaints, “Stop being so lazy and get up,” “The early bird gets the worm,” “Be more productive,” “Why do you sleep so much?” Then my least favorite: “You have to work twice as hard to get half as much.” [Insert eye-roll here.] It has also shown up in what we now call, “Hustle Culture.” Hey, we have to stop or we will not survive.
For those who are activists, the message should be that we need your work and we want everyone to arrive at a better place, alive and well. I don’t have to tell you that many of our greatest world leaders passed on before ever seeing their hopes and dreams realized. For some, it was because they were not able to rest. No one told them it was okay to stop and rest and then carry on. This idea of running until you burn out and then someone else will hopefully pick up the baton, is tired, in and of itself.
Of course, we should understand that in order to “get anywhere” in life we will need to put in some work. We may need to work relentlessly towards our dreams and goals. Of course, some sleepless nights are a part of it. But where are we “getting to” if we arrive ragged and worn out from sleep deprivation and exhaustion? (I am asking for a friend).
A part of showing up as a successful, happy person and living our dreams must be that we enjoy the process; “enjoy the ride” if you will, and then we enjoy the place we land. If we do not learn to rest when we are tired or overwhelmed, we are playing a role in our own demise. If you are a parent, your children are watching this. They are getting the wrong message that you work hard and do not get to enjoy the fruits of your labor. We need to show our children that it is okay to stop and rest and that this is a part of caring for yourself and your loved ones.
Show our brilliant young people that rest is a revolutionary act and that self-care is not just a mantra, it is a requirement. We are allowed to stop, to shut down, to say no, to sit down, to do nothing, and the world will keep rotating. Trust me, all of the work will still be there waiting when you wake up or return from vacation, and you will get it done with a well-rested body and mind.