When I was in Italy many years ago, as a single woman, I was devastated by the fact that from around noon until three in the afternoon nothing was going on. It drove me crazy that just when I was ready to go to a museum, stop in at a few little shops, eat lunch, or mail a postcard, every Italian was doing something called siesta. It seemed to consist of reading the paper, smoking, or even drinking a glass of wine, then falling asleep in a chair. Some Italians even went so far as to go home, take off their shoes, and get in bed. I couldn't believe it. I would mill around the piazza, alert and slightly irritable, reading the signs on the shops: chiuso.
Now, many years later, I'm the mom of three kids. I don't have a nine-to-five job . . . thank God. I work a few nights a week as a server for a catering business. I produce radio shows at two in the morning at my computer. I hang around the radio station for hours editing little sentences and bits of music. I used to design window displays for an independent bookstore that recently bit the dust. I clean my house and do mountains of laundry. I cook food, three times a day. And I honor the siesta.
My first child taught me. Every day after he had thrown rice and little pieces of broccoli all over the floor, poured his milk onto his high chair tray and then put his head in it, he would giggle and laugh for a while, then rub his fists into his eyes, and start to cry. I would hose him down in front of the sink, change his little diaper, and put him in his crib. Ahhh. He was a good sleeper--a master at the art of the siesta.
I would go back downstairs, full of energy to complete my tasks: business phone calls, writing, straightening up the house, lining up sitters, whatever. But first, I had to crouch under the high chair and pick up cold sticky pieces of broccoli. Then I would get a sponge and scrape at the dried-up rice that had stuck to the floor. Suddenly, I'd get incredibly sleepy. Maybe it was just the task at hand that made me want to escape. I would groggily wipe the milk from the tray and sort of set it down on the counter and stumble to the couch. All thoughts of my blooming career and the myriad of tasks at hand were gone. I heaved my body onto the couch and closed my eyes. The siesta ruled. Sometimes only twenty minutes would pass, but I think in those early days of motherhood an hour was more like it. I became a master. I learned to take the phone off the hook, lock the door, and stumble to my place of repose. Sometimes, especially in the winter, I went so far as to take off my shoes and get into bed! It was great--and I'm not even Italian.
I haven't been to Italy since that year when I was buzzing around the piazzas at midday. So I have to admit I haven't said "siesta" in about fifteen years. I say "nap." Every day after lunch, I get incredibly sleepy. If I'm ridiculous enough to have scheduled a meeting or a dentist's appointment, it's embarrassing how tired I get. My eyes droop and I look half-conscious. Mostly I know enough not to be away from home when it's naptime. My youngest is four and she doesn't really do the nap thing anymore. If she's home with me she chatters quietly to herself or turns the pages of a book to tell herself the story. When I've made that little drool mark on the pillow and my hair is moistly matted to the left side of my head, I sit up, smile sweetly at her, and resume our little life. These days twenty minutes is the max. Often it's just five or ten. But my, oh my, I am a new woman when I pull my rumpled self back together.
I heard an interview recently with some sleep expert who said naps are really good for you. I've read that before, too--that we have some kind of cycle we really ought to honor. In some of the newest, most happening companies, there are napping rooms, with cushy chairs and soft lights and muffled sound, where a person can go to check out for a while.
I laugh when I think of my enthusiastic twenty-something self--my oh so un-nap-like persona--and the woman I have become: the drowsy, frumpy, happy woman with kids and a house and a soft, cozy couch, just right for napping.
In warm weather with a small baby, drive in the car till your baby falls asleep. Find a shady residential street or a parkway near a lake or creek. Roll the window down, recline your seat . . . and snooze. Ahhh. You might be really lucky and wake up refreshed, and your baby might still be sleeping! And you might even have some reading or paper work with you that you can do in such a peaceful spot.
If you have birthed a baby recently, and are living in an altered state of sleep cycles anyway, always sleep when your baby is sleeping. Well, not always, 'cause your baby sleeps about twenty hours out of every twenty-four. But sleep a lot of the time.
If you have a toddler or another rambunctious child and a baby and someone is helping you by entertaining or occupying the loud, needy toddler while you nurse the baby, always go to a different room from the toddler, always nurse till the baby falls asleep, and always fall asleep with the baby or at least feign that you have fallen asleep so that your husband or partner or friend or mother will continue giving you some quiet and space.
Go to Italy. Observe Italians who know all about napping. Learn to say siesta in a true Italian accent. Then practice, practice, practice. The siesta, I mean.
So you can't go to Italy. Lie down. On your living room floor. In a lawn chair. On the grass under a tree. Close your eyes. Think of Italy. Think of nothing. Do this every day at approximately the same time. See how much better you feel.
Find articles about the importance of naps or siestas or whatever and leave them around the workplace so that people start seeing them and talking about naps. This is a good jumping off point to start rallying for the nap room.
Nanci Olesen is the host of "MOM-bo, A Mom Show With An Attitude," a weekly radio rant about motherhood aired on KFAI, 90.3 FM in Minneapolis, 106.7 in St. Paul, Wednesdays at 3 p.m.
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