My youngest is now 21. Over lunch recently he told me I was looking more alive these days. I agreed that during his growing up years, I hadn’t taken very good care of myself, some times even pulling all-nighters just to get everything done. “Yeah, “ he said, “It was tough as a kid growing up and watching you go through days with no energy and a blank look. Some times you were a zombie mom.”
You can imagine how my heart sank.
I knew I was working hard to do everything my stay-at-home mother had done when I was growing up, plus work. I knew I was always run down. I knew I got sick every year at the holidays because the extra activities were just more than I could handle. But I had no idea the impact of being a zombie mom was having on my kids. I thought being super-mom was a heroic thing. Now I realize how much I was missing out on by trying to do it all. And how much they were missing out.
How Did I Become a Zombie Mom?
I came of age in the era of women’s liberation. We were allowed to have careers for the first time. We weren’t paid as much as our male counterparts and we were still expected to run the house, or in my case, I demanded that I still run the house.
On top of that, I worked in Silicon Valley in the era of FOMO, before it even had a name. The work culture did not recognize the value of being a great parent. Instead, you were judged on how much work you got done and how many hours you worked.
A close friend told me, if you want to climb the ladder, 8 to 5 will never be enough. It’s assumed that you’ll work 8 to 5. It’s only what you do before 8 and after 5 that counts. After I had kids, I got into the routine of going back to my computer after they were in bed and working with the goal of sending out that important email with a 2 a.m. timestamp. It wasn’t hard to do, since I had so much on my plate. The only hard part was staying awake.
So, How Did I Stay Awake, You Ask?
My tricks were bright lights and food.
I worked in a fully lit room using harsh blue lights. No soft yellow light for me!
And then there was food. Sadly, mostly snack food. Not all-night, just every time I got really tired. I’d give my system a jolt and trick it into being awake.
Sadly, when I finally went to bed, it could be hard to get good sleep.
The next morning, which always came too early, I’d be literally hung over from my poor diet and light-forced wakefulness into the wee hours of the night.
Enter zombie mom.
What’s Really Important?
As I look back on it, I know my work was important, but how I did it was not. I didn’t need to say yes to as many projects. I didn’t need to attend as many networking events. I didn’t need to stay up all night to make sure I made (often self-imposed) deadlines.
What I did need to do, was be present for my children’s only childhood.
I needed to read more books out loud.
I needed to ride bikes more often.
I needed to play more games.
I needed to laugh more.
I can’t go back and do it over, but hopefully you can.
How to Avoid Being a Zombie Mom
I wish I had some really revolutionary things to tell you, but honestly, it’s just this:
- Make a decision to do what’s important not what’s urgent or what’s expected
- Take care of your health
- Use good tools to help you
I don’t need to tell you how to make good decisions. But I will say, spending at least a little time on a regular bases evaluating what you’re doing is key. Ask your self, “Is this really important? Is it really how I want to spend my life?”
Focus on Your Good Health
We’ve all heard about the importance of a great diet (though we don’t always know what a great diet really is) and exercise. The importance of great sleep is just now becoming a part of the conversation, and I for one, am really glad.
Keys to great sleep include:
- Getting to bed at a consistent time (I’m not there yet, but it is a goal.)
- Being in bed long enough to get a full night’s sleep.
- Doing the things to help you fall asleep and stay asleep:
- No bright lights, especially in the blue spectrum in the evening. #BlueLightSyndrome is real and it keeps some people from getting the sleep they need. Lighting Science makes a variety of light blubs that look white, but keep out the “wake-up” blue spectrum to aid in sleep.
- Make your last food of the day three hours before bedtime so your body can finish the energy-consuming task of digestion before it’s time to sleep. This allows your body to focus on the job of sleep.
- No alcohol before bed. There is research that shows small quantities of red wine is beneficial to health, but most experts agree, it’s wise to limit consumption right before bed. It may help you fall asleep, but some people wake up a few hours later and are unable to get back to sleep.
- Sleep in a cool room. Historically our bodies were used to a change in temperature between day and night. The change in temperature is a signal to your body to sleep. Our forced-air, always-comfortable homes may be keeping some people awake.
- Sleep in a dark room. If you live in a well-lit city, closing your blinds can help you fall asleep more easily and stay asleep longer.
- Control the noise as much as you can. For new parents, that’s not always possible, but it is possible to turn off the TV, podcast, or streaming video before trying to fall asleep.
- Actively choose to fall asleep to your own positive thoughts. Don’t make lists in your head about all the things you need to remember to do the next day. That just keeps you from really relaxing. Instead, find your resting place and go there. It might be your childhood home or your favorite vacation spot. It might change from day to day or season to season. Just let your mind go to a good spot.
- Use sleep-tracking tools to help guide you. Dr. Greene is a health super-tracker. He tries every new tool he can. Recently we’ve both been using Oura Ring to track deep sleep, REM, total sleep, body temperature while we sleep, and heart rate. It uses that data to make actionable suggestions for your day. It shows me what’s working and what’s not and motivates me to do the things that help me get a better night’s sleep.
Redeeming My Past
Our family has a series of photos of me asleep over dinner at restaurants while we are on vacation. I would work very, very hard to get everything and everyone ready to go. Often I would not sleep the night before we left. When we finally got out of town, I was exhausted. Now, I’m saddened by those photos.
I know I can’t go back and undo my zombie mom years. I know I’ll never have my kids’ childhoods back. What I can do is take good care of myself now. As my youngest says, “So you can play with the grandkids … in a decade.”
Note: Dr. Greene is on the Scientific Advisory Board of Lighting Science.