Gender-role dynamics set expectations about how men and women should act during the day. And now, a new study has found that they can also change how well you sleep at night. In a study of 14,143 European couples across 23 countries, the researchers found that societal expectations of role obligations change your quality of sleep.
Women sleepless over family, men sleepless over finances
Under gendered family dynamics, women are mothers first, workers second, and men are primary breadwinners. The researchers found that these daytime obligations followed couples into the bedroom at night. Women were more likely to have restless sleep over family demands and caregiving while men were more likely to have restless sleep over work obligations and economic concerns.
“Women’s sleep was more often restless when a young child was in the home. Among men, the presence of children had no effect on their reports of restless sleep,” the study found. “Yet men remain accountable to cultural expectations that they be economic providers, and they reported more frequent restless sleep when they depended on their partners to support the family, or when they were otherwise concerned about the family’s standard of living.”
Men who identified as breadwinners were losing sleep over it, because “they thought their paid work was vital to supporting the family (even if their partners also held a paying job)” and they “saw their work as a display of their strength and viewed the need to sleep as a sign of weakness,” the study suggested.
They justified not doing their share of putting the crying baby to bed because they thought they needed to be at their best for the next day of work. Meanwhile, women who were slotted into the caregiver role saw the nighttime as an extension of their motherhood obligations. Women saw the sleep sacrifice as the price of being a mom, elevating “the sleep rights of children and spouses over their own and accepting disrupted sleep as the price they paid for marital harmony.”
But there’s good news. In more gender-equal countries, both men and women got better sleep. Using the United Nations gender empowerment index and other country-level models, the researchers found that “in nations that empower women and elevate their status, men and women alike report sounder sleep.”
We all share the biological imperative to sleep. No one enjoys staying up till 3 a.m. worrying about the next day of work or how to get the kids to school. It helps to have a partner to ease these worries. When we free ourselves from restrictive gender dynamics of who gets to sleep and when, we all get to work together to have more of it.