By Nanci Olesen
Issue 104, January/February 2001
Many years ago, when I was a single woman in Italy, I was devastated to find that from around noon to around three in the afternoon nothing was going on. 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 immersed in something called siesta. It seemed to consist of reading the paper, smoking, or drinking a glass of wine, and then falling asleep in a chair. Some Italians even went so far as to go home, take off their shoes, and get into bed. I couldn't believe it. I would mill around the piazzas, alert and slightly irritable, reading the signs on the shops: "chiuso."
Now, many years later, I am the mother 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 my computer at two in the morning. I hang around the radio station for hours editing small sentences and snippets of music. I clean my house and do mountains of laundry. I read books to my children and make up cool crafts to do at the kitchen table. I hang on the phone with my friends, and I try to keep my garden weed-free. I cook food three times a day. And I honor the siesta.
My first child taught me to do so. Every day, after he had thrown rice and bits of broccoli all over the floor, poured his juice onto his high chair tray, then dipped his head into 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 diaper, and lay him down for a nap. Aahhh. He was a good sleeper--a master of the art of the siesta.
Then I would go back downstairs, relieved to have some time away from my son's exuberant life. I was full of energy to complete my tasks: phone calls, writing, straightening up the house, making long to-do lists. First, however, I had to crouch under the high chair and pick up cold, sticky pieces of broccoli. Next, I would get a sponge and scrape at the dried-up rice that had stuck to the floor.
Suddenly I would get incredibly sleepy. Maybe it was just the task at hand that made me want to escape. I would groggily wipe the juice from the tray, set it down on the counter, and stumble to the couch. All thoughts of my blooming career and the myriad tasks at hand would be gone. I would heave my body onto the couch and close my eyes. The siesta ruled. Sometimes only 20 minutes would pass, but I think in those early days of motherhood it was more like an hour. I, too, became a master. I learned to take the phone off the hook and lock the door; sometimes, especially in the winter, I went so far as to take off my shoes and get into bed! (And I'm not even Italian.)
I don't call it siesta; I say nap. Every day after lunch, I get incredibly sleepy. If I am ridiculous enough to have scheduled a meeting or a dentist's appointment, it is embarrassing how tired I get. My eyes droop, and I look half conscious. I usually know enough not to be away from home when it's nap time. My youngest child is five now, and she doesn't really do the nap thing. If she's home with me after lunch, she chatters quietly to herself or turns the pages of a book to tell herself the story. After I have made that drool mark on the pillow and my hair is moistly matted to the left side of my head, I sit up and smile sweetly at her, and we resume our little life. These days 20 minutes is pretty much the max. Often it is just five or ten...but my oh my, I am a new woman when I pull my rumpled self back into a vertical position.
Recently I heard a sleep expert say that naps are really good for us. I've read that before, too. Of course, we know that our 24/7 society isn't really all that productive all the time, and I have to think that the freelance mom could teach everyone a thing or two about how to spend time. The mom who understands the nap, who honors the nap, both for her little babes and for herself, is the shining example of a return to our natural cycles.
There are people everywhere at this moment trying to get enough caffeine into their systems to overcome their natural cycle. People are nodding off in board meetings, in neighborhood involvement meetings, in the library, and in the lobby of their government center. There are people thinking that they are having a really bad day. But actually they all just need some sleep--not just the nighttime kind but the delicious middle-of-the-day kind in the sun by a fountain, or on the couch on a pillow, curled up next to the cat. I laugh when I think of my enthusiastic 20-something self, my oh so unnap-like persona, compared to the woman I have become--the drowsy, frumpy, happy woman with kids and a house and a soft, cozy couch just right for napping.
Nanci Olesen is the host and producer of "MOM-bo: A Mom Show with an Attitude," which originates in Minneapolis at KFAI and is syndicated on the Pacifica Radio Network. She is the mother of three children--Henry (10), Nora (7), and Lene (5), and serves as a role model for them and other moms on the art of daily napping.