The politics of sleep

When I was a child, my mum worked as a childminder for a friend. Once she was annoyed with that friend for something she’d done, and she got back at her by… letting the friend’s younger child have a nap.

I was utterly confused by this. How could letting a tired child sleep be an act of revenge, rather than an act of kindness? (And how do you get revenge on one person by doing something to another person, anyway?)

I categorised it as just one of those things that didn’t make any sense now, but might make sense later. Along with my mum’s fear that her kids might doze off in the car on long journeys. Why did she keep waking us up by clapping her hands? Why wouldn’t she just let us sleep when we were tired and sleepy and there was nothing else to do?

As a young adult, I began to think about it a bit more critically. I formulated the concept of a “politics of sleep” after being seated on a delayed plane next to a grandmother who was trying very hard to get a happy, alert toddler to sleep. She needed him to be asleep for some reason, even though he clearly didn’t need to be asleep. He was interested in his surroundings and his toys. It was the mirror image of the situation where my mum needed me and my siblings to be awake.

The grandmother kept saying “Freddie! Do you want your bot-bot?” to tempt him to drink from the pool of oblivion (well, a plastic bottle which clearly had some kind of sleepy-making substance in it). But he was having too much fun. I couldn’t understand why she was so determined to make him sleep.

Freddie and his bot-bot made it clear to me that when adults try to manage the sleep of the children in their lives, it’s not necessarily about the child’s happiness or welfare. I realised it was about control. But I didn’t understand why for a long, long time.

I didn’t understand, because I didn’t understand that I was work.

My mum was waking us up in the car because she knew that if we snatched some sleep there, we would be fresher in the evening and we would want to stay up later. Waking us up was a pro-sleep, not an anti-sleep action. Or rather, it was about controlling our sleep. Because when we were awake, we were work for her.

When you’re a kid, you don’t get that. And I think it’s kind of a shock when you realise that as a child, your existence constitutes work for someone else. I suppose it’s part of the general shock of realising the world doesn’t revolve around you. You realise that trip to the playground isn’t about you – it’s to give your parents a break from you. That organised activity you do, whether it’s violin lessons or Sunday school or Cubs or whatever – your parents look forward to it as a break. Giving you structured time is as much about giving your parents the luxury of unstructured time as it is about the actual activity you’re doing.

But of course, when you’re hanging out at home, playing with your toys, watching telly, whatever – you think you’re just being. You don’t know you’re being work for someone. I didn’t realise this until I was an adult myself. And I wonder if there are some people who don’t even realise it until they have their own children.

Readers of this blog will know that I’m interested in identifying under-recognised or invisible work. Well, the politics of sleep is at least partly about invisible work. We try to control the sleep of others when we perceive that those other people’s existence constitutes work for us.

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One Comment on “The politics of sleep”


  1. […] my post about the politics of sleep I wrote that it’s initially hard to understand why one person would try to control another […]


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