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My Husband and I Have a Great New Way to Bond

And it's all due to my postmenopausal insomnia.

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illustration of couple in bed eating food and bonding, insomnia
Gwendal Le Bec
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In the darkness, my eyes flip open. A sudden alertness in my brain informs me that, for its own inscrutable reasons, my body is done with sleep for now. Glancing at the clock, which registers a depressing 3:12 a.m., I notice that my husband’s side of the bed is empty. Time for another pre-dawn rendezvous.

I pad downstairs in my bathrobe, a pool of light from the living room illuminating my way. Sure enough, there’s my husband on the couch, his curly hair rumpled, reading glasses perched on his nose, a biography of Meriwether Lewis open on his lap. He looks up resignedly. “You, too?” I nod. “Me, too.” 

For years the medical issues in my marriage tended to stay separate. Pregnancy, childbirth and the odd inconclusive mammogram were my department. My husband dealt with back pain, tendonitis and a bike injury. But a funny thing happened as we hit our 50s: Our ailments began aligning. First I got reading glasses, then he did. We both began feeling creakier in the mornings. And then the insomnia started.

Between us, we’ve tried all the remedies: staying off screens before bedtime, avoiding red wine, a white noise machine. I recommend them all. But when they don’t work, like tonight, I recommend a different approach: staying up together. Being awake in the middle of the night is depressing, but it doesn’t have to be lonely. And with a little understanding, two grumpy people can even find something to smile about. Now, as I join my husband on the couch, I want to complain. I want to mutter darkly about my doctor, who tempered her sympathy by noting matter-of-factly that sleeplessness “just tends to occur” after menopause — for more than half of us.

The Study of Women’s Health Across the Nation shows “that the prevalence of sleep disturbance increases with increasing age. The prevalence in the premenopausal age group ranges from 16 percent to 42 percent; in perimenopausal women prevalence varies from 39 percent to 47 percent; in postmenopausal females, the prevalence ranges from 35 percent to 60 percent.”

The first rule of getting along at 3 a.m. is empathy. My husband has clearly been awake longer than I have, and during our 26 years together, I’ve learned that for him, talking about physical problems only exacerbates them. 

“How many hours did you get?” I ask. It’s the only question he is willing to answer about the state of his sleep.

“Four,” he says flatly. 

I take his hand. “Poor sweetie.”

“At least I’m not trying to sleep in the rain, like these guys,” he says, gesturing to his book. He gives my hand a squeeze. “And I’ve got a nice warm wife to snuggle up with.”

Snuggling is all we have the energy for right now, but when staying up together, who doesn’t appreciate being reminded that someone else considers them hot stuff?

I roll my eyes but smile back at him. Pulling a quilt over us, I am thankful that after a year cooped up in this small house, we still like each other. The house is quiet, the only sound a faint hum from the refrigerator.

“You know why you wake up so much?” my husband asks. I know exactly what he’s going to say, but if your guy is trying to cheer you up at three in the morning, you let him do his shtick.

“Tell me.”

“You don’t eat enough cereal.”

A bowl of cereal before bed is my husband’s cherished evening ritual. Toasty Multi-Grain Squares didn’t avert insomnia tonight, but I refrain from pointing this out. “You’re so right. Definitely trying that tomorrow.” I laugh as he elbows me in mock outrage.

Most nights, after warm milk with honey or reading until we feel sleepy, we go back upstairs together and manage to drift off again. But sometimes sleep eludes one of us. I tend to keep trying anyway; my husband prefers to accept his wakeful fate.

Now he sets his book down with a thud, saying “What kind of scones do you want, raspberry or blueberry?” Yes, he actually bakes scones. Or muffins. Baking is his insomniac activity. I’m baffled by my husband’s yen for insomniac productivity. I used to try convincing him to come back to bed, but we’ve learned the importance of respecting each other’s middle-of-the-night survival tactics. Besides, how can I complain when his coping strategy involves baking?

I lean into him and sigh. At some point I will attempt to sleep again. If I succeed, I will awaken to the smell of warm scones drifting up the stairs.

I’m not sleepy enough to go back to bed, though. Not yet. I pull the quilt more snugly around us, remembering my husband’s insistence on getting up at night to change diapers when our children were babies so I could snooze just a bit longer. Later, I wrangled two kids under 5 during his long hours of weekend fieldwork in graduate school. A united front and our deep affection have seen us through middle school drama, teenage shenanigans, the isolation and sorrow of the pandemic — and now, these wakeful nights.

Soon I will try to summon slumber one more time. For now, I wordlessly rest my head on my husband’s shoulder. As we sit in the pre-dawn quiet, I realize that by simply sharing our sleeplessness rather than retreating irritably to separate rooms, my husband and I have been unconsciously deepening our relationship, and all during a time we would least expect to.

Take that, insomnia.

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