At some point I’ve realized many of the boundaries and routines I create for my children are habits intended for me, for my well-being as well. How often do I manage my children’s intake of nutrients and need for rest only to ignore the same needs for myself? Instead of napping, I drink a cup of coffee. Instead of winding down my day with a book, I catch up on email or social medias or return to an unfinished projects. I sometimes push myself through tired yawns to meet deadlines or sometimes catch myself mindlessly staring at my phone at night when what I really need is to go to bed. The simplest truth of our humanity is this: guidelines for living are easily advised and more difficultly practiced. We are all learners, and living mindfully in any regard requires patience with ourselves and others. Still it is worth the evaluation and–as we sometimes say in our home–the good, hard try.
After writing about the importance of morning rituals, it seemed natural to turn to the other part of the day, to consider the importance of evening rituals–the way I wind down and release my day’s efforts–and of course also the importance of a good night of sleep. Morning rituals seem more easily formed for me than evening ones. In the morning, the choice feels somehow simpler: when and how to begin? I’ve always been a good beginner of things, and perhaps beginning my day contains the same sort of optimism and possibility as beginning anything else. Evening routines, on the other hand, require a different sort of attentiveness and discipline. These practices acknowledge that rest is as valuable as work and play. They require me to prioritize rest, even as the factors change, such as nights out with friends or late family dinners or too many scheduled evening events. They require me to face the pieces of myself that have been expended, to acknowledge my limitations, and to put aside work, even when it is still unfinished. For those who live in the world of TO DOs, or for mothers and entrepreneurs and homeschoolers who always live somewhere in the middle of things, this last part can be the hardest.
It doesn’t require much to convince a sleep-deprived mother how it affects her brain, how much over-exhaustion impacts cogent thinking and moodiness. Early on, I felt both clear-mindedness, stable emotions, and quality sleep had been lost forever. I’m grateful in this stage of mothering to understand certain things do pass, even some that I wish wouldn’t. Still, as science would have it, sleep and clear thinking are in fact related–only the research isn’t just about or for mothers. Sleep matters for everyone. For those of you who are wondering why, here’s a clever infographic neatly gathering studies from the Center for Disease Control, the Journal of Neuroscience, the UC Berkley Walker Sleep Lab, and others. The original article was found here. While evening rituals will not guarantee we always sleep as we should, the regular attentiveness may help pave the way.
MY CURRENT PRACTICES
Honestly, the specifics of my evenings often change based on mood and circumstance, but I have noted my favorite evening rituals are the ones where I am in bed at 9pm-ish with an hour for meditation, reading, and/or time alone with my husband before we flip the lights out at 10:00-ish. These rituals (although they seem boring) are restorative and healing, a needed compliment to the busy day. Like many people we enjoy late summer dinners that push into late summer bedtimes or nights out with friends or movie nights or drinks too close to bedtime or evenings where we simply lose time altogether. We try to save those for the weekends, when the day routine is lighter and more flexible. Generally during the weekdays right now, we eat dinner early, send the kids to bathe/shower when the conversation and clean-up seem to dwindle, and settle into family read-aloud by 7:15ish. We read until 8:00/15, when the girls are tucked into bed, and the boys head to their beds to read independently until their bedtime at 8:30/9:00. After tucking the girls in, I try to immediately take my evening bath. Sometimes I may do a quick tidy around the house, although most nights I’m too tired. I’m still trying to break the habit of checking my phone during this period, as I tend to lose time quickly there, and I rarely feel rested afterward. I aim to be in bed at 9ish–I love to read during this period–and to turn the lights out at 10:00 or so to be ready to wake at 5:00. But like I said, I’m still practicing and learning how to be mindful in this way.
IDEAS TO ESTABLISH EVENING RITUALS FOR YOURSELF
create a steady bedtime / Set a regular bedtime for yourself during the weekdays, ideally by 10-11pm pm if you wake early. According the National Sleep Foundation, most adults should aim for seven to nine hours each night, and note not all sleep is the same. For those of you with young babes and wakeful nights, do your best to nap during the day, even for 10-15 minutes. Also be encouraged, it will pass. You’ll sleep again. See suggestions for all ages here.
set reminders to establish a new routine / If you’re trying a new routine, use your phone to set little alarms or reminders for yourself to create the habit. My husband has an alarm set for 9pm every week night to remind him (and me) to go to bed. Time tends to slip away from me easily in the evenings, so it’s nice to have a gentle bell that signals me to transition for bed.
take a warm bath / There’s a bit of controversy as to whether bathing before bed actually affects the quality of your sleep, but according to this study it may help you fall asleep faster. Make sure you bathe 1-2 hours before bed though, as most all research agrees you need a cooler body temperature to sleep. Add bath salts with lavender or chamomile or cedar-wood essential oils for gentle soaking aromatherapy.
avoid screen time (especially on your phone) / This will be a topic of its own soon, but it needs mentioning here, as my phone or computer can be a detractor from rest in the evening. Here is the best lesson: create boundaries for your screens. Instead of catching up on work or social medias (guilty!) in the evening, choose soothing rhythms to help you wind down. Spending the last minutes of your day working on your phone will actually hinder the quality of your work the following day. Plus, the blue light from screens at night hinders melatonin release in your body (which helps induce sleepiness)–even backlit e-readers negatively impact your sleep at night. The easiest way to begin this practice is to plug your phone/computer in (away from your bed) an hour or so before you go to bed. There are of course no final boundaries here; we are adults. For me, this issue is more about awareness of emotion and time, and sometimes hard boundaries are necessary for a time to keep things in check. If you’re wondering whether the phone, computer, or television affect your sleep or sense of general rest, try turning it off at night for a few days or a weeks, and see how you feel.
make a list for the next day / If you tend to worry about unfinished work or looming deadlines, make a list for yourself and wake early. This is an especially good idea for those who tend to feel anxious when the lights go out.
reflect, meditate, pray, journal / The evening is a perfect time to repair and recover from the day’s demands, to let go of your best efforts. Use this winding-down period to reflect. Ask yourself how you are feeling emotionally, mentally, spiritually, physically. Write it down if that is a peaceful activity for you. Talk about it if you need to. Take a few moments to close your eyes and release disappointments or frustrations or TO DOs. Meditate or spend time in prayer. These activities needn’t be heavy or long to be important.
drink hot tea / Trade in late-night glasses of wine for hot herbal tea or water instead. While alcohol can make you feel sleepy faster, it actually decreases your REM sleep and can decrease the amount of sleep overall. Enjoy your glass of wine with dinner or on the weekends instead. Wink.
read a light book / Choose evening reading that is lighter and enjoyable: literary fiction, memoirs, poetry, the Psalms can be examples. Look for books with cadence and beauty, books that feel like lullabies for adults. Save the self-help, design, DIY, and recipe books for the daytime, when you’re more prepared to rise to action.