It was 1996. We still made mix-tapes for lovers and friends, wore floral dresses and baggy second-hand corduroys, clomped into cafes in our Blundstone boots and wept in the cinema over The English Patient. Within two weeks of meeting the man who would become my husband, I welcomed him into my home and my messy, unmade bed. And I'm not talking about the passionate, all-encompassing sex of those first days, weeks and months together. I'm talking the hard yards. Sleeping together. Staying over. All night.
The first night he snored. I turned over and tried to ignore it. I was in the first flush of new love -- I would have forgiven anything. The second night he spent with me, I nudged him gently and whispered. The third night, I pinched the bridge of his nose -- not as hard as I would have liked to -- and he woke in a panic, spluttering. I pretended I was fast asleep.
We tried everything after that: buckwheat pillows, essential oils, rain recordings, elevating the head of the bed, buying dust-mite mattress protectors, cutting out dairy, alcohol, caffeine and grains. He subjected himself to a sleep clinic at the hospital, wired up to monitors, and even bought a CPAP machine that made him sound like a cross between Darth Vader and a vacuum cleaner. The snoring was preferable.
Since then, we've discovered that he has inherited a genetic narrowing of the throat. The more exhausted he is, the more he snores. Thus, we are blissfully happy sleeping deeply together on trips and holidays, when we're both rested and free from alarms and schedules. But in the daily grind of work, school runs and hurried evening meals, sleeping together -- and actually getting some sleep -- is a triumph of negotiation and goodwill.
I've thought a lot about sleep in my time. How much I love it, why I always want more, the way naps during the day can be more delicious than meltingly-dark organic chocolate. I know that going to bed and waking up at the same time each day (including weekends) can improve sleep quality, duration and even impact depression and weight loss. The latest research shows a stronger link between lack of sleep and obesity than any dietary factor.
My night-time fantasies are not your run-of-the-mill. I ruminate on how nice it would be to go to bed with the sunset, without electric lights or screens, and wake in the pre-dawn each morning, ready to greet the new day. To sleep longer in winter, and be livelier in the summer months, in rhythm with the seasonal dance of light and dark.
So what next? It's difficult to give up the dream of the marital bed. In our culture, the symbolism of the parental retreat, of sacred privacy away from children and domestic routines, is as monolithic as our myth of romantic love that lasts a lifetime. In our house we now have many beds, some king-sized, others single, and we swap and change according to weather, mood, snoring level and tolerance.
The phenomenon of couples sleeping alone, away from children, family members and animals, is relatively recent. In pre-Victorian times, especially among rural dwellers, the whole family slept side by side, for safety and to conserve heat. My own mother, growing up in a 1940s Greek village, slept with her parents, siblings and grandparents on mats near the fire, in a loft-like room above the stable where the goats and sheep were housed for the night. Imagine the snoring!
Biphasic sleep in winter was also common before the 1800s, when the time after the 'first sleep' and before the 'second sleep' was typically used for prayer, religious study or contemplation by the upper classes, and for sex, drinking and talk by the lower echelons. There's something compelling about an in-between time where dreams, thoughts and conversation would flow into each other in the candlelight.
I must admit, I miss the nightly routine my husband and I have perfected over the years. I miss the male largeness of his body next to mine, the big hands, the scent of just-shampooed hair. That precious time in the dark, between the day's events and the emptiness of the night, when ideas and emotions we often dismiss are opened up, explored. I miss pressing the sole of my foot against his bony shin, splaying open my toes, as I drift further into sleep. Or the way he can tell me all the details of my dreams, gleaned from my sleep-talking, when we wake together to see the eastern light dusting our bedroom curtains with its shimmer.
But now I just wake a little earlier and visit him in the mornings. And in some ways, that can be even better.
This post first appeared on January 29, 2016.