Season 2, Episode 2 of Modern Love “The Night Girl Finds a Day Boy” features the story of Zoe, a night owl, and Jordan, a normal 9-to-5 guy (schoolteacher) falling in love, facing the challenges of their different schedules. The episode is based on a New York Times essay written by Amanda Gefter. The author, who suffers from a delayed sleep phase syndrome (circadian rhythm disorder), tells the story of dating her now-husband.
I can relate to this story at many levels. Zoe goes to sleep at 9 am and wakes up around 5 pm. By comparison, my condition is less extreme. I go to bed between 3 and 4 am and wake up between 11 and noon. Zoe is a textbook editor in the series, Amanda Gefter is a writer, and I’m a university professor. Freedom to manage my time has been always on the top of my priority list. On many occasions, I was forced to bend my circadian rhythm by an early class, a meeting, conference, flight, appointment. This happened more when I was younger and had less control over my time. Exactly the way it is depicted in the episode, I often feel that many people, including those who genuinely love me and care about me, think that if I really wanted to, I could change. Like it’s not really a condition, but a lifestyle choice. People would ask me, as Jordan asked Zoe: “And what if you forced yourself to wake up earlier?” And like Zoe, I would lash out with “Do you really think I haven’t tried that??” And people would ask Jordan’s question: “And how did you feel?” And I would respond precisely as Zoe did: “I felt jetlagged.” Meaning it’s not that I’m just tired (crave sleep), but my entire body goes into stress mode. My stomach is cranky, my mind can’t focus, my mood is off.
Amanda, Zoe, and I found our compromise with a particular choice of occupation and extremely supportive husbands. We adapt. I teach my courses and hold meetings in the afternoon, and I can write at times that are convenient for me. I can’t take an 8am flight so I often fly in the day before (footing the bill for an extra night at the hotel). I don’t meet people for breakfasts or brunches, but I can do a (really) late lunch, 4 pm coffee, or dinner. I held an administrative position in my department for seven years and felt mortified every time a meeting or an event was scheduled for early hours and I had to ask a colleague to fill in for me. In the early years of my career, I was much quieter about it and tried to fit in: attempting a 10 am meeting, often being late. I bet there were people in the room that were annoyed with my lack of “work ethic”. Being late has been forever associated with not caring enough, being lazy or unreliable. People who know me (in my personal or professional life) know that I’m none of those things. If I’m late for a meeting at a not-so-normal-for-me-hour, it is because I continue negotiating with my body (forgoing any further details here).
I can hardly overstate my support for “Start School Later,” a movement that calls for US school districts to consider later starting times, particularly for high schoolers. Teenagers who naturally gravitate to later hours are forced to be extremely early risers due the constraints of the school bus system. Often, they must take a bus around 7 am to make it to school at 8. Similar to Amanda Gefter, who shared that her paternal grandmother used to prepare the kids for school and then go to sleep, I can see the genetic component. Both my dad and my son can make it in early hours if necessary, but left to their own devices, would return to being night owls. I’m not asking for the entire world to accommodate people like me. Just forgoing judgment would be a nice first step. It is my hope that in a world that is becoming increasingly inclusive and tolerant (despite often appearing to the contrary), there is room for peaceful coexistence for all of us.