A Personal History of Naps
Whitney Ellison, Writer, Attorney, & Mother
Perhaps the only season of my life where I resisted naps was when I was around four. I wanted to be awake - absorbing the world around me like a sponge! But my poor mom needed nap time (for her) like she needed oxygen. And so, she’d pile a bunch of books on my bed, place me in the middle, and tell me that if I didn’t want to sleep, I could “read quietly.” I was an early reader, and so I read quietly, but soon got through the books, and resumed playing in my room, with the door closed.
Other than that tiny glimmer of my life, I do not remember a moment where I wasn’t game for a nap. During the early 90s, as I broached puberty, I lived in Japan. We rarely drove anywhere, always opting for the fabulous public transportation the Japanese so deeply pride. There is something magical about a train; the way it rocks and the steady beat of the tracks under the metal wheels. Clack-clack, clack-clack, clack-clack. I remember distinctly sitting on the train bench and nodding off to that rhythm and to the muffled screech of the brakes as the trains gently pulled into the platforms. I wasn’t the only one. Napping on trains is fairly common in Japan. Japan is a culture of extremely hard workers. A train ride is a chance for them to unabashedly pause.
I also remember melting into slumber on planes, while waiting for takeoff. Living internationally, we flew a lot in those days. The weird compressed air of the cabin, as it circulated out of those little round vents above our seats, rustling my hair and drying out my face; the way the wheels moved every so often, positioning and repositioning on the runway. The steady hum of the engines. I would promptly pass out and sleep through the entire takeoff, flight attendant spiel and all. It was like I had been drugged.
After moving back to the States, I lived with my grandparents in Oklahoma, finishing high school, while my parents continued a pace of moving every 2-3 years - a pace I could no longer mentally handle. My grandfather, Guy, had a big, cozy leather chair in the den. He would smoke a cigar there every night and watch TV. I remember big fat stogies, a Montecristo, or a Corona. This was his form of rest and decompression. The house smelled of them, in a good way. After school or work (fun fact - I dj’d at a local country music radio station after school and on the weekends), I would crawl into Guy’s empty chair, turn on the television to Saved By the Bell reruns, snuggle in a blanket, and watch until I fell asleep. My Grammie would wake me up for dinner.
In college, I loved the sleeping porch of our sorority house for naps - it was cold, silent and dark. Upon graduating and living at home for a bit to find my footing, I remember spending summer days, after early mornings working at the now defunct Uptown Cafe in Oxford, Ohio, floating on a pool float in my parents’ pool, pretending I was like Dustin Hoffman from “The Graduate,” and then moseying to the side of the pool, carefully stepping out without getting wet, going straight up to my bedroom in my swimsuit and crawling into bed, my hot, sun-kissed skin contacting the cool, air conditioned sheets, for a nice afternoon snooze.
I would nap between classes in law school, and on weekends, amidst studying, exercising, partying (we had a very, very fun class), working, clinics, fellowships, and extra curriculars. The summer after law school, studying for the bar, naps were crucial in the afternoon to refresh my brain for more intake in the evening.
When I started working full time, naps became much more weekend-focused, although there were days where I would catch some zzz’s in my car or drive home for lunch and lie down instead, opting for sleep instead of food. Snacks at my desk helped. 2pm was always a battle. I would go for a walk to get coffee and try to pep myself up to push through until evening.
And then, of course, when I started having babies, nobody had to tell me twice to nap when the baby napped. The house could wait. Everything could wait. None of my children were great sleepers at first. And two of the three didn’t start sleeping through the night until after 2 years of age. Two years of sleep deprivation is a special form of hell. Especially when breast feeding, working a full time job and managing a household and family.
I remember during my third pregnancy, around 7 months along, I came home at lunch to lie down for the hour. I crawled on the couch, positively exhausted, and my two Boston Terriers jumped into my lap, one spooning himself with my bump, the other curled up in a warm ball in the crook of my bent knees, both softly snoring. I sighed sadly, wishing I could stay just like that all day. I was so very tired. An hour later, I was back at my desk working, reminiscing on the dreamland and warm pups I had just left.
Napping has always been an integral part of my life, and so often I hear people who claim they’re “not a napper,” or they might declare they’ve taken a nap and insinuate it was a guilty pleasure, or they were being lazy, or associate shame and guilt for needing sleep in the middle of the day. I come from a long line of nappers, and I can assure you we are/were all hard workers. My ancestors on my mom’s side were Chickasaw citizens who came to Indian Territory (now Oklahoma) on the Trail of Tears. They weren’t allowed to rest during the forced migration, and were constantly subjected to violence. So when they were allocated land that happened to have oil, and truly built a life for themselves, they made space for rest. I like to imagine they dreamt that the generations after them, including me, carried on the legacy of rest and appreciation for sleep - a world where it was not just an option, but a human right. It wasn’t just my mom’s side either. My grandmother on my Dad’s side supported six children on a department store clerk income in Appalachia, with very little financial (or otherwise) support from my alcoholic Grandfather. Though he recovered in his later years, he was of no help during a crucial period of time when children needed to be fed and cared for. She found cracks in the day to sit down and rest and it helped her (and all of them) survive.
Our bodies are meant to pause, and denying them the right to do so is not productive, it’s harmful. I understand that my napping journey may sound privileged to the reader, and certainly, I have had privileged opportunities. However, rest is not one of them. Tricia Hersey, the brilliant author of “Rest Is Resistance: A Manifesto,” more frequently recognized as the Nap Bishop of the Nap Ministry, argues that rest is not and cannot be a privilege. It is a fundamental right. In her book, she states, “Capitalism has cornered us in such a way that we can only comprehend two options. 1: Work at a machine level, from a disconnected and exhausted place, or 2: Make space for rest and space to connect with our higher selves while fearing how we will eat and live.” (p. 15)
She argues that systemic capitalism forces upon us the narrative that rest has to be earned and that naps are a privilege, because when we imagine rest from this scarcity and shameful mindset, we keep working and producing. Hersey claims that understanding rest is a spiritual practice, and an undoing of trauma, is a threat to capitalism because we are deprogramming our brains from the lies that we’ve been fed that we are not worthy enough to rest, just as we are. She states, “Rest is not a privilege because our bodies are still our own, no matter what the current systems teach us. The more we think of rest as luxury, the more we buy into the systemic lies of grind culture.” (p. 28) “When I say sleep helps you wake up — it helps you wake up to the truth of who and what you are.”(p. 29) Most importantly though, she argues that rest is not a tool to be used so that we can be more productive. In other words, don’t rest for the sole purpose or intention of doing or producing more. Rest is a tool we use so that we can experience life - our birthright. “You were born to heal, to grow, to be of service to yourself and your community, to practice, to experiment, to create, to have space, to dream and to connect.” (p. 122)
I was a witness to the permission to rest the generations before me left behind: My Native ancestors exhaling after forced migration; Guy snoozing in his chair; my grandma putting her weary feet up in her bed and covering up with her quilt for a snooze after her department store shift prior to her late-age retirement in her early 70s; my mom sleeping when she put my sisters and me down for naps. There are ways to find time and place - cracks in the day to make space to let your body do what it’s begging to do - care for you. Napping is our right. Rest is our right. As a human being on this planet. Rest IS resistance. Rest is love. Rest is radical, this day and age, but it doesn’t need or have to be. We were not designed for rest to be revolutionary, but the systems we designed in our modern culture make it so.
I will unapologetically find a time and place to nap. I hope you, dear reader, will reflect on your life and the legacy your generations before you left behind. Did they leave you permission to rest, or is it up to you to break the generational cycle of scarcity and allow yourself to be human and rest, paving a path for your loved ones to come?
If you’d like further information on the Nap Ministry Movement, you can follow The Nap Ministry on Instagram, and support Tricia Hersey’s work by purchasing her book Rest is Resistance: A Manifesto, at your local bookstore, or on all larger book sales platforms.
Whitney Ellison is a probate lawyer at Keller, Barrett and Higgins, an all-women law practice in Madeira, specializing in estate planning, probate, and family law. More than that though, she is a creator, writer and poet. She is also a mom of 3 and wife of 1. You can discover more of her work on Instagram at @whitney_ellison_.