Letting Go of Sleep Shame

A former Google event executive's candid account of how it changed her life.

Courtesy of Meranna/Shutterstock
Courtesy of Meranna/Shutterstock

As a wine enthusiast, my motto is “squeeze the juice out of every day.” This was intended to be a personal reminder to live life to the fullest, but most days it just means crossing as many things as possible off my ever-growing to-do list. While I try to optimize every minute of each day, I’ve come to learn that the active part of the day is no more than 16 hours. This is immutable — there’s no cutting corners when it comes to getting enough sleep. Every time I try, the bill eventually comes due in the form of injury, illness, or feeling like my brain is clocking at half speed. I believe so highly in the correlation between sleep and a healthy, successful life that I addressed it comprehensively in the opening chapter of my recently published book, The Art of Event Planning: Pro Tips From an Industry Insider. There’s no “efficient sleeping” model that I know of, so for seven to eight hours every day, I accept the fact that I will not be active, but I’ll be preparing myself up to be my most productive and creative version of myself the next morning. 

This did not happen overnight. It took years for me to realize the importance of sleep and how important it is to staying healthy and being a successful mother, wife, and professional. And while I now make sleep a priority, I still admit to feeling sleep-shamed by those who brag about functioning on little sleep as though it’s a badge of honor to be paraded around. I’d like to share my story with the hope that together, we can stop feeling guilty about getting the sleep our bodies need and encourage others to do the same.

I’ve built a career in event planning, which is inherently stressful and consistently ranks as one of the top five most stressful careers. Due to the highly public nature of events, and the ever-ticking countdown to an event date, there’s constant pressure to deliver on time, on schedule, on brand and on budget — then rinse, repeat, start again. Before joining the SoftBank Vision Fund as Global Head of Events, I spent nearly a decade running Google’s highest profile events. I was passionate about the work, but there was so much to do that I often worked into the night, then would wake before dawn to tackle the day yet again. I was averaging five hours of sleep a night, some nights just three hours. Meanwhile, I was juggling a heavy project load: authoring my wine and lifestyle blog, “Decantress,” volunteering time on the board of a nonprofit organization, and training for marathons. Eventually my body started showing physical signs that this lifestyle was unsustainable. I’ll never forget being onsite running a very high profile CEO event, just weeks before producing our company’s largest global conference for 19,000 employees. I awoke in the middle of the night to find my lips swollen shut and puffy red hives covering my body. I couldn’t hide the intense stress and pressure I was under, it was literally written on my face! There was no time to see a doctor so I took some Benadryl, put on a long-sleeved dress, and soldiered on producing a successful event. Though the event went well, I was haunted by the fear that my body was failing me and I couldn’t push these limits without consequence.

Shortly thereafter, my husband and I decided to start a family. After six months of trying to conceive without success, I finally sought the advice of my OB/GYN. After undergoing rounds of testing, poking, and prodding, his conclusion was that my body was extremely stressed and exhausted. My lifestyle was essentially triggering my flight-or-fight system, and in order to conceive I needed my body to feel calm and balanced. So I grudgingly agreed to add some weight to my small frame (treating myself to nightly gelato and pasta in Italy, this was easy!), cut back on marathon training, and began sleeping more. For once in my life, I simply couldn’t achieve something by pushing myself harder, working longer, and doing more. I had to signal to my body that I was not in a stressful environment and could store enough in reserves to support a growing child. However, despite my best efforts at reducing stress and getting more sleep, I could still not conceive and had to turn to IVF. I thought this would be a surefire solution, but after hundreds of shots, four failed cycles, two miscarriages, and money down the drain, I was nowhere closer to my goal. I had to make even more drastic changes in order to become a mother. And for me this meant taking a break from work, where I could never really let my guard down enough to rest and destress. I instinctively knew my new job needed to be focusing on healing my body with rest, practicing restorative yoga, acupuncture, a minimum of eight hours sleep, and then attempt to conceive one more time. 

I was fortunate to have stockpiled enough vacation time saved and a supportive leadership team at Google, and could take off a month — others I know aren’t this lucky and I feel grateful every day that I was able to make this work. In the end, this worked, my instincts were right, and by taking this time to let my body rest, I was able to get pregnant. Seeing my son’s little heart beat for the first time, I burst into tears, and vowed my child would always be my priority moving forward. Through my pregnancy, I made sure I got enough sleep, hitting the pillow each night around 9:30 p.m., since I knew how important it was for the health of my baby. It occurred to me how strange it was that the only time we are not made to feel guilty about getting enough sleep is when pregnant, and that is because we’re bearing another life, so it goes back to the woman as giver first and foremost. 

After giving birth to my son, I experienced the tortuous and unavoidable sleep deprivation experienced by all new moms who breastfeed. Since newborns need to eat frequently and throughout the night, and I provided my baby’s only food source, I was never able to sleep for more than two hours at a time. My early weeks of motherhood brought on the brutal effects of sleep deprivation and this was entirely out of my control. I was emotionally drained, constantly hungry, stressed, and the smallest problem could bring me to tears. In my journey towards giving my body the sleep it needs — this was my low point. This all changed when my son was three months old and we hired a wonderful sleep consultant and soon trained him to sleep through the night. Amazing! I could now sleep around seven hours a night and ever since then I’ve fiercely protected my sleep like it is sacred. I am that person who schedules dinners for 6 p.m. so I can be home and in bed before 10 p.m. I awake every day at 4:30 a.m., so it’s imperative I get to bed at a reasonable hour if I plan to get enough sleep.

So where am I today? Running a high-octane events team in an industry that has endless deadlines and inherent pressure to perform, I feel waves of guilt when I sign off work to go to sleep. I know quite well that the mind is not as sharp late into the night and each later hour of work has diminishing marginal returns. And that I’ll be up before dawn the next morning, refreshed and ready and a better manager, leader, and creative thinker after a night of restful sleep. However, I somehow feel some pangs of guilt and shame around getting this rest. I have a feeling I am not alone in feeling guilt for taking care of myself.

So how can we collectively change our mindset and mantra around protecting this basic human need? Sleeping is not only the smartest thing we can do to sharpen our minds and heal our bodies, but getting adequate sleep prevents accidents in the workplace, leads to increased productivity, less sick-leave, and higher work output. My wish and goal for myself and fellow high-performers is that we change the narrative and start promoting and encouraging sleep hygiene. My hope is that someday soon, “Insta-bragging” will include photos of pillows and eye masks next to the ubiquitous photos of green juices and fit bodies. It’s up to us to not only change our sleep behavior, but to be champions of it, proudly evangelizing the importance of taking care and resting our bodies. It’s my personal goal and challenge to us all to stop feeling guilty about sleeping and keep spreading the word so that our children will grow up with positive role models and a new mindset around sleep.

Gianna Cardinale Gaudini is an award winning Executive Event Producer and author of The Art of Event Planning with over 15 years experience in the marketing and hospitality industry. Gianna is currently the Global Director, Head of Events for the SoftBank Vision Fund, and previously ran events for Google’s Events and Experience team for 9+ years. Gianna earned her interior design certification from The Interior Design Institute and is also a certified Court Master Sommelier, authoring the popular wine lifestyle blog, Decantress Wine Diary. Gianna resides in San Francisco with her husband, Garrett, and son, Giacomo. When she isn’t producing events or writing, she enjoys exploring Napa wine country, cooking, entertaining, running, and unwinding with a yoga class or a good book. To reach Gianna, visit her website:

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