Sometimes after midnight, as I start for bed, I look out my bedroom window and feel a pang of loneliness. I live in a retirement community, and in the many windows of the apartment building across the way, only a few lights are still on.
Older people are famous for collapsing into bed early in the evening and getting up early in the morning. Somehow, I missed the memo, and I’m still an unreconstructed night owl.
All human beings fall somewhere on the spectrum from night owl to morning lark. Owls, like me, stay up late and sleep late in the morning whenever possible. Larks go to sleep and wake up much earlier. Our genes largely determine which we are—it’s not a choice we make—and sleep scientists note that most people are somewhere near the middle of the spectrum, with outliers at the extremes.
However, there are changes over a lifetime. As most parents know, children tend to be irrepressible larks, but soon enough they turn into teenage owls, extremely reluctant to get up in the morning, and they often stay that way through their early 20s. After that, most people gradually become larks again, growing even more larkish once they’re in their 60s.
As owls go, I was pretty extreme when I was in my 20s. I stayed up until about 3:00 in the morning on weeknights and got up the next day at 7:00. On weekends, I slept until early afternoon—and then wondered why I had insomnia almost every Sunday night. I learned years later that by waking and sleeping at irregular hours, I had confused many of my body’s internal rhythms. It didn’t know what it was supposed to do when. Should it trigger the release of melatonin—the hormone that makes us drowsy—in the middle of the evening or the middle of the night? And when should it switch off the melatonin and hit me with hormones that would help me wake up?
The arrival of children in my 30s did for me what holding a job had not: it forced me to live more like a lark. I didn’t have any choice since my kids woke with the sun when they were small. Even after they turned into teenage owls, I had to get up early to send them off to school. And thanks to my lark of a husband, I seldom slept late on weekends.
According to research, owls constitute 20 to 30 percent of the population. Compared to larks, we’re more prone to serious illnesses such as depression, diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease, and we don’t live as long. (I’m 87—too late to worry about that.) Some experts believe owls have more health problems because we’re forced to adjust to a world that suits larks but is out of sync with our own inner rhythms.
Owls also face a stigma. Can’t get up in the morning? We must be lazy. In the workplace, nobody understands when we don’t function well early in the day. We’re chronically short on sleep because we’re forced to wake up when larks do and then can’t get to sleep at night as early as larks because our bodies aren’t ready for sleep.
When owls and larks marry, there are apt to be problems. My husband and I seldom had breakfast together because he got up cheerful and full of energy, which irritated me, and I was sluggish, which disappointed him.
You’d think retiring would solve many of the problems owls have, and it can. But sleep problems are common in later life for both larks and owls. I know larks who struggle to keep their eyes open past 9:00 at night and then wake up in the wee hours, unable to get back to sleep. They’re not happy. Nor are owls like me when we don’t get enough sleep because we’re forced to get up at a larkish hour by a medical appointment or social engagement.
Insomnia is also common in later life, and I struggled with it after my husband died in 2008. It took me a while to recognize the problem. Whenever I couldn’t sleep at night, I tried to make up for it by sleeping late the following morning. As I had in my 20s, I was confusing my body by keeping irregular hours.
I wasn’t sure what to do. If owls aren’t as healthy as larks because we spend our lives conforming to a wake/sleep cycle better suited to larks, would it make matters worse if I tried to live like a lark—like my neighbors? In the end, I compromised. These days, I sleep until about 9:00 in the morning and fall into bed at about 1:00 a.m. I still have occasional nights when I can’t sleep, but otherwise this is working.
I also try to schedule medical appointments and everything else for the afternoon. When I had to have my pacemaker battery replaced in 2020, I convinced the surgeon not to operate first thing in the morning, when my body was at a low ebb.
There is a downside. In my retirement community, a lot goes on in the mornings that I miss. Also, as an owl, I’m sometimes the brunt of jokes. But friends appreciate the fact that I’m awake and available at midnight—the best time to go online and get a dinner reservation at everyone’s favorite restaurant.
Overall, I’m happy that I’ve finally escaped most of the demands of a world designed for larks—even though I’m somewhat out of sync with most of the people I know.
Flora Davis has written scores of magazine articles and is the author of five nonfiction books, including the award-winning Moving the Mountain: The Women’s Movement in America Since 1960 (1991, 1999). She currently lives in a retirement community and continues to work as a writer.