Before I had kids, I thought I knew what tired was. I’d pulled all-nighters in college. I’d experienced night wakings from sirens and thunder and the neighbor’s cat in heat. I’d battled bouts of insomnia that left me feeling foggy for days.
But I didn’t truly understand the full range of human exhaustion until I had kids. I didn’t know that a person could literally feel like a Walking Dead character as they struggled to remember the basic steps of teeth brushing. I didn’t know that one could begin to consider a coffee pot an actual life-saving device.
There’s a reason sleep deprivation is considered a form of torture. Did the Geneva Convention take parents into account when they ruled it a crime against humanity? Does Gitmo know about newborn babies? At one point in my sleep-deprived stupor I swore my 6-week-old sat up in her crib and yelled right in my face, “YOU CAN’T HANDLE THE TRUTH!!” It’s a thing.
I try to prepare new moms for the seemingly endless sleep deprivation that’s about to hit them, but there’s no way to adequately prepare for it. It’s not like something you can train for. I remember thinking when my firstborn was two months old, “It’s not possible for a human being to survive on this little sleep.” The struggle is so very real.
I’m convinced that this is why babies are so adorable. If they weren’t so precious you think you might explode, you’d surely set them out by the curb, walk back into your house, and take a 10-hour, uninterrupted nap. Love and biology and cuteness are the only things that save the human species.
Oh yes, and the life-giving coffee. So. Much. Blessed. Coffee.
The real kicker, though, is that the sleep deprivation doesn’t end after the newborn period. With each of my kids, I was dismayed to discover that “sleeping through the night” is not a permanent condition. My babies all slept through the night at around three months — HALLELUJAH. But then the teething phase hit. Then the “I want to practice walking at 3:00am” phase hit. Then the toddler night terror phase. Then the potty training phase, the “I just saw a scary movie trailer and now I’m never going to sleep again” phase, and the “Let’s have a heart-to-heart talk about God and death and all things existential right at bedtime” phase.
It’s impressive how many ways kids can interrupt your sleep. And they don’t even have to physically be present to do it. Do you think I slept well once my babies did? Hell no. I was too freaked out thinking that the sudden peace and quiet meant they’d stopped breathing. Then, during the toddler years, I’d stay up until the wee hours trying to squeeze in some of that elusive “me time” after the kids had gone to bed.
And I haven’t even touched on the “worry wakings” — you know, the cold sweat bouts of anxiety that strike at 2:00 in the morning, where you become convinced that your kid is going to be either a basket case or a sociopath and OMG it’s all your fault, you miserable failure of a mother.
That’s just the sleep factor. There’s more.
You expect to be physically tired when you have kids, especially in the early years when they require a lot of your body. But I did not anticipate the toll that the emotional and psychological aspects of parenting would take.
Do you know how many questions a 4-year-old girl asks in one day? 390. No, really, they did a study. And that’s on average. So if you have a particularly chatty child, you get questions hurled at you constantly—half of which are unanswerable because the questions themselves don’t make sense. And by the time you’ve actually thought about one question and formulated a response, your darling loinfruit is ready with another one. It’s non-stop.
Add a couple more kiddos, and sheer number of questions moms have to field in a given day is mindblowing. We happily answer them, of course, because we want to raise curious, informed humans. But it’s a lot of mental work to explain things on a child’s level. (On a slight side note, kindergarten teachers deserve to be paid six figures. Not even joking.)
And once again, kids don’t even have to be physically present to mentally and emotionally drain you. It’s not as if, when we’re not with them, we just forget all about our kids’ health and well-being. No, we fret about all the things — their school performances, their anxiety disorders, their attention deficits, and their little peers who always seem to know just how to break their hearts. We worry that they might choke to death or get hit by a car or get kidnapped or worse. We can’t just turn off the constant, relentless hum of concern for our kids — it plays in the background at all times. In fact, in a cruel bit of irony, those quiet moments of solitude are often when we hear our own worries the loudest.
Oh sure, we can try to quiet or ignore them, but not without another emotion taking their place — guilt. After all, what kind of mother shoves her thoughts and concerns for her children aside? The real answer is “Why, all good mothers, of course!” But that’s hard to see when you’re in the thick of it. Guilt wags its bony, judgmental finger right in your face whenever you dare ask for a few hours uninterrupted by thoughts of your children.
Guilt wears you out. So does worry.
And interestingly enough, so does love.
Yes, even the overwhelming love we have for our children — the gushing, head-over-heels emotion that sustains us and makes parenting worth all the effort — can make us tired. Have you ever had an adrenaline rush and then felt completely wiped out afterward? A mother’s love can be like that. Sometimes I can get so swept away by the beauty and wonder of my children that I feel like my heart might beat right out of my chest. I ache with love for them. It consumes me entirely.
But processing that love is still emotional work. It’s life-giving, but it also takes energy. And when you combine that all-consuming motherly love with everything else described here, it’s no wonder motherhood is so freaking exhausting.
Seriously, however tired people think moms are, they’re probably underestimating. We may pump ourselves full of caffeine, dab on some concealer, put on a perky face, and for the most part no one’s the wiser. But below the surface is a well-earned physical, mental, and emotional fatigue that only fellow mothers can understand.
It’s there. You get used to it. And in fact, with enough time you learn to appreciate how bone-tired and soul-tired having kids can make you. Because at the end of the day, no matter how exhausting motherhood can be, you wouldn’t trade it for the world.