Beyond exhaustion, there is parenthood.
Time and time again, I hear from parents, other writers, friends, and my own heart about the depths of exhaustion that we feel as parents. Mothers-to-be talk about their well-intentioned plans for working right after giving birth, only to utter, “What was I thinking?” as they change timelines and work schedules. Couples who previously enjoyed a rich and connected social life now trade in concert tickets and reservations at fancy restaurants for a few hours of sleep. Peaceful and rejuvenating sleep becomes a foreign concept, a distant memory as blurry and vague as a fading dream.
Exhaustion becomes a constant companion to our emotional state. It easily becomes the backdrop to our days and nights, as consistent and predictable as the tides. It becomes a state of being that defines us, bonds us to other parents, challenges our resolve and pushes us to the limits of what we thought we were capable of.
And somehow, even in the midst of blurry-eyed, body-aching, mind-numbing exhaustion, we pull through. Because we are parents. Because there is no other option. Because it is just what we do. And because that feeling we get when our child giggles softly, or hugs us tightly, or takes her first step, or tells a silly joke, or just exists in the world for that matter fills us with an emotion that is even bigger than exhaustion. That emotion doesn’t really have a name. That emotion is Love. Pride. Joy. Fear. Awe. Wonder. Glee. Vulnerability. Anxiety. Agony. Delight. All mixed into one. The Feeling of Parenthood.
That emotion feeds us, fills up our empty tanks and rejuvenates our weary souls so that sleep almost becomes optional. Something we can get back to later, tomorrow, next week, next year. But even as so many of us thrive on the wonders of parenthood, it is important to be aware of how exhaustion can impact our relationships with others, including our children. It isn’t just the lack of sleep that can deplete our bodies, hearts and souls. Even parents with “good sleepers” complain of feeling exhausted. So much is happening that can deplete us:
- We suffer from poor sleep quality. Even if we get enough hours of sleep, the sleep we do get may be less solid. How many of us sleep with one ear open, listening for any small sound? Sometimes I am amazed (and dismayed) by how easily I wake up every time a child in my home talks in his sleep, rolls over or shuffles around in the night!
- Children don’t have a pause button. Parenting is a never-ending marathon. Often, when we are engaging in a strenuous or exhausting task, we find motivation in the fact that it will soon come to an end. Not so with parenting. There is no end in sight. Our children’s need for us is never ending, our to-do list is ever growing, and the demands on our heart and soul are infinitely present. Until one has children, there is no way to understand or prepare for the feeling of constantly being needed. For most of us, it can be draining and for some of us it can be downright overwhelming. Adjusting to this is not always blissful.
- When we have children, we routinely give up the other things that rejuvenate us. Time with friends, meditation, exercise, massages, books (other than children’s books). We all have things that fulfill us and bring a sense of peace or joy to our lives. When kids enter the picture, these things take a back seat. We don’t have the time, money, space, energy, or motivation to incorporate them into our lives anymore.
- As we support our children through their own emotional processes, parenting brings up a never-ending flood of our own emotions, triggers, memories and issues. Our own stuff. This emotional roller coaster can be exhausting in and of itself.
- While our kids may take precedence on our priority list, our other responsibilities don’t have pause buttons, either. Our partners need our attention. Our bills need to be paid. Our refrigerators need to be filled. Our laundry baskets need to be tended to. Needs. Needs. Needs. Our world is full of them. Everything wants a piece of us. All while our kids say, “Be here with me now.”
For most of us, it isn’t just the lack of sleep. Rather, it is a combination of all of these things that weigh on our hearts and bodies and minds and leave us dragging or snapping or reacting from a place of exhaustion rather than a place of present and peaceful parenting. If we become aware of the impact of these aspects of parenting on our emotional selves, maybe we can give ourselves a little space and support to do what we need to do to restore a bit of balance. We aren’t likely to achieve complete balance, not for a few years at least. But maybe we can tip the scales back just enough so that the Feeling of Parenthood can be enough fuel for a while. How? Here are a few tips to try.
- Become aware of your own issues. Being in tune with our own heart is crucial for avoiding “reactive” parenting and making space for peaceful and supportive interactions with our children.
- Find one thing that is uniquely yours and brings you peace and joy. Reading, running, writing, it doesn’t matter what it is. Now find a way to make it happen on a regular basis. It may be for five minutes a day or once a month. Own it. Honor it. Enjoy it.
- Focus on working toward being truly present with your children. Recognizing that our minds are usually pulled in a million directions at once and practicing being present in the moment can have an immediate and lasting impact on our state of mind.
- Connect with your partner. Make space and time for your relationship. It’s difficult, but necessary.
- Decrease screen time. Realize how much impact the television, internet, phone, etc. has on your life. These thing take us away from the moment, create background noise and clutter in our world, and may be depleting us in ways we don’t even realize.
- Connect with that Feeling of Parenthood. Let it fill you. Breathe it in. Revel in it. It is, after all, the source of the fire that fuels the flame. It is what lies beyond exhaustion.