“Mommy, you seem a little cranky. Did you not sleep well last night?”
My 10-year-old said this to me just this morning. As much as I wanted to send her directly to her room so I could zombie-stare into my lukewarm coffee in peace, I didn’t.
Because she was right.
I was cranky because I didn’t get much sleep last night.
Through years of trial and mostly error, I’ve learned that I cannot function or parent without sleep. Even just one night awake with a barfing cat, a crying child, or my own unruly mind dramatically increases the likelihood that I will drop, break, forget, or lose something — most notably my temper.
When I’m tired, I lose my shit with my kids. A lot.
I’ve read all the advice about how to get more sleep, and I follow it as often as I can. But no matter how careful I am about my exercise, caffeine intake, or sleep schedule, I still have rough nights. They don’t come on as frequently or consistently as they did when my daughters were infants (thank goodness!), but they still happen. Of course they do.
Before I had children, I slept well more often than not. On the rare occasion that my sleep was disrupted, I’d white-knuckle my way through my day, holding it together at work before dissolving onto the couch the minute I got home.
But then I gave birth to two daughters in less than two years, and everything changed. Even after the girls started (mostly) sleeping through the night, they were still up at least once a week, which was far more often than I could handle. For years, I tried to tell myself that this was just what it means to be a mother, and that with enough coffee and sugar, I could handle it.
Um, yeah. Not so much. My endless exhaustion made me anxious, impatient, reactive, and irritable. That was not how I wanted to parent, so I worked hard to make sleep a priority again. In addition, I figured out a few strategies that make the rough days a whole lot easier:
1. I track my sleep every night.
There are several ways to do this. I wear an activity tracker on my wrist (bonus: it motivates me to exercise!). Although most devices on the market aren’t super accurate, they’re good enough for me. Over time, I’ve learned my own patterns and how much sleep I need to function and parent well. I also know when I’m likely to be a mess.
When that happens, I lower my expectations for the day. Way low. Even lower. I cancel unnecessary meetings or phone calls, put off for tomorrow what I might have otherwise done today, let the girls have a little extra screen time, and pull a pizza out of the freezer for dinner.
2. I slow down as much as I can, and try to stay focused on just one thing at a time.
Multitasking rarely works as well as we’d like to think it does, and trying to multitask on a tired brain is a recipe for disaster. So, when I’m stirring the mac and cheese, I’m just stirring the mac and cheese. Squabbles and spelling words have to wait, unless the girls want to eat their noodles off the floor — which is where they’re likely to end up if I’m not paying careful attention to what I’m doing.
3. I’m honest about what’s going on.
I tell the girls why I’m so irritable, and we talk about how important sleep is and what happens when we don’t get enough of it. This strategy does lead to a few annoying (if accurate) comments from my tweenager, but it also turns a less-than-ideal parenting moment into a teachable one.
4. I remind myself that as long as I’m sleep-deprived, I’m not functioning at full capacity.
I feel like my head isn’t on straight, and I’m at high risk for losing it with my kids, and I try to cut myself a whole lotta slack. Rather than berating myself for not being on top of my game, I remind myself that parenting is hard for everyone, it’s even harder when I’m tired, and that this, too, shall pass.
As much as I may want to throw back an extra cup of coffee (or four), doze my way through the afternoon, or go to bed ridiculously early that night, I try to stick to my schedule and get back on track as soon as possible.
A few years ago, I would have bitten my daughter’s head off for commenting on my crankiness. But this morning, I nodded and said, yes, I was tired and cranky, and it would be great if she could put on her sunscreen and shoes without being nagged so I wouldn’t bite her head off. I guess we’ve both learned how bad my exhaustion can be, because she agreed without another snarky comment. At least for now.
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