Biggest Parenting Surprise? The Mental Exhaustion

by Rita Templeton
Diego Cervo / Shutterstock

Being physically exhausted is a near-constant state once you have a kid, and if you’ve got more than one, you can pretty much forget about feeling rested until…well, I’ll have to get back to you on that one because my oldest is nearly a teenager and I’m still waiting.

But it’s not like we’re unprepared for that. A years-long stretch of bone-crushing tiredness is one of the main things we’re taught to expect when we’re expecting by every single baby book we read and every person who loves to warn us about the shitty parts of new parenthood. And via those same harbingers of doom, we’re also given cheerful, well-meaning advice to cope with it, like “sleep when the baby sleeps.”

The physical exhaustion we can take care of to some extent (give me all the coffee). And if we never really feel refreshed, at least it’s something we have a little bit of time to prepare for. Yes, we’re tired, but we knew it would come along with the territory, and we came to terms with the fact we’d have to spend a small fortune on concealer for those dark circles for a very long time. And we can live from nap to nap if we have to (when the baby sleeps, right?), recharging at least a little bit.

But we can’t grocery shop when the baby grocery shops and pay bills when the baby pays bills, and therein lies the problem: all the thankless, but necessary weight that goes along with taking care of a family, no matter how small.

While experts and acquaintances alike are dishing out advice about raising kids, they fail to mention that the mental exhaustion of parenthood far outweighs the body’s need for rest. Because while we can sometimes manage to sneak in a quick snooze — and if we can’t, there’s always coffee — we can’t escape the imperceptible, yet undeniably more heavy load that we carry around in our poor sleep-deprived brains.

All the things to do and remember and worry about, washing over us in ceaseless waves, sometimes batter us so much they threaten to drag us under. There are moments when we don’t have to fight as hard to stay afloat, but even then we can never stop treading the proverbial water. Not even if we’re sick. Not even if we’re sad.

The smallest things add up. From the time our kids are brand-new infants, we keep a running tally of doctor’s appointments, vaccinations, feeding schedules, and when they pooped last. As they grow, the load increases to include things like food preferences and allergies and mental notes about things to ask the pediatrician next time we go. Once they hit school, it’s all of the above, plus a dizzying onslaught of homework and extracurricular activities and sign-up deadlines and fundraisers and parent meetings.

And that’s just the practical stuff — but wait, there’s more!

Throw in worries about our children’s development and emotional and social well-being. And the tremendous pressure to be a phenomenal parent or risk screwing your kid up for life. And the nagging feeling of doubt that we’re doing any of this shit right. And the toll of keeping a marriage, a family, a household in smooth working order. And! And! And!

It’s exhausting just thinking about it all, right?

We carry so much that it depletes us, increasing our anxiety, wearing down our patience, stretching our reserves until sometimes it feels like we’re only hanging on by some sort of tenuous thread, one stressor away from snapping. And then what? Do we fall into an abyss? Does that mean we’ve failed? Is it something we can come back from, or does it do irrevocable damage to the family we’re laboring so desperately, so constantly, to hold together?

We don’t know what happens because we don’t let it happen. We might indulge in a rare moment’s respite, an evening out or a few minutes locked in the bathroom, but to relinquish control of all the crucial information cycling through our minds? We can’t take a chance like that. So we battle on, carrying an invisible load of astonishing magnitude, like ants hauling objects many times their size.

We are surprised by the mental exhaustion of parenthood, yes — but the biggest surprise of all is our capacity to handle it. Even when we think we’re failing, we manage to pick up and soldier on, because we are that freaking strong.