When You're Blindsided By Parenting Fatigue

by Catherine Dietrich
parenting fatigue
Jodi Jacobson / iStock

I never imagined the sheer size of the feelings motherhood would bring on. From the day the test showed that miraculous plus sign, the feelings have been enormous. Excitement, exhaustion, trepidation, uncertainty, fear, relief, joy — and all that was before I even met my baby. And then the love — oh, the love, the love! The love that blindsides and astonishes and fills you up and gives you the energy to keep going, the patience to pull through another sleepless night, another tantrum, another suppertime hour that seems never ending. The love is there, always.

Thank goodness.

Because there’s another big feeling we don’t really talk about: the fatigue. I never knew deep-down-to-my-core fatigue until quite recently, and when I finally recognized it for what it was, that blindsided me too, because I love being a mother. I would walk to the end of the earth for my kids. They are my every dream come true, and I am fiercely grateful for them every single day.

And yet, as the haze of new baby number two started to clear, I could feel that something wasn’t right. There was a cloud hanging over me, and it was sapping my joy, and worst of all, taking away from my ability to do my job as a mom. It wasn’t physical tiredness, although there is always that as well. It was something else — something bigger, more ominous.

It was a culmination of the tiny sacrifices we make for our littles. The ones we are glad to make, that we don’t even notice at the time, like the dinner that has gone cold as we negotiate a child through bedtime, or the conversations missed or suspended midway as we dash after a toddler. Not being able to remember the last date night. Never eating the last cookie.

It was also a culmination of the interactions that make up our daily routine. Yet another conversation about the necessity of shoes, the unfeasibility of chocolate for breakfast. The tiny but enormous decisions needing to be made a hundred times a day and the questions we are expected to know the answers to (“Can I watch the iPad?” “Can I have a cookie?” “Where are my shoes?” “What’s for supper?”).

It was a culmination of the physical and emotional act of parenting, 24/7. The bending and the lifting, the negotiating and the placating, the scolding and the praising, the cooking and the nappy changing, the laundry, the planning, the watchfulness, and the ever-present weight of the almost impossible responsibility of it all. Who put me in charge of these tiny human lives? Sometimes I just want to scream at the treadmill, “Stop! Let me get off! Just for a moment! Just so I can catch my breath.”

It’s undeniable. These are big feelings too. And when they threaten to overwhelm, the truth is we can no longer do our job. I think the right thing to do is to call it what it is: parenting fatigue.

Along with this cocktail comes a spicy side of what I call the mother of emotions: guilt. (What mother doesn’t feel guilt daily?) Who am I to be tired of so much wonderfulness? My kids are healthy and so am I. Other people are doing so much more with so much less. I prayed for babies and my prayers were answered when many others’ prayers are not. My littles need me now. In the blink of an eye, they won’t need me the same way, my cup runneth over, I must savor the moment, et cetera.

All these things are true — heartbreakingly so — but playing them on repeat makes the fatigue so very much worse.

Here is what I’ve learned this year: Sometimes we need to give ourselves permission to press the reset button. Nobody will call me a bad mom if I give myself a break. As much as I love my day job (and am oh so lucky I get to call it my day job), variety truly is the key to a happier and more fulfilled life.

So as the fog of fatigue threatened to overwhelm, I sat down and wrote a list of the things I’d like to do for myself over the next year. Then I tore it up because so much self-indulgence was freaking me out, and I just chose one thing — starting this blog (and what a sanity saver it’s been). Somebody else might have chosen to enter a marathon or a triathlon (it briefly crossed my mind), take up pottery or cooking classes, learn a new language, or start painting.

One thing was enough to show me the way to the reset button, to give me back a small piece of myself. I started to put things in place so that I could make it work, and carve out that small window of solitary time every couple of days to do something for myself. I asked for help. And it was magnificently liberating.

Of course, nothing is a miracle fix. The tough days are still tough days. I frequently find myself rocking in a corner and counting down to wine o’clock. But the moment I acknowledged how deep-down-to-my bones tired I was of seeing myself only as a mom, that paralyzing fatigue started ebbing away. When I let go of the guilt I’d been carrying around for feeling that way, the energy started to come back. When I found something I could do for myself, I found a new enthusiasm for my beautiful day job. I can be a mother I’m proud of again — and that pride is a big feeling too.