Wednesday, January 12, 2011

further thoughts on parental exhaustion

I had no shortage of warnings about the lack of sleep that comes with the addition of a newborn to the household.  People offered their opinion, suggestions, and condolences from the moment we announced our pregnancy...

Sleep while you can!
Get used to not sleeping!
Forget those days of sleeping in!
Welcome to "baby brain" time...running on half your cylinders!

All true, but somehow no real preparation for the reality.  And I think I have some insights into why that is.  It's not just the lack of sleep that is doing me in; I'm no spring chicken, but I have had other stretches of little rest in  recent years that were tiring, but not EXHAUSTING like this...

The difference is in what's going on in the back of my mind ALL THE TIME.  There's this new noise in the background (oh, it makes its way to the front often enough too) that sounds something like:

"Don't let me screw this he ok? Baby Mamma OK...
careful carrying the baby down the steps...don't let me screw this up...
[waking at 2am] Where's the baby?  What's this lump in the bed?  Oh it's my pillow
don't let me screw this up...why is he crying?  why can't I fix this...
oh God I'm going to screw this up..."

So yes, the lack of sleep has its own effect on me, but the new noise in my head is really messing me up.


  1. I think you've nailed it. It's not just not getting enough sleep, which everyone has experienced from one time or another. It's the constant worrying/thinking/planning that you are doing EVERY WAKING MINUTE. And the knowledge that there is no relief. For almost every other situation that I have experienced that was stressful and exhausting, there was an end date in sight, or even an end time if it's a job. But there is no OFF for parenting, which sounds cliche, but is so true. I have told Richard that it would be like if he just slept on a cot at the back of his office and just told his co-workers that they could come get him at anytime if they needed anything. Even if I don't get woken up at night, it's not good sleep because I am EXPECTING to get woken up -- it's like I'm just dozing on a break.

    As you can tell, I feel pretty passionately about this topic. There is NO WAY to explain to someone who hasn't lived it how completely physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausting it is to take care of a baby. I am so tired. So I better go to bed. Although as I typed this I heard a baby start to whimper.

  2. I thought I was done but I'm not --

    I am exhausted from the constant "She's awake. Should we let her cry for a few minutes? She sounds pretty upset. Maybe her diaper's wet. Should we change it? Surely she has to learn to sleep after she's peed, or she'll NEVER sleep through the night. But I wouldn't want to sleep in a wet diaper. Maybe it's her teeth. Should we give her tylenol? I just read that people give babies tylenol way too often and it can be really dangerous. Now it sounds like she's calming down. Maybe we should just leave her and she'll learn to self-soothe. No, she's upset again. I'm going in. I'll change her and put her right back down. But maybe she's hungry. She didn't finish her last bottle. If she's hungry then even if she goes back to sleep she'll just wake up later when I'm REALLY asleep. Better to feed her now and get it over with. But will that make her always want a bottle when she wakes up?


    The hard part of parenting for me isn't so much the exhausting manual labor (although that part sucks and has robbed me of all dignity) but the being in charge and being the decision maker part. It is SO DRAINING to CONSTANTLY be in charge of people other than yourself for every minute of the day. I just want to follow someone's directions, but the constant deciding and worrying kills me.

    And the unpredictability. If I knew that I had to be up from 2 to 4 every night, it would suck, but I could prepare for it. But to get up in the middle of the night with no clue as to when you will get to sleep again or for how long really messes with your mind.

    But I'm very high strung, so maybe I bring it on myself :) As you can see, you have my complete sympathy and understanding...I tell all of my friends who have babies that people will be lining up to hear about how wonderful their new babies are, but if they ever need to vent I'm their woman. :)

  3. Wow...thanks for sharing. It's a good reminder that however hard it may be for Dad, it's likely only more intense for Mom.

  4. I don't think that it's necessarily more intense for moms than it is for dads, but I do think it's more intense for the primary caregiver than for the "working outside the home" parent.

  5. [housekeeping - for some reason the chronology of the comments has gotten out of order, at least in terms of my releasing them. The January 12, 2011 11:08 PM comment got held up for a while in "space" and was just released this morning, 1/13/11 ~ 9:40am.]

    Jessica - my sister made a fairly wise and insightful comment to me (and my wife) during the pregnancy that this process is "harder on older, more mature, and better educated people", at least in the category of these sorts of anxieties.

    I think there's a lot of truth in that, sort of an opposite to the "ignorance is bliss" idea; having read ALL of the baby books and lived long enough to see some real heartbreak and tragedy out there in the world, we knew going into this parenting thing just how many things CAN go wrong...I think the more conscientious and informed we are as a parent, the more predisposed we are to being neurotic in our weakest moments.

    And the real shitter is that those weakest moments tend to come precisely at that time that we are on an island, without someone we trust close by to hand off the [baby, anxiety, diaper,
    soul-crushing concern] to...or at least we feel as though we are on that island.

  6. I agree with you and your sister that the more you know (in the case of babies) the more there is to be scared of. I have to say that I was a WAY more laid back parent of an infant at 21 than I was at 28 and 30 for the simple reason that I was too dumb to be worried the first time around.

    However, the most frustrating part of it for me is not the worrying about actual bad things. It's the ridiculous amount of time I spend thinking about decisions that just don't matter. It really hit me how much time is lost when I watched friends of mine with their 1st baby. They were getting ready to leave, and they went back and forth for about 10 minutes: "Did you check his diaper? Why don't you change him? Should I give him a bottle or solid food first? Should I put his coat on? Did you ever change his diaper?" As a spectator, I was like, "Who cares? Feed the baby and change his diaper!" But I realized that I spend a good part of my day involved in the same kind of ridiculous back and forth over alternatives that make very little difference in the grand scheme of the day, let alone the kids life. And I think when you bring both parents into it it just gets worse. I can be fairly efficient when left on my own, but once Richard's in the picture we discuss every detail, "Should I give her a bottle? Do you think it's time for baths?" It is also made worse by the lack of sleep. A sane, rational, well-rested adult could probably weigh the pros and cons of changing a diaper pre-feed versus post-feed pretty quickly, but throw chronic sleep deprivation into the mix and things get a lot trickier.

    Since my a-ha moment I have made a concious effort to take a more Rooseveltian approach to baby-raising: Try something! If it doesn't work, try something else! I've already noticed that I'm more relaxed and waste less time.

  7. "Rooseveltian". =)

    This child rearing - confidence dynamic is very much in line with my general life inquiry as to how one person (older generation, priest, counselor, friend, mentor) can effectively pass on knowledge to another person.

    I know that in practice people learn things every day, but there seems to be an enduring gap in the ability to pass on knowledge like we are discussing here, so that "There is NO WAY to explain to someone who hasn't lived it how completely physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausting it is to take care of a baby", as you say.

  8. We learn things every day, but I think we learn them through experience. This is why kids make the same mistakes their parents warn them about over and over -- you just don't GET it until you've lived it.