On Balance

Published on March 13th, 2018 | by Cheryl Klein


Thirteen Ways of Looking at Exhaustion

There’s a meme featuring a picture of Leonardo DiCaprio in that creamy Gatsby suit, guffawing, with a champagne bottle in the foreground. The caption says: “When People Without Kids Tell Me They’re Exhausted.” As someone who, before becoming a parent, worked full-time while undergoing cancer treatment and periodically had to park by the side of the road to nap on my way to work, I can’t really get with this joke. Tired is not the exclusive territory of parents.

And yet sleepless, rundown exhaustion is a hallmark of parenthood, immortalized in such memes and in movie montages of new moms with messy hair. Like illness and other bodily afflictions, raising children brings weariness in many flavors, which cannot quite be captured in words. But I just drank a double latte, so I’m going to try.

  1. Newborn Tired

You receive cards that say Hello baby, goodbye sleep! Sleep deprivation—literally used as a torture technique—is hilarious! Sleep when the baby sleeps, people say, which is excellent advice for the five seconds you’re on maternity leave, and as long as you don’t need to do things like shower or pay bills or wash dishes or buy groceries or revise a young adult novel or eat.

As an adoptive mom, you’re in luck—you and your partner can split nighttime feedings 50/50 in a way that couples with one breastfeeding parent cannot. And as someone who longed to be a mother for years, your heart and brain understand what a privilege it is to heat a bottle of formula at two in the morning. But the rest of your body didn’t get the memo. You stuff handfuls of cereal into your mouth just to stay awake. Gain when the baby gains; in eighteen months, you’ll both put on a freshman fifteen.

  1. Toddler Tired

How did you waste all those glorious months when he was immobile? Why didn’t you complete a draft of your memoir before your child learned to crawl? From eight months to two years, he will essentially be a mouth and hands with legs. He wants to know if he can fit a Matchbox car into that hole in the audio speaker, and how that dog at the park tastes. You will often hear him murmur “dump it” to himself; you come running and arrive too late.

  1. Sleep Cycles Are A Thing Tired

Well into toddlerhood, your son wakes up at odd hours yelling “Mommy!” Sometimes it’s plaintive, as if the weight of the human condition has finally found him, in his big-kid bed at half past midnight. Sometimes it’s demanding and angry, and you are jolted into wakefulness having already failed him. When he wakes up at 4 and goes back to sleep at 4:30, you need to unwind again and don’t fall asleep until 4:50. When your adorable human alarm goes off again at 5:30, your body is in just-went-to-sleep mode and you must cycle through all the stages of grief before accepting that it is morning.

  1. Cutting Corners Tired

When you loan your partner your car key, and she returns it to you, putting it back on your key ring is more than you can handle at that exact moment. So you carry it around in your purse, separate from your other keys, losing it several times over the course of the three days it takes you to reunite it with its sisters. The fallout from this bit of procrastination is minimal but real: the time it takes rummage through the contents of your purse (unopened mail, small coil of Christmas ribbon, pacifier that your son really should quit, a pound of pennies), the panic each time you think you’ve lost it for good. The to-do list in your mind weighs as much as the pennies in your purse.

  1. Sisyphus Tired

Your son’s bestie and his parents come over on a weeknight to celebrate his third birthday. You rush through daycare pickup so you can pick up the house (so much picking up; no wonder your arms are tired, haha) and make a box of mac ’n’ cheese before they arrive. Your son cannot stop talking about cake and how he wants to have a frosting beard, and he wants Wendell to have a frosting beard too. When you arrived at preschool, he was in tears because a bigger boy had just pushed him off a tricycle. Between sobs, he said, “I wanna go my birthday.”

For an hour and a half, birthday is a place you all inhabit. There are frosting beards and fire trucks and stickers. And when they leave, you put the kid to bed and load the dishwasher and put the toy cars in the storage ottoman and scrub frosting off the floor. You take Before and After pictures of your living room because tomorrow morning it will be back to Before. Erma Bombeck wrote all this stuff already and there’s not that much more to say, but that doesn’t stop The Mess from coming. The Mess is not inhibited by its own lack of originality.

  1. Polyvore Tired/Too-Tired-For-Polyvore Tired

Your favorite way to end the day is by making a collage or seven on Polyvore.com, a ridiculous, shopping-obsessed, Pinterest-esque website that, as far as you can tell, is frequented largely by teenagers from Brazil and the Ukraine. You are soothed by photos of ombre fabric and $1,400 shoes. When you arrange them into tidy, pseudo-editorial layouts, you regain control over the universe.

Except for the nights when you do not even have the mental energy to find the right purse to go with your imaginary romper, let alone watch narrative television, let alone read a book. On those nights, you fall asleep facedown in a Facebook shame spiral.

  1. Empathy-Fail Tired

Even though you said that thing about the Leonardo DiCaprio meme, even though you Wouldn’t Trade Parenthood For The World Etc., when a friend postpones dinner because she is exhausted after tabling all day at the Women’s March, you fantasize about a life in which a long day of work might be followed by rest. You are certain that your younger coworkers spend their free time attending literary salons and trying out new hairstyles. You don’t want them to have visiting relatives or chronic health conditions, because you need to envy and mildly resent them.

  1. Groundhog Day Tired

As part of your college training to be a camp counselor, and later in couples therapy, you learned about active listening. Show the person you heard them, then follow up with an open-ended question. As your son was learning to talk, this morphed into a habit of repeating everything he said. “Backhoe sharp teeth a don’t touch it,” he would say as you passed a construction site, and you would reply, “Yes, backhoes do have sharp teeth. That’s a great suggestion for staying safe. We can touch this flower instead!”

But your kid talks about trash trucks a lot. A LOT. The first time he says, “Is picking up our trash?” you say, “Yes, it’s picking up our trash in the black bin. Later the recycling truck will come for our blue bins.” The seventh time he says, “Is picking up our trash?” you say, “Yeah” and wonder what kind of universe you are trapped in.

Lately, “Mommy, don’t say ‘yeah’” is something you hear almost as much as trash truck commentary.

  1. I’ll Be A Good Parent Tomorrow Tired

Your son begins listing demands the minute he wakes up. “I want, I want….” You cannot say yes or no fast enough to keep up with him; you just hope he will stop wanting ice cream for breakfast (because now he wants to touch a fire truck) before you are required to explain why ice cream for breakfast isn’t a good idea.

Because why not? The sequence in which foods are consumed doesn’t have a nutritional impact. The answer is once again exhaustion. You have to save ice cream for the end of the day when you will be too tired to resist. To eat ice cream for breakfast is to eat ice cream twice a day.

The current of demands is swift and you can only swim against it for so long. No, no, no, no, yes. Duck, duck, duck, duck, goose. Tomorrow you will make sure he brushes his teeth after drinking his last bottle of milk. Tomorrow you will put some serious effort into potty training. You float on these little lies like a life raft.

  1. Fuck Capitalism Tired

According to the Economic Policy Institute, which is a thing you just Googled to confirm what your body already knows, U.S. worker productivity increased 74% between 1973 and 2013; hourly compensation for non-supervisory workers increased 9%. So if you’re feeling overworked and underpaid, you are. The Pew Research Institute reports that in 1965, mothers devoted ten hours a week, on average, to childcare. In 2011, the average was 14 hours. You are lucky: You only have to work one paid job, you have a partner, you are college educated, your son attends a wonderful and reasonably priced daycare. And you are still so fucking tired. If anyone wonders why more people don’t vote, or exercise, or read newspapers, this is why.

  1. Boring Vacation Fantasy Tired

Your fantasy vacation looks a lot like the one writing residency you did back in 2012, where lunch arrived—delivered by wonderful grant-funded elves—in a rattan basket on your doorstep every day. You had the whole day to write and watch wild turkeys move through the meadow, and you joined the other artists for dinner in a creaky old lodge. In your fantasy vacation, you will see your partner and son for several hours each day, because you really do love them both so very much. You will not do any of the things that make up collegiate vacation fantasies: backpack, meet strangers, learn a new language.

  1. It’s All Your Fault Tired

Your caffeinated brain knows this is all capitalism’s fault, if it is anyone’s at all, but your reptilian brain blames the intake nurse at Kaiser, who seems so perplexed by the dropdown menu on her computer screen that you toy with the idea of asking if you can just scoot in there to check off your pre-existing conditions. You blame your in-laws, who buy your son toys you must find a place to store.

You blame your partner, who in her own exhaustion fails to re-fasten the child lock on the cupboard beneath the sink. You wonder at what point exhaustion becomes lethal. Two nights ago, you dreamed your son drowned in the bathtub. The irrevocability of it woke you with a grateful start, making it revocable after all.

  1. Good Tired

When you were going through cancer treatment, you briefly became friends with M, a writer about your age who was just on the other side of treatment. She was impossibly cool, with grown-in blonde hair and great fake boobs crafted by your same plastic surgeon; she’d recently started a microfiction writing collective named for an obscure process used by sculptors. At a time when you felt weak and frumpy and tired all the time, you looked for your future reflection in M and felt hope and excitement.

You fell out of touch after a while, leading separate lives in the same city, but you continued to read her minimal social media posts with a kind of aspirational hunger. Then, while you are waiting for your son’s third birthday cake to finish baking, this comes through your feed.

Most of you don’t know that I have been dealing with breast cancer since 2011 and have been metastatic (stage iv) since 2015.

It includes a link to a newer blog she has been keeping, secretly until now. The cancer is in her bones—which is probably the best place to have metastasis, but there is no good place—and as you read, you feel small earthquakes in your own bones. Empathy is a slippery thing, a mix of kindness and ego, as you make her story yours. Is it possible to experience survivor guilt while simultaneously feeling terrified that you won’t be a survivor at all?

M’s new blog is, unsurprisingly, written beautifully, an honest meditation on all the bullshit and wisdom that comes with stage IV life.

I’ve gotten good at compartmentalizing and shutting out some of the discomfort…. Surprisingly, it’s more difficult to do that with fatigue. There are times, like now, fresh out of the hospital, where I have to lie down for a moment after putting on an article of clothing.

You remember that there are deeper, harder kinds of tired. You caution yourself against setting up a dichotomy where you have lucked out and M has gotten a raw deal. In the cancer department, yes, but good days and a fully human experience don’t belong only to the able-bodied, any more than they belong to rich people or white people.

She writes, I’m not suicidal, but I do think about what it will be like to drop this body.

You’ve always hoped that the end of your life will feel like the end of a good, hard day, when sleep comes for you like an army and you walk toward it with grateful surrender. You hate living in a rest-when-you’re-dead culture, but you do hope to rest when you’re dead.

A kid at the nonprofit where you work, who lives below the poverty line and wouldn’t be considered fortunate by some definitions of the word, wrote a couple of lines that your coworker blew up and framed:

Maybe you’re a lucky one. Just riding your bike, loving your dog. A lucky one.

A long day of bike riding and pet care will make a person tired. But it’s the good tired. The tired of being fully alive. Living fully has very little to do with prognosis. It’s hard to achieve for more than a few minutes at a time, because exhaustion can eat away at your ability to stay present, even as it creates opportunities to do so.

Two nights ago you rocked your over-tired son to sleep in the chair your mom hand-painted when you were a child. You wanted him to go to sleep because it was late and you were tired too. Your mind churned with all the things you needed to do. Your body wanted to stay there forever, his cheek to your reconstructed chest.


Hold it Lightly is a new column by Cheryl Klein. The phrase became Cheryl’s mantra while riding the aptly-named adoption roller coaster, and has proven applicable to most aspects of parenting as well. She’ll be writing about adoption, muthahood, and her experiences as a recovering control freak. Follow MUTHA on social media and sign up for our mailing list to keep up… 

Featured photo by Oscar Keys on Unsplash

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About the Author

Cheryl Klein’s column, “Hold it Lightly,” appears monthly(ish) in MUTHA. She is the author of Crybaby (out in 2022 from Brown Paper Press), a memoir about wanting a baby and getting cancer instead. She also wrote a story collection, The Commuters (City Works Press) and a novel, Lilac Mines (Manic D Press). Her stories and essays have appeared in Blunderbuss, The Normal School, Razorcake, and several anthologies. Her work has been honored by the MacDowell Colony and the Center for Cultural Innovation. She blogs about the intersection of art, life and carbohydrates at breadandbread.blogspot.com. Follow her on Twitter: @meadowbat.

One Response to Thirteen Ways of Looking at Exhaustion

  1. Sara Nolan says:

    THIS! You nailed it.

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