At first, people understand that bringing new life also brings exhaustion. People ask new parents if the baby is sleeping through the night as if that is the magical key to them feeling like a fully functional human being. But, every parent knows, it is not. I’m quite sure that it is a scientific fact that parents never feel like fully functional human beings again. Or maybe they just change the definition of what “fully functional” means, so that it no longer implies anything closely related to “rested.”
Here’s why parents are so exhausted:
1. They never sleep through the night. Never. Again.
Sleeping through the night initially means sleeping for longer than two- or three-hour stretches. Once your infant gets past that point, people seem to forget that doesn’t mean jack. At first, parents wake up in a panic when the infant doesn’t wake them up, and they check on them, adrenaline rushing, thinking they’re going to find something very wrong.
They nudge the baby. Nudge. Nudge. Until they hear an audible sigh. Then they either can’t fall back asleep because of all that adrenaline or they can’t fall back asleep because they woke up their kid.
As the child gets older, the parents wake up hearing phantom baby cries that exist only in their heads. When they accept that their kid can sleep through the night and think they’ve finally arrived, the toddler begins waking up in the middle of the night and coming in their bedroom, waking up and peeing the bed, waking up and screaming, “I need a tissue!”
I hear it doesn’t get any better. I’m already dreading waking up in a panic thinking about my kids as teenagers, wondering if they have snuck out of the house, and as college students, wondering if they are OK or if they have been roofied and are lying in a ditch. By the time their kid has a job, parents have aged and their sleep cycles have changed and their old selves become biologically incapable of sleeping. The end.
2. There is no downtime.
The other day I tried to program my cousin’s number into my phone — she had texted me and I wanted to add her name to my contact list. I tried about eight times before giving up completely because my children were all up in my space, bumping my arms and touching the screen.
It’s hard to explain to someone that you don’t have time to put a number in a phone, but this is a very real thing. Unless you’re in the bathroom. Sometimes parents get excited about pooping so they can scroll through their newsfeed. Sometimes they pretend to poop so they can scroll through their newsfeed. Unless, of course, they’re the parent that the kids just barge into the bathroom with (there’s always one parent who’s the designated bargee). Then there’s really no sanctuary, even in pooping.
3. There are no days off.
There are millions of ways people can fill their time and expend their energy without being parents. Everyone is exhausted, no doubt about that. However, there is usually a way to get some sick time. Take a day off to rest. Parenting, however? Being sick is the worst, because you can’t be sick. At least, you can’t act like it. Food still needs to be served, laundry still needs to be done, kids still need to be loved. Parents are basically on the verge of illness at all times, because they never get a chance to recover. We blame our kids for bringing home germs from school, but the reality is that we are stinking sacks of pathogenic meat ourselves.
4. Their brains are on overload.
There is a never-ending stream of chatter. There are so many “Mama. Mama. Mama. Mamas,” and grabbing things or pointing while asking, “What’s this?” And no matter what response is given, there is an endless supply of, “Why? Why? Why? Why?” — and there are requests for songs and to “Tell me a story, Mama,” and loud, echoing whines about things like “I wannnnnntttt a red sippy cup,” even if they already have a red sippy cup.
There is a lot of fake phone calling and talking to kids using a dirty sock as a puppet. It’s not so much that each individual question or statement is so bad (they’re not — they’re often quite amusing, actually); it’s more the fact that every second is packed with endless auditory assaults and required responses. As kids age, they might utter fewer words, but the ones they do say are usually not as cute, and the issues that arise are much more difficult to address. Brain overload doesn’t go away when the toddler years do.
5. Sometimes they have to stay up until 2 a.m. binge-watching Netflix with their spouse.
Because sometimes they want to enjoy time with their spouse. And sitting like a sloth on a graham-cracker-crumb-littered couch while sipping on a glass of cheap wine next to the one you love, without having to make conversation, can be almost as beautiful as watching the sunset on a beach in Mexico while holding a margarita. Almost.