The Truth About Parenting When You’re Exhausted

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The last few days had been exhausting. I’d felt worn down to the nubs. My husband had been gone for a work trip. I taught during the day, parented during the mornings, nights, and weekends. I tried to pour in friendships and movies to fill in the cracks like mortar around bricks, hoping the foundation would hold.

Things came to a head when I came home with my 5 year-old son. We were two exhausted creatures plowing through the molasses of mundanity. I was operating with abridged patience while my boy was pushing the boundaries at the worst possible moments. Bedtime was a series of stops and starts, half-begun games, deep sighs, and toothpaste. Listening on both sides was fraught with difficulty. Getting him into pajamas was like verbally sparring with a floppy fish: impossible at best. Finally, I tried to explain to my son that I really Just Needed Him To Listen. My voice quavered between sadness and anger until I broke down into tears. Tears were all I had, and then my boy started to cry as well.

In the midst of it all, I thought, I’m still the parent. In all of the chaos and fatigue, I was still the parent. Even in the wornout spaces, my son looked up to me, needed me, and I could reach down and find a deep strength I never knew I had. Parenting: the place where we find power beyond what we’ve known. And along with power, the greatest responsibility.

My child was also worn down to the nubs, and so something inside of me shifted. He needed his mama. His tears washed away my own anger and frustration. I reached down into the foundation, which really had no cracks at all. I was solid; he was the rain washing over me.

I sat my son on my lap, and listened while he told me about how tired he was, and how bored he was in aftercare. My listening capacity had grown. I was no longer a shallow stream but vast like the ocean. He had been wandering around school, waiting for me to arrive, and I had been late.

When the moment seemed right, I asked him why he hadn’t been listening to me, and why he was doing so many things, even after I had told him not to. He explained that there are so many rules to follow every day at school, and even more rules to follow during aftercare. When he got home, he didn’t want to follow any more rules.

And then it made sense to me. When he spoke of rules and more rules, my body felt weighed down by the heaviness, each set of rules like a brace of rocks. I empathized. I couldn’t disagree. I have chafed against rules, broken them, forged my own. I told him as much and could feel his clenched body relax.

In the end, we didn’t “figure it out.” I didn’t create more rules, and he didn’t push. For that moment we were just two souls trying to connect even through the fatigue and limited resources.

In those moments, I try to remember to:

Slow down. I sometimes get caught up in trying to get dinner, bedtime routine, in bed done in record speed. When we’re all stressed out we actually need more time to do these mundane activities. Really, does 5-10 extra minutes make that big of a difference?

Breathe. In those moments, I remember to breathe. My body is so tense, I can barely think. When I breathe, my child breathes, too. When I relax, he relaxes, too.

Parent. I am still the parent, and he is just learning. I can tell him I’m having a hard time, but ultimately, I need to lean on adults, not him. And, he needs to lean on me. He needs a parent.

Listen. The better my listening got, the less he misbehaved. It was hard to reach down and listen, but when I did, it made a world of difference.

That there are no solutions sometimes. Sometimes, it’s just about listening. Connecting. Being there.

It is not easy, this dance of parent and child. There are moments of supreme joy and laughter, and then there are those moments of rough edges, impatience, and fatigue. For those rough moments, we are two stones getting washed smooth in the same ocean of life. We are in it together, just figuring it out.

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Paget Norton is the mother of a 6 year-old spark of a son. When she’s not teaching, rock climbing, and cultivating relationships, she enjoys reflecting on this multi-layered complexity we call “parenting” on her blog, Facebook page, and Twitter.

3 COMMENTS

  1. Wonderful and honest and brave sharing! Thanks Paget! I wish to print out this article and tape it on the wall. But I have no energy to do so 🙂 I love this part on reaching solid foundation, It’s a whole new world which I am yet to discover. How to get it? Or rediscover it?

  2. What a great question. Sometimes I think it’s a muscle we flex – learning to build the foundation, feel the foundation we already have. Sometimes I think, as parents, we overdo it, so it can be really hard to feel the solidity. It’s in those places that I find the small moments of respite: through breathing, through clearing my mind, through talking to others who will truly listen.

    Honestly, I have times when I want a week-long vacation to Hawaii. All alone. I know my life isn’t built to currently have that. In lieu of the dream, I’ll do things like take a bath. Savor the quiet moments. Relish the beautiful smell of something I love (citrus does it for me!).

    And sometimes my best just doesn’t look that great. But I know there will be another hour or day or week, and my best will somehow pick itself up, brush itself off, and stand tall even with wrinkled clothes.

  3. How would you react if if not only did not follow your directions, but was aggressive and disrespectful to you?

    How would you feel if he decided he did not want to be your son any more- but be your bird_ sleep outside, not go to school, come and go as he pleases etc.

    Before you decide that I am being deliberately antagonistic, I am not. I have applauded your writing and your gift of communication on other posts. But with the new understanding of gender- or should I say mis-understanding- these are real questions, issues that we will soon face in our education institutions, our homes- and possibly in our courts.

    I would be pleased if you could give your summary reaction to my points raised- and if you feel inclined some posts where you can explore these emerging issues of our culture.

    Thanks for being the leader for the next generation- in your teaching role and as a wife and mother.

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