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:
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.
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 shitting so they can scroll through their newsfeed. Sometimes they pretend to shit 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 shitting.
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.
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.
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. It’s quiet (other than the occasional crumb crackle). It’s calming. It’s rejuvenating. And it is needed for marital stability. It’s worth paying the price of giving up a night’s sleep entirely now, so they don’t end up paying the high cost of divorce fees by the time the kids graduate from high school. They’ve already got college to pay for, don’t forget.
Stuff gets physical.
Don’t get me started on what pregnancy does to your body — I’m solely talking about parenting here. There is a constant worry about torn corneas. Little hands start flailing from Day 1 and continue indefinitely. For the first few years, parents are constantly carrying their kids around, lifting a 35-pound toddler on one hip, and a 20-pound toddler on the other. These aren’t like bags of flour here, they’re writhing, wrenching, bucking broncos. Parents on the living room floor trying to get a push-up in during a Caillou episode are subject to little monsters in superhero capes jumping off the couch and onto their backs. There is little to no chance of getting through parenting without tearing a cornea or herniating a disc.
All the mother-lovin’ cleaning.
The other day I was running late for work and when I went to grab the infant from her crib I realized she had puked on herself in the middle of the night. Her hair stood up straight and smelled like sick. I tossed her in the tub and gave her a quick bath, before throwing some clothes on her and tossing her in the car. (There’s another example of physical exertion — lots of child-tossing going on). The amount of frenetic cleaning of bodies and houses that parents end up doing is mind-boggling. Of course, everyone needs to clean their house, but parents need to clean their house SO MUCH. Bending over, putting away, bending over, tidying up, putting away. Wiping. Wiping. Wiping. Picking up toys. Toys. Toys. Spooling reams of unrolled toilet paper. Dishes. Dishes. Dirty laundry. Bodily fluid-soaked laundry. Replacing grown-out-of laundry. Toys. Toys. Tiny pieces. Puke. Toys. Toys. Toys. Never-effing-ending bowls and bowls of Cheerios. As kids get bigger, so does their stuff. Teenagers have more surface area than toddlers, which means more dust, more circles around the tub. More bodily stench. And definitely more clothes on the floor.
Worries wear out their bodies.
There are many mornings when new wrinkles and gray hairs suddenly pop up. Deep grooves. Thick, wiry hairs. I pretty much stopped getting carded the week after I became a mom. My daughter emerged from my body and I immediately developed a web of creases beneath my eyes, not just from the exhaustion but also from the worry. Anxieties tax the body, and parents have a never-ending stream of them running through their heads. Sudden infant death syndrome. Falling down the stairs. Ingesting cleaning products. Bumping heads on the corners of coffee tables. Witnessing the ALMOST bumping of heads on the corners of coffee tables. Thoughts of their kids being bullied, being out late at night, hanging out with the wrong crowd, marrying the right person… Our poor little cells explode from all the stress.
Parents are so tired they sometimes lie on the floor. Face smooshed right in the carpet. Now you know why.
P.S. Even when they’re on the floor, they’re still happy. They’re just too tired to smile.