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Unslept nights, teething fevers and crushing loneliness. Did you know that being a stay-at-home mom could be this exhausting?12 min read

How exhausting it can be to be a stay-at-hoome mom

I’ve experienced some of my darkest moments in life as a stay-at-home parent. My daughter is on the floor crying. Her arms and legs wriggling to help drive home for me how upset she really is. It’s late. She’s not asleep. Another late night, again.

I stare at the spectacle that is my beloved daughter in exhaustion. My mind feels broken: like pieces of it are hanging on by a thread, dangling before the last fibres finally give, and fall into the open arms of gravity.

I feel like I can’t finish a thought. I often leave things halfway through because my kid needs me and I put her needs first.

There is rarely another adult around to share this experience of being the stay-at-home one. The other adult in my life — the working husband — has asked: “What’s so tiring about staying at home all day anyway?”.

Parental leave isn’t a vacation; it’s a 24/7/365 on-call job.

Juggling 12-hour workdays with late nights is far from a sabbatical. Most of the time my kid is the only company I have, day in and day out, and I do without bathroom breaks and weekends as a rule.

Managing on my own for a few weeks was okay, it was when the months turned into years that it started wearing me down.

I often think of “it takes a village to raise a child”. This African proverb means that it takes an entire community of different people interacting with a child to achieve proper growth and development.

“Where’s my village?” I wonder as I stare into the abyss of exhaustion.

Like a lot of other mothers, I don’t have a big support network. When I get drained, I can almost feel the empty spaces around me that are supposed to be filled with people. Filled with support.

At work, there was a never-ending conversation about work-life balance

My inbox was flooded with tips about how to remember to live life as well as work. Now, I’ve seen how the well-being, exhaustion and loneliness of mothers routinely get swept under the rug; dismissed as the whining of someone who’s on permanent vacation.

In a women’s magazine survey, I read that 40% of mothers reported feeling tired or very tired. Feeling like running away and thinking “I can’t do this anymore” was pervasive.

Turns out, I’m not the only one waiting for the afternoon hours to crawl by until my husband gets home, yearning to have another adult to talk to and having my energy depleted by a messy house.

I wouldn’t go back to a life without my kid at any price, but that doesn’t stop me from fantasising about an afternoon completely child-free.

I realise that I’m a culprit in my own fatigue; I exhaust myself by putting the needs of my kid first. I prioritise spending time with her because the kitchen can wait until 1 a.m. to be cleaned.

Managing on my own when my daughter was little was just business as usual. I’ve been surviving on my own for so long that it has become a habit. Since having a kid, I’ve realised just how inept I am at asking for help, and it’s not going to get any easier until I teach this old dog some new tricks.

A year ago the thought of putting my little darling in daycare was inconceivable

Now she’s outgrown being at home with me, and could clearly use the company of kids her age.

On our first visit to kindergarten, she took to it like a fish to water. I was left standing on the sidelines with the realisation that I’m having a hard time letting go.

Seeing how her days could be — and as an extension mine — felt like a weight lifting off my shoulders. I hadn’t realised how good it would be for me if someone else took full responsibility for her from time to time.

So far, I’ve been desperate to carve out some time for myself. Any time that I’ve managed to get has been hard-won.

Sitting quietly by myself, being able to finish three entire thoughts in a row or just getting the shopping done in peace has felt like bliss. Maybe kindergarten is how I get to have my village after all.

Exhaustion isn’t always due to a lack of sleep

Sleep deprivation and waking up several times a night are the more talked about culprits behind tired moms.

However, it’s the constant interruptions (can’t finish a thought, a cup of coffee, a meal, a bathroom break, a sentence, the dishes, the laundry, cleaning up etc.), and being the only adult around that has tired me out the most.

The first sign of exhaustion I experienced in motherhood was joylessness. The time following the birth was a confusing time; managing with the baby alone, after a c-section and subsequent uterine infection, was painful and difficult.

Learning how to take care of a baby was all-new though it was permeated by a joy to have her there.

The delight I felt when she slept on me was in such stark contrast to the black hole of depression I would fall into as the hours passed without anyone to talk to.

When people suggest that I merely “go sleep it off for a night”, it’s just insulting.

The exhaustion of motherhood isn’t something that can be slept off, let alone cured by one night’s sleep. This fatigue makes it hard to focus, and I have a deep feeling of loneliness which deflates my confidence and convinces me I have no potential as a human being beyond muddling through life one day at a time.

I try not to attach a lot of negative feelings with my motherhood, but it isn’t easy

I feel like the expectations of motherhood are really high. After all, we are spending more time with our children and have closer relationships with them than any generation before us.

As a joke, my mother sometimes recites a nursery rhyme from her 1950s childhood about how children should be seen but not heard; it feels so surreal it’s hard to believe that it was used as a standard for discipline.

Gone are the days when children ate in the kitchen, away from the dining room and adults. At our table we all huddle around our daughter’s high-chair, wet wipes within reach and ready to catch any plates before they fly off the table.

Being with children takes a lot of energy, I should know having worked in after-school clubs and in-store babysitting playrooms as well as coached junior martial arts. There are no guarantees that I’ll have any energy left for myself at the end of the day.

Seeing myself as a bad parent isn’t a big leap, especially when there are sleepless nights and temper tantrums about almost everything.

I start thinking that everyone else feels the way I do about my parenting, and that, maybe, I don’t deserve my child. I’ve experienced some of the darkest moments in my life as a stay-at-home mom.

At times it feels like my life is stuck in a loop between the house, the park and the grocery store

The monotony of that is pretty overwhelming for my brain. The continuous commotion, constant interruptions (did I mention those already?) and the sheer number of things to remember — coupled with the unpredictability of life — make it more difficult for my brain to process any information.

Having baby-brain feels like being permanently concussed.

Even little things, or things that used to be easy, feel like climbing Everest now. Finding time for myself, let alone the energy to take time from the hectic daily schedule just for me, seems impossible.

Speaking to other mothers, I’ve come to the conclusion that women often feel like the orchestra conductors of the family, with their partners banging the cymbals on request.

Relinquishing that role can be a real challenge when you’re used to being the one who stays home with the kids.

However, for me it’s a slippery slope into the I’m-always-the-one-who-does-everything pity party, so I feel it’s essential I learn to relax my grip on the wheel. Other people can’t help me if I don’t let them.

I think parenting gets easier as you learn to tolerate incompleteness — in yourself, in your spouse, in your house, in your life — and learn to appreciate that someone else is taking care of something just so you don’t have to (even if they’re not doing it exactly like you would have).

Women give up their me-time more easily than men. Men seem to be generally more adept at drawing lines and are okay going to the gym (or whathaveyou) even if someone has a runny nose.

Women seem to be more prone to be flexible and to sacrifice their own time for the sake of others.

But we [women] are so conditioned to be like, ‘Are you okay?’

You know like, ‘I’ll go bleed later but, like, how are you feeling?’

– Celine Kuklowsky, Feminists: What were they thinking?

Men don’t seem to experience the same kind of pressure to perform as women do. While I obsess about housework and continually cleaning, my husband is satisfied so long as the progeny is fed and cared for.

I usually get on that gravy train and experience a momentary relief of pressure. Then I remember my mom’s coming over.

Mothers who suffer from exhaustion tend not to seek help

Instead, they’re like me and tough it out at home alone. Mothers need real help for which they don’t have to become indebted: people who know what mothers go through, who come to your home and immediately begin to help in a tangible way and without criticism.

I think it would benefit every mother to receive a visit from the dinner-cooking, laundry-washing fairy.

The working spouse is an essential pillar of support, but perhaps not always the most appropriate one.

Just like him getting resentful about me “being at home all day”, I’ve gotten bitter about the fact that he gets to go out into the adult world and be alone with his thoughts, even if it’s just for the duration of the commute.

To avoid being resentful it really helps to have other people to talk to who are in the same situation and know where I’m coming from.

Expressing negative feelings is so very necessary, but I also don’t want to dump on my husband and make him feel bad because he’s working hard to pay the bills. Sometimes I just need to vent to someone who isn’t invested in our situation.

When there isn’t any peer support around, I strive to find time for myself to do things that make me happy.

If I’m tired and can’t think of what that could be, I’ll start small and go for a walk, waste time browsing online or drink a cup of coffee in peace. It doesn’t always have to be a weekend at the spa or a pottery class, although those would be nice too.

Parenting goals can get really stressful

Before the baby arrived, I was all gung-ho for eating only organic and preparing all meals from scratch. Then the baby was born. Lesson learned. Sometimes it’s just better to eat something ready-made than to grind your teeth over the stove.

Parenting takes a lot, but it should give you a lot too. Otherwise, what’s the point?

I still want to relax and enjoy family life rather than spend all my time and energy upholding my own (impossibly) high standards.

We should all stop and thank ourselves more often, show ourselves a little love and appreciation because parenting is a marathon.

It doesn’t matter if today your goals got trampled by a herd of wildebeest and now lay smouldering somewhere at the edge of your dignity. So long as you get across the finish line today, there’s always tomorrow.

Kids will grow up healthy when the basics are covered: when they receive love and affection, food and shelter, and their parents’ behaviour is more or less predictable.

I think I can afford to relax my standards without becoming a bad mom.


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