It is something I hear people say all the time. It is usually the first thing said upon waking in my house. “I’m so exhausted.” We all seem to feel this way no matter how much sleep we get. The thing is, I’m not sure people really understand what exhaustion really feels like, at least not until they are dealing with an infant under three months old.
So you think you are exhausted? Well, I hate to break it to you, but you probably aren’t. For all you childless people out there, I don’t care what your work or social schedule is like, you don’t have a clue what real exhaustion feels like. Sure, lots of people have to get up early for work or are up late, but usually, once they fall asleep, they are solidly asleep for several hours. Even those who have trouble sleeping, get some sleep. My brother is a fire fighter who works 24 hours on, 48 off. He complains all the time that he didn’t sleep well at the fire house and that he is “exhausted” and I just laugh. The thing is, he doesn’t have kids. He goes home and naps and gets decent nights of sleep when he isn’t working.
Don’t get me wrong, it isn’t just the childless that are confused and think they are exhausted. Pregnant women think they are exhausted too. I know, I was just one of them (for the fourth time) not that long ago. Sure, pregnant women are tired, their bodies are working hard at making another human being. As the pregnancy progresses it is harder to get comfortable at night and you have to get up 20 times a night to pee, but if you think this is exhaustion, you are in for a big surprise once you bring that little one home. I remember laying in bed at night, feeling as big as a house, my body achy, my mind racing about all that needed to be done before the baby came, and needing to pee yet again. I’d wish that the baby would just be here already because maybe then I’d get some sleep. Oh how disillusioned I was.
Even those with kids aren’t really exhausted like they think they are. Other than my new baby I have a 2, 4, and 6 year old. We play musical beds with them all night long. My two year old is a terrible sleeper, always has been, and he still sleeps in my bed with me. My husband and I are up several times a night, sleeping in uncomfortable toddler beds or uncomfortable positions with my toddler’s feet jammed into our ribs or face. We would constantly wake up “exhausted” and complaining. Or at least we thought we were exhausted. It is funny how quickly our brains allow us to forget difficult or traumatizing situations, allowing the pain to dull with time (if our brains didn’t work that way, women would never have more than one kid). Of course we were wrong about feeling exhausted. Just the other day, my husband and I were reminiscing about the months before our new baby came and how we thought we were so tired because our two year old didn’t sleep well. We had a good laugh and thought longingly about how we couldn’t wait to be that tired again, instead of feeling the way we do now.
You see, no matter how exhausted you think you are, unless you have an infant under three months living in your house and you are their main provider, you have no idea what exhaustion is. The worse thing for me right now is, my infant isn’t even home yet, he is still in the NICU and I know I’m in for a whole lot more hurt when he does come home. As exhausted as I think I am right now with staying up for a late night pumping, waking 3-4 hours later to pump again, and then again first thing in the morning, combined with the constant back and forth to the NICU and dealing with three other small children, I know this is nothing compared with how it is going to be when the baby finally comes home.
For the first three months of an infant’s life (longer if they are a preemie like my fourth one), babies can’t regulate themselves and think they should still be in the womb. This is often referred to as the “fourth trimester.” Babies under three months are adjusting to life outside of the womb. They don’t know how to soothe themselves, they have no idea whether it is night or day (nor do they care), they are use to getting food whenever they want and except this not to change, and they aren’t use to the noise and temperature of the outside world. All these things make a baby very fussy (or colicky) and very demanding. So for the first few months of a baby’s life the parents are pretty much at the mercy of the baby’s demands. Babies tend to like to eat every 2-3 hours, but they aren’t very fast eaters and it can take 30-60 minutes for a baby to finish a meal. The problem is, the baby doesn’t realize it just finished a meal an hour or hour and a half ago, so the baby wakes to eat again 2-3 hours after he started to eat last. If your baby is on a two hour feeding schedule and the baby takes almost an hour to eat, you have to start the next feeding only an hour after you finished the last feeding. Babies don’t just eat three meals a day either, they eat round the clock, which means that your sleep is interrupted every 1-3 hours to feed (and good luck if you are someone who doesn’t fall back to sleep easily). The other wonderful thing about newborns is, they tend to get gassy and need their diapers changed not long after eating. If you leave your baby in a dirty diaper for very long they will get a rash and be even more cranky which will not lead to sleep for either of you. Babies also like to spit up all over themselves and you, so if you thought all your household chores would be put on the back burner for a while, you were wrong. New parents find themselves doing loads of laundry almost daily (often washing the same stuff twice because they were so tired they forgot about the clothes and left them in the washing machine too long instead of putting them in the dryer, so now they have a musty smell). Then there is the issue of food for the parents and siblings. When I had my first kid, I often choose sleep over eating, but now I have three other kids who depend on me for food, so I no longer have that choice, I have to feed them. Add all this to normal everyday activities and they add up to exhaustion and I mean exhaustion.
When you are a parent to a newborn, then and only then do you realize what true exhaustion is. You experience exhaustion like no other. I’m not talking a few bad nights of sleep or a few hectic days exhaustion, I’m talking three months of constant lack of sleep exhaustion. I’m talking, 2 hours of consecutive sleep at most, while listening to every little noise you hear, it hurts to wake up exhaustion. I’m talking, haven’t showered in weeks, not eating, eyes barely open, could be mistaken for the walking dead exhaustion. You will learn to survive on a level of exhaustion you never knew existed (or in the case of parents who have other children, levels you forgot existed). Those first three months will feel unsurvivable and never ending. You will feel ready to give up on life and crave the sweet eternal sleep of death, but continue to push forward out of pure love for this child that has turned your life into this blissful hell of new parenting. And just when you feel like you can’t do it anymore, your baby will hit that sweet three month mark where everything will magically get better over night. I know, it sounds hard to believe that all of a sudden, all at once, everything gets better, but it does. I didn’t believe it the first time either, now I count down the days with each kid. Not long after that point, you too will return to the point where you think you are exhausted, but already you have forgotten what exhaustion really feels like and that you are not in fact exhausted, just a little tired.