[Editor’s note: When we shared ‘Self-care’ is not enough to fix how much moms are burnt out, the response was overwhelming. It hit a nerve, as mothers from across the globe expressed their collective burnout. We heard two things: 1). I feel that way too, and 2). How do we fix this? In response, Motherly introduces our new editorial franchise offering expert-based solutions that address the very real burnout that mothers are facing. It is not going to be easy to make this better, but if we take small steps and work together, we can impact serious change.]
I am not a morning person, but I get up early. Most mornings by 6 am I am awakened by the sounds of my baby waiting to be fed, my toddler who needs a diaper change, and my 8-year-old who can’t find his shorts for school.
If it were up to me, I’d still be in bed, getting those extra two hours of sleep that I desperately need. Instead, I’m packing lunches, mediating sibling quarrels and attempting to pull my un-brushed, un-washed hair into some version of an acceptable messy bun.
On our drive to school, I try to do the math to figure out how much sleep I got, warranting my feelings of exhaustion. I realize it was a solid eight hours, so I wonder why I still feel so tired.
I notice other moms in the drop-off lane at school; their hair pulled up in a similar fashion, and a familiar look on their faces as they sip their coffee that is probably ice-cold by now. I realize we are all connected by this universal truth of motherhood.
We are all burnt out, we are all exhausted, we are all hanging on by a thread.
I remember not too long ago when the exhaustion was much much worse. When I stood in the kitchen wondering if I could safely operate a vehicle on the meager four hours of broken up sleep, I had gotten the night before (the answer is no).
I’d joke with my fellow mamas during playdates about the things I did while existing in this sleep-deprived state, and they all had a similar story to share. We were trying to make light of the situation, but inside we were desperately seeking some sort of deliverance from this perpetual struggle of cutting through the fog.
We knew that sleepless nights came with the territory, but somehow, the “sleep now because you won’t get any for the next 18 years” comments just didn’t prepare us for the all-consuming exhaustion that can accompany motherhood.
The reality is that sleep-deprivation has become an epidemic in our culture, and mothers are among those that are most affected. Recently, the CDC declared a national sleep crisis, when reports showed that 30% of American adults are getting less than six hours of sleep per night. Parents have it even harder—new parents get less than five hours of sleep per night.
That same report found that getting less than five hours of sleep per night for just four nights in a row affects your cognitive function in the same way that having several drinks would.
So, when you joke that you are a #mombie, or feel like your world is suddenly going fuzzy, you aren’t imagining it. Sleep deprivation is real, and it has serious implications.
So how did we get here?
Mothering in this modern era certainly has its benefits. We have access to more information than previous generations, and we finally recognize the need for our culture to support mothers in all areas.
But we are also doing more than we ever have.
We are pushed to our limit, physically and mentally as we try to manage the chaotic schedules that barely allow us enough time to eat and shower, let alone get adequate rest.
We stay up late because we are drowning in piles of laundry and emails that need a response, and we know if we don’t do it when the kids are in bed, it isn’t getting done.
We stay up late in an attempt to engage with our partner and nourish that relationship because these days it is the closest thing we are getting to a date night.
We stay up late watching shows we don’t even really enjoy because it means a temporary pause from our to-do list and possibly the only hour in the day, we will truly have to ourselves.
We get up way too early after a night of broken-up sleep, either because our minds are racing, or our babies needed us…all.night.long.
We get up early to make coffee in silence or enjoy a quiet moment alone before the chaos of the day ensues.
We get up early to prepare the lunches we swore we were going to make the night before and switch the laundry that sat in the washer all night.
We get up early to go on a run or go to the gym because we are determined to start focusing on our health and take care of the body that has been drained and depleted.
We get up early, and we stay up late, and because of it, sleep has become less and less of a priority.
So how do we fix it?
The world around us might be speeding up, but that doesn’t mean we can’t learn to slow down. Coming from someone who understands what it means to be constantly busy, I am the first to admit this is much easier said than done.
But I got to a point where I had to step back and say, “this is all too much.” The years of being chronically over-tired were taking its toll, and I simply couldn’t do it anymore. Once I started consistently making sleep a priority, I realized that my motherhood journey felt so much lighter and that I am 100% a better mother when I get adequate rest.
I want you to understand, mama, that rest is not a luxury or something that belongs on our self-care wish list. Rest is something our bodies need to survive. It is as vital to our health as eating and drinking, and yet we are expected to do all the things and perform at our best when our primary source of energy is barely sustaining us.
We need to prioritize sleep by saying no to the things that can wait. And sometimes that means missing a deadline or letting the housework pile up.
It means setting a bedtime and sticking to it. Even if you have to input it as an appointment in your calendar. Even if that bedtime is 8 pm.
It means leaning on our partner or our village by saying, “I need your help so I can stay healthy and safe.” And maybe even letting someone else do night-time feeds and bedtime routines for a while.
It means not succumbing to the pressure that society puts on us to be the perfect parent, spouse, friend or employee and letting what’s possible be enough for right now.
It means putting everything down and taking a nap when you can no longer function because exhaustion is starting to take over.
It means hiring a nanny or a “helper” if you are able to, so you can use the time you have in the day to focus on what needs to get done, and not feeling guilty about it.
It means letting go of the expectation that you are everything, to everyone, and giving yourself grace when you need to drop the ball to prioritize rest.
This “no rest for the weary” mentality has to stop because, mama, you cannot run on fumes.
So, the next time you feel tired and know your body is screaming at you to go to sleep, listen and remind yourself you are a priority too.