Have you ever felt as if you are on a carousel and you can’t step off? Round and Round it goes… same old, same old…day in, day out…same story, different day. If only we could step off. If only we could step out of the fugue state, brace ourselves for the possible crash landing, make some minor tweaks and suddenly make parenting a cake walk, instead of a nauseating merry-go-round carnival ride.
A friend recently wrote me;
“It's Tuesday, and I call my sister to vent about life. But before I launch into to my "champagne problems" (as one of my friends likes to refer to them) my sister has her own rant. She starts talking about how monotonous the days are and how bogged down she feels by the mundane tasks at hand. She talks about her girl's homework, and sporting commitments, and how the dog has to have his stitches out, and....
I feel relieved. I am not the only one feeling this way, so I chime in with my two cents about starting off the morning with the irritating alarm clock (beep, Beep, BEEP), to the breakfast routine (cereal or oatmeal), getting ready for school (yes, you have to wear a coat, remember the house rule....under thirty degrees you wear a coat - like there needs to be a rule for that, hello common sense), to school drop offs (do you have your hat, mittens, boots, snow pants, homework, lunch, etc), then back home to meet a friend for a quick workout (I'm building muscle that's why I haven't lost any weight, right?), then errands (one of which was to buy "old man" attire for the 100th day of school theme), then the first round of after school pick ups, to sports, then dinner, then homework, then shower, and finally, bed. Now, what I'm leaving out are all the colorful details in between, like the fact that our one year pup has decided that it's fun to dig through three feet of snow to retrieve frozen crap, and then bring it to the doorstep as if she's presenting me with a special gift! Or the fact that my eight year old 'missed' the island and sent the gallon of milk sailing to the floor which resulted in a geyser of milk erupting into every cabinet and drawer crevice possible. Or, the fact that I showed my son the very cool supplies for the 100th day and he said "did you get the button down shirt", my response "no", his response "oh, what did you do all day?" Really? Does he want to go there!?
But I digress. In this conversation with my sister, she bursts into laughter and says "It's like Groundhog Day...again". Yes, yes it is. And there was comfort in knowing that someone else understood exactly how I was feeling. But the real question remained...'how do I get out from under the groundhog day feeling?” ...just then, her phone rang....she had to go....it was the school nurse calling to say her daughter had a fever.
My own fugue states have sometimes been seasonal (too many birthdays and holidays crammed into too few months suck all the life out of me each and every year), or environmental (competing forces of marriage, kids, and work, are zapping all my brain energy), or lastly as with my current doldrums, I complete a big project and am waiting for the excitement of what’s next (yes, excitement of projects I like make my parenting more fun). I can’t complain about snow days, given my tenure in California and Arizona, but I can only imagine as I spend days on end in the air conditioned house during summer months (one year I forgot the weather had changed until I actually saw people out in the neighborhood again). Everyone’s triggers are different, but the same dynamic usually occurs -we go on autopilot with our parenting- we do what needs to be done, going through the motions without much reflection, until we can pull our heads out of our butts and get back in the game.
I’ll be clear, parenting fatigue can last a few days or a few months and hopefully we have spouses or support systems who are able to step in and help fill our shoes while we rejuvenate. During one of these phases early on in my parenting journey, a friend who happened to be living with our family at the time, woke me from my stupor saying; “I’m not their parent, you’ve become the good guy and I’m the disciplinarian, that’s not my responsibility, and I’m not going to do it anymore.” Yes, sometimes having a straight talker in your life is just what you need, especially if the fugue goes on too long. We all need partners in parenting to bounce the crap off. Being able to wonder about feeling stuck helps immensely.
I’ll venture a guess that parenting fatigue, as I know it, is even more pervasive for parents of children with special needs or parents of at-risk kids. Parenting kids who have gone through Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) -such as divorce, trauma, poverty, loss of a parent- and doing so in a conscious way, adds a whole layer of hyper vigilance that is exhausting. Even the most adept parent becomes exhausted.
One follower puts it like this, “Not only do I have my own relationships to stay vigilant about, but I am also keeping the peace and coordinating relations between all of the other factions of the family.” When we counted all the connections just for a family of four it is pretty amazing more of us don’t end up in a padded cell.
As parents, we try to control all the variables -additionally keeping up with day to day care – meaning that parenting is no picnic. As a mother of ADHD kids with low activation and high distractibility, our mornings alone, with no extending circumstances, can be complete hell.
That said, parenting fatigue can also have some oddly humorous moments, when you are desperately looking for new strategies. Friends would laugh at the signs in our kids’ bathroom reminding my kids that full showers included using soap, washing butts/under arms/hair, and not just enjoying the warm water (AKA- Jungle Bath). By the time I caught up with the lack of cleanliness, the hot water was inevitably used up and I was frankly too tired for sniff tests. Yes, it is exhausting sounding like a broken record. Sometimes, I’d just stop caring…
Over the years, I’ve noted our warning signs: (maybe you’ve begun to note your own…)
- Making lunches and getting the kids to school on time is like climbing Mt. Kilomanjaro (...not that I really know what that is like).
- I stop smiling, laughing, and engaging in pleasurable ways with my kids. It all just feels like hard work.
- The typical ‘spilled milk’ becomes an incident of major and impossible proportions.
- I start letting my children’s behavior slip. My children get away with lesser offenses because my bandwidth for disciplining inappropriate behavior is stretched so thin.
- At the same time, as my parenting gets harder and harder, my expectations rise and I basically make them carry more of the responsibility. Sometimes this is an important change that acknowledges I have been catering too much, but sometimes demanding more of them is just developmentally inappropriate and wrong.
- Lastly, I might look to blame outside sources to excuse my parenting because I’ve lost my edge…reflective parenting gives me an edge, but not if I am too exhausted to be thoughtful. This is when I might seek excuses -something must be happening at school, my co-partner isn’t pulling his weight, this kid is just trouble- and while all these things may be true, it may also just be excuse for my own fatigue. (um, yeah, all those times parents came in and yelled at the preschool director about a lost pair of socks were hardly because of that director or that pair of socks!!!)
Whether you call it fatigue, ‘hitting the wall’, or ‘losing your shit’, we can and need to pull our head back out by taking care of ourselves. Seeking help from spouses, friends, or even counselors might be a first step. A parenting tune up never hurts anyone, and can be essential as parenting fatigue can become a self fulfilling prophecy…our kids are who they are, but they also will become who we think they are if we meet them with fatigue. Check in with yourself when the signs of parenting fatigue arise. Are you connecting or just running through the motions?
Making the tweaks won’t happen overnight but little steps add to our momentum towards the light at the end of the tunnel. Here are a few ideas;
- Add humor to your life. Pretend to laugh if you have to, starting somewhere, even if it’s just pet videos on facebook, can go a long way.
- Remember and reflect on other times you’ve made it through…seeing the finish line always helps the sprint.
- Call in the troops! Whoever it is that helps make life bearable. Misery needs company...that is certainly why the word co-misery exists!
- Change your ‘boring’ routine…or on the other hand, add a different routine…routine is boring for some, and is motivating for others…
- Seek refuge, even for just a little bit, what really brings you solace?
- Have a family meeting…I use pretty straight talk with my kids. I apologize for shitty parenting moments and I also speak honestly when I am not feeling well…you’ll be amazed how your kids will rise to the occasion if you communicate in an age appropriate manner.
- Keep up with the pleasures you do share with your kids…for me I can always manage cuddles or bedtime reading next to each other...these easy moments of connection can bring joy to everyone even when other ways of connecting feel painfully tedious.
- You also might need to try a way of connecting you don’t usually do...volunteering at school, having dessert for dinner....mixing things up!
My own therapist puts it this way… “In order to put the oxygen mask on your child in an emergency, you need to put your own mask on first.” We provide a great example for our children when we take time to figure it out, make an effort to take care of our own needs and then can take care of others.
And this last one really speaks to me… “You are the roots of the tree that keep the branches able to blow in the wind without breaking.” Sometimes we have to dig deep within to keep the roots in the ground.
Author’s note: If you have never felt like this as a mother or teacher more power to you, but you can’t be my friend.