Saturday, August 21, 2010

A Different Kind of Tired

I was talking to my husband the other day about how tiring it is to care for a baby, but how it’s a different kind of tired than going out into the world to work each day. Anticipation of another day with my baby doesn’t keep me up at night with worry, or make me nervous in the same way that I might be if I am about to teach a new class or meet a new roomful of students. It can be utterly exhausting, to be sure, but it isn’t a kind of work that fills my mind with obsessive thoughts or anxiety. It’s a kind of work that for me, for the most part, is blessedly devoid of ego.

There’s no boss to please or clients to impress. There are no communication games to play or battles to wage, no guessing games about hidden intentions, unspoken resentments, or judgments harbored inside. There’s no fear about whether people like you, what impression you are making, all the self-judgment that we pass on ourselves each day. It’s just me and my baby, doing my best to stay present with his needs.

True, his needs are near constant and incredibly demanding with no breaks scheduled in, much less any autonomy to claim them at will-- not even to take a shit or a shower. But at the end of the day, when I am utterly drained, I never have a sense of dread about waking up the next morning and starting a new one. Caring for my baby simply is what it is. In spite of my recent worries about my son’s gas, allergies, and sleep patterns, caring for him is still a cleaner, simpler kind of tired. I trust in my role as his mama. I still worry, yes. But at core I know that I’m doing the best I can.

Caring for any child holds forth an immediate, constant lesson in being present with each moment. It teaches patience and acceptance like no other job I can imagine. If you can master these skills, then you are liable to enjoy child-rearing as your full-time occupation. Days can feel long and spacious. One activity flows into the next. One has the ability to slow way down and to come closer to taking in the world from an infants or child’s perspective. Look at the brilliance of this yellow sunflower. Listen to and watch the magical spray of the water coming out of this hose. Feel the rhythm of this swaying reggae music. The world holds such an infinitude of wonderment and discovery. This is what we wake to each day.

But lest I paint a too idyllic picture of what our days are like, and thus perpetuate the myth that staying home with the kids is somehow easier than going to work in a suit and tie, let me just reiterate that it is not easy, only different. More devoid of psychological maneuvering, yes, but more constant and never-ending—and often compounded by sleep deprivation, chores and housework, and a gnawing reminder of all the other things you’d like to be doing which you no longer have time to do.

My good friend who holds a demanding position at a nonprofit and who recently returned to near full-time work after over three months of maternity leave, has said that the days where she is at work all day are actually less tiring than the days she is at home with the baby. She’s come to appreciate little pockets of time, such as riding the bus to and from work each day, in which she is not doing anything, and where she can just be by herself. Herein lies a key difference. When you are a full-time mother or childcare giver, you don’t have any moments to yourself to take a breather.

Being at home alone with my baby for four days a week, I want my husband to understand how hard it is, even when to him it may sound like most of my days are fairly carefree (met so and so at the park, walked to the pond, watched Family Feud, etc.). It may look like I do a lot of laying around on blankets or nursing in bed, but those moments of “rest” are never really restful in the way that one can rest when you have the ability to completely “check out”. For when you are caring for a child, you are always “on.” And this seems doubly true for a new mother, in which your body is programmed to tense and jump and sometimes, yes, run, at the slightest call and need from your baby. Even when you sleep. You are always on call.

I certainly don’t envy my husband, however, when he has to pack his bags on Monday mornings and head out onto the road, giving presentations to doctors and trying to get his foot in the door at clinic after clinic. And I do possess a certain freedom and luxury in my ability to stay home all day if I please, hang out with new mom friends, and not have to engage with many of the stressors of the outside world. But if he could live my 24-hour a day reality for even just a week, I’m sure he’d have a new appreciation of what I do. And likewise, if I lived his job and work week, I would too.

But as it is, I envy his ability to take off to the river alone at the end of a long, hard day and fish in the elements until nightfall. Or to meet up spontaneously with a friend for dinner and a beer. Or to even have a beer without waiting till nightfall, and even then, still feeling slightly guilty for it. I envy the ways in which he is still very much a free agent in the world, with an identity that is separate from the baby still intact, or, at very least, still easily accessible. I envy the fact that he’s gotten hours upon hours of time away from the immediate demands of being a new parent since Cedar was born, whereas I could probably easily tally the short, two-hour dashes to a café breaks I’ve had they are still so infrequent and precious. And most recently, I envy the fact that he can eat whatever he wants without worrying about how it will affect the baby, and how he still sleeps sound and hard most nights, whereas I wake up every couple hours to have to nurse and settle Cedar.

And yet, I still wouldn’t trade places with my husband. For I can’t imagine giving up the intimate bond I have with my baby; I would feel sad to not be the one who is closest to him. Despite my complaints, I am grateful to be the one who stays home with our baby. I can’t imagine being on the road, away from home, so many days a week. And I am grateful that my husband is out there, working hard to support us.

In my ideal world, I could still work part-time, and we could trade off more of the care for our baby. But the problem is, the kind of work I do, as a freelance writing teacher, editor, and mentor, never did bring in very much money. And the work I miss the most—my soul work, my creative work, my writing--  hardly brought in any money at all. So this is the way it must be for now, the best arrangement we have found. I must continue to learn the lessons of patience and acceptance from my baby and my role as full-time mama. And I must allow for this work to feed me as much as it can, to not pine so much for what I’ve given up, but to hold fast to all that I’ve gained.

Yes, everyone said it would be tiring, and it is. But it’s a different kind of tired than I’ve known before. It’s a kind of tired that is less existential, and more rooted in the present moment. For there’s no question in my mind that what I’m doing right now is what is most important, and that it’s what I’ve chosen.


  1. Tearfully true. As I sit here reading with Oliver on his play-mat cooing away, my head thumping in anticipation of the coffee brewing. Oh wait, coos changed to cries. Duty calls!

  2. " It’s a kind of work that for me, for the most part, is blessedly devoid of ego." This is so beautifully expressed! Thank you Anne, for articulating the experience of a mother so beautifully.

  3. "A different kind of tired" -- yes -- "rooted in the present moment" -- exactly. I love and admire that you have seen and articulated that so clearly right from the beginning. Motherhood is very demanding but in a way that expands you, in such unpredictable and amazing ways. Half the work of writing is living. It'll balance out.



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