An almost unavoidable part of parenting – unless, I suppose, you have a cadre of full-time nannies – is exhaustion, both physical and mental. Too little sleep, too few respites, and too little time dedicated to your own needs can all contribute to a state of deep fatigue that leaves you, at best, lethargic and unmotivated and, at worst, depressed or physically ill. And exhaustion leaves you without the energy to send healthy messages to your children to boot.
Even worse, fatigue leads to expediency – one of the most harmful words in parenting – which means acting in your self-interest rather than what is best for your children. Unfortunately, “self-interest” and “good parenting” don’t play well together. If you’re exhausted, you’re naturally drawn to doing what requires the least amount of effort and energy. If you’re being expedient, you have probably given up on sending healthy messages to your children. So, for example, you give your daughter the cookie before dinner to stop her from whining even though it will ruin her appetite or you buy your son that toy in the supermarket checkout line because you don’t want him to make a scene. Easiest short-term solution? Definitely. Best long-term message? Definitely not.
A real test for all parents in communicating messages to their children is whether they are able to send healthy messages when they don’t want to, when they’re tired, stressed, or rushed. You don’t want to be a “fair-weather messenger,” meaning you only send healthy messages when it’s convenient. A fair-weather meta-message (my word for the messages that underlie the overt messages) is that you only stick to what you believe in and only do the right thing when it’s easy or opportune. That’s certainly not a message you want your children to get. A recent survey of 1600 parents showed that about 17% describe themselves as “Softies” in which they say that “I’m sometimes too tired to be firm with my child even when I know I should,” “I sometimes let too many things go,” and “I sometimes give in too quickly.” The result of being a softie, 54% say their children waste money shopping, 48% believe they are overindulging their children, 81% bribe their children, and 53% worry that they are raising rude children.
Another meta-message when you are exhausted and being expedient is that your needs are more important than those of your children. Children pick up on that meta-message like a bloodhound on a scent because at a deep level they feel unvalued and neglected. Still another meta-message your children may get when you act expediently is that when life gets difficult, it’s okay to take the path of least resistance.
There is no easy answer to how to reduce your fatigue. The unfortunate reality is that you have been and will continue to be very tired for the foreseeable future; it’s called being a parent. At the same time, you can’t possibly be a good parent if you are in an constant state of exhaustion; a dog-tired parent makes for unhappy children. As a result, you must find ways to recharge your batteries; Whether it involves your spouse letting you sleep in once a week or getting some exercise or quiet time or an evening out with friends, such “selfish” pursuits (in quotes because it is actually very unselfish; you’re doing it to be a better parent) can keep total exhaustion at bay (plus the hope that you will some day get a decent night’s sleep; perhaps when your children go off to college!).
When you’re really tired, it’s difficult to think clearly, weigh options, and make good choices. In other words, it’s just too hard to think, so you will likely fall back to your knee-jerk reactions. When you’re exhausted, you’re more likely to be emotionally hypersensitive and reaction, which leads to frustration and anger very quickly.
If you don’t have a clear idea of what messages you want to communicate or have a strong commitment to those messages, then your default will be to not send the positive messages at all when you’re exhausted. But if you have given considerable thought to the messages you want to convey to your children, have established a steadfast resolve to those messages, and you’ve sent the messages so often that they are second nature, then sending those healthy messages will be your default. Doing what is expedient will actually require more thought and effort on your part. And, hopefully, when you know what is right, you will have a healthy dose of guilt for even thinking about acting in your own self-interest and a healthy does of resolve to send the right messages no matter how tired you are.
I’m not saying that you have to send the right messages to your children 100% of the time. That is a burden that no parent could ever shoulder. Sometimes doing what is expedient is necessary for your own health and sanity (if you don’t have those, there’s no way you can be a good parent), as long as it’s the exception and not the rule. So don’t feel guilty if you slip up periodically; welcome to parenthood! In fact, a key meta-message that your children need to get is that you have needs too and that they can’t always be the center of the universe. As long as the preponderance of messages you send to your children are healthy ones, they will get the messages and meta-messages they need to get, even when you just want to close your eyes and go to sleep.