With eight babies and twenty years of sleeplessness, making peace with perpetual exhaustion was critical for my happiness and sanity. I imagine many mothers (and fathers) out there can identify with this. So let us ask: is there anything good about "mom exhaustion"?
As I pondered this question, I discovered there is a very special beauty that only a mother's exhaustion can create. Here's how:
1. You surrender everything on the periphery.
Basically, when I became a mom, things didn't get done. Far from a resignation, this period of time became a deliberate experiment in "simply being," and not "always doing."
After my fourth baby, I nixed all after-school activities. In the age of the over-scheduled suburban child, even I worried about the hiatus. People would ask, "You mean you cut basketball practice?" Yup, we did. The taxi gave way for tranquility, and everyone (not just me) not only survived, but thrived. Sometimes, all you need is space. And time.
2. You have to figure out what's actually important to you.
Exhaustion doesn't just mean "letting go." Exhaustion makes you ask, "What do I hold dear?" given that your energy is more limited. I found myself on my knees more and more, literally and figuratively, asking this question.
As a result, I became a softer mother, a stronger wife and a more attentive person simply by identifying what (and who) meant everything to me.
3. You will learn mercy.
I still remember the day I sped straight through a red light, after five nights of no sleep following the birth of my eighth child. Miraculously, the major route was vacant at that moment. I still catch my breath when I think about it. Now, a couple years out of baby-fog, I find myself saying, "Maybe they're just tired," when someone cuts me off in traffic, or writes a curt email, or forgets a commitment. Exhaustion left a permanent mark in the shape of circles under my eyes, but it also forever changed the way I see others.
4. You will grow averse to multi-tasking.
People often say, "You must be a great multi-tasker." I imagine many mothers get this a lot. But the truth is, I don't multi-task at all. With so many daily interruptions, I had to learn to do things one at a time, start to finish, and very deliberately.
A deep self-trust grew from this and overflowed into areas like housework, exercise and starting a business. I discovered that it was more satisfying to do five things well in a day, than ten things halfway.
5. You learn that it is OK to need help.
After my fifth child was born, my husband insisted on getting help. My first reaction was defensive. "I'm fine. I don't need help," I replied. I didn't realize he was doing this out of a deep love and appreciation for me. I saw it as a criticism. But, again, my exhaustion trumped my ego. Not long after, I found a wonderful, loving nanny. Now I could think beyond the next ten minutes, I could rest, and even get a pedicure. Getting help was a victory, not a defeat.
6. You learn to feel separate from your kids (and their success).
My kids only needed to know that I cared deeply about their educations and that I loved learning, myself. They never needed me to coordinate Halloween craft parties. I had to get over all the stuff I thought moms "should" do. This produced an unexpected benefit for my kids. As I would gently say, "You have your job, and I have mine." Their academic successes came from the culture we created in our home, not from frequent classroom appearances or other over-the-top involvement in their lives.
7. You trade in perfection for passion.
When you have a few kids, you realize that perfection doesn't exist…not in you and not in your kids. Once I bought out of the illusion of perfection, I received the gift of passion. This is when motherhood got fascinating for me. I finally lived a life that wasn't determined by externals, like my kids' grades or their good behavior. My physical limitations provoked me to go deeper into the meaning of my motherhood. Even if I was too tired to think, my heart kept beating, asking for purpose in whatever I did. It was through the blur of fatigue that my daily tasks actually became clearer, and much more fulfilling.
If any of us moms knew the toll of exhaustion beforehand, we may never have gone through with it. And for me, this would have been tragic. My exhaustion made me more alive, more human and more of a woman than any full night of sleep ever could have promised.