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Managing Exhaustion

It's been a rough week. My kids are both going through some sort of sleep regression. I thought that with the shorter days and darker mornings, we'd at least be in the clear until 7 am, but alas, it has not been the case. My daughter has been waking at random times of night to use the bathroom and insists that we get up to turn on the light for her. In her process of slamming the toilet bowl and the door, she usually wakes up her brother. Or he will start crying and wake her up and the whole scenario replays several times a night.

Before we left for vacation I was telling Josh how much I loved the phase our kids were in. They were both sleeping, they were starting to play well together, and my youngest seemed to be hurtling out of his infancy and into independent toddler-hood. Maybe they're punishing us for leaving. Maybe it's another lesson in letting go. Whatever it is, it stinks.

I've been running the daycare since my son was only a couple of months old. It was VERY challenging in the beginning. I was learning to adapt to two children instead of one, and then caring for sometimes four other children on top of that. Those days seem like a blur now, but I do remember repeating the mantra "just survive".

I really dislike the autopilot zone of "survival". I prefer to thrive. Really, up until vacation, it finally felt like we were moving out of survival mode and that some semblance of balance was making its way back into our lives. But, I was wrong. One of my good friends once said, "The thing about raising kids is that you should never get used to anything. If something is really good, it's going to change. If something is really awful, it's going to change."

That's hopeful advice for when you're in the trenches, but it's bummer advice when you're leaving a things-were-so-good period.

So here I am, down a week's worth of REM sleep and managing the 5 am to 8 pm job of mothering and teaching. My fuse is short. My enthusiasm is vacationing back in Maine. My transition to tears is a quick one. My husband wants his wife back.

Middle age isn't for sissies. We are woken early by our children and for all of their waking hours we are meeting their needs, often before we can wipe the crud from our own eyes or pee. We go to work and we are met with more demands. We come home, make dinner if we've had the time to plan and prepare it, and then we slump into a zombie-like stupor before falling asleep after an hour or so of coveted adult alone time. If we're lucky, we get some REM. If we're not, well, we survive.

Sleep deprivation and sickness are my biggest occupational hazards. It's hard to show up fully for six bright eyed young children when my well is depleted. The fighting, tears, and fits that come with this territory are annexed to a background-noise level when I'm at my best. But when I'm this tired, the yelling and the screaming start to wear heavily on my nervous system and my energy flows toward the simple task of just keeping it all together.

I'd be lying if I said the children have never seen me in tears.

If you've ever parented or taught, then you've been here. You know the "just survive" mantra. Parenting, teaching, and childcare in general is just one big fat lesson in letting go. So much of my own struggle comes from what Thich Nhat Hanh calls the "second arrow". It's the idea that pain is inevitable, but suffering is a choice. The first "arrow" is the external circumstance that causes an affliction, and the second "arrow" is the story we create around the circumstance.

I can pull a good example from this morning. When my son woke up at 5 after my daughter had kept us awake for much of the night, the affliction was exhaustion. The second arrow, was the story I told myself. I told myself that because of this early waking, my day was going to be shot; that it would be hard and that I would be tired and irritable. Wouldn't you know it, that's exactly how the universe responded to my story. I was tired and I was irritable this morning. But when I put some attention on it, I realized that there have been days in the past when I've had terrible sleep and the following day was just fine---good even.

So if I really look at examples from my life, a lot of times my struggle has been self created. There is a way to "be" inside the body of fatigue and not be a sour puss about it. It's not something I've mastered, but I know it's possible because I have done it. Here are some strategies that have helped me accept my exhaustion, and transmute it and/or hold it enough that I'm not feeling the need to spew it on everyone in my vicinity:

1. Tuning into my body. I feel my nervous system. I notice where I'm holding everything. I long for a massage---usually not available right when I need it. I allow my body permission to hold tension until I have the time and space for an outlet. I breathe into those tight spaces in the same way I hug a crying child; gently, lovingly, and with compassion.

2. I REALLY observe the kids. I step out of my role as caregiver and tune into my role as observer. The chaos and flurry of their activity becomes a dance of sorts; pure energy moving like molecules inside of an atom. I marvel at their beauty, their innocence, and If I'm honest, I long for just an ounce of their energy.

3. I get grateful. It's easy for me to forget sometimes that my daughter almost died in childbirth; that without medical intervention she would have. So I try sometimes when she is screaming to be thankful for her scream, to remember that a solemn silence could be in its place. I think of how lucky I am to be able to work from home, to have a husband who loves me so much, to have a roof over my head and food to eat, to not have bombs falling outside my door. It's so easy to fall into the this-is-so-hard story and out of the this-is-so-amazing one.

4. I channel it. Writing helps me. Creating in any way helps me. It's necessary for my soul's survival.

5. I teach it. I don't hide my exhaustion and irritability from the kids. I name it. I tell them when I'm feeling tired or angry or frustrated. I break down into tears when I've reached my breaking point. I don't slap on a smile and lie. That's not me and never has been. I think it's important that children see us emote and learn that it's OK to feel. So teaching them that there are many feeling states and that it's good to express them in healthy ways is one way that I hope to pass on emotional intelligence to them.

In adult life, and in the world of childcare, every day is an opportunity to meet your circumstances with compassion, grace, and a sense of humor. I'm not an expert at it, but I show up. I meet challenges and process them with the capacity that my heart, mind, and body allow. If I happen to suck at it that day, I let it go and move on. And, if I'm lucky, I get some rest.

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