Everybody knows that tiredness is the hallmark of new motherhood. Even before you actually give birth, you fully expect to spend the next few months of your life stumbling around in a sleep-deprived stupor. "Get all the rest you can!" crow the experts from the pages of your pregnancy-and-childbirth books. "Sleep when the baby sleeps!" wisely advises everyone, from your grandma to your mail carrier.
And then you bring your bundle of (apparently nocturnal) joy into the world, and find that, yes, you are so tired. You've never been so tired. You're staring off into space, leaving the car keys on top of the car, looking for your phone while it's in your hand tired. The bags under your eyes could be better described as luggage. But you operate despite your continual haze, buoyed along by the thought that someday — maybe not today, but one of these months — the baby will start sleeping through the night and then you won't be so tired any more.
Only . . . you're wrong. You're so wrong.
Sure, in terms of purely physical tiredness, it gets better. At least a little. Your baby needs you less in the night, and you may occasionally get six or more hours of sleep at a stretch. (Or you may simply adjust to the constant sleep deprivation until it becomes your new normal and you don't notice it anymore — whatever.) Either way, you won't always feel like it would take toothpicks to prop your eyelids open and an IV drip of caffeine to make it until bedtime.
But the tiredness of motherhood is a different kind, and it lasts for years. Decades, even. It's the kind that comes from constantly operating under the weight of caring and remembering and accommodating. We are under a perpetual obligation to fulfill the needs of our kids in so many ways, from the earliest days when you literally do everything for them, to later on, when you're remembering sports schedules and due dates for school projects and that you need to thaw some chicken for dinner.
It's physical tiredness, yes – chauffeuring and cooking, folding laundry and fetching everything everybody ever loses – but it goes so far beyond the physical. Our minds are heavy with both static facts we need to hold onto (like birth dates and allergies) and a barrage of constantly-changing information (like who sold what for the PTA fundraiser and what specific food they'll be consuming in bulk this week). We mentally balance and juggle.
And, oh, the emotional strain. If you're lucky, it will be low-level when they're little; toddlers will have meltdowns, and you'll sigh because they're being irrational and there's very little you can do about it. But as they get older, their problems become so much more profound than "I want this cut-up banana reassembled," and those toddler tantrums seem achingly simply by comparison.
They'll have problems in school, they'll have fights with friends, they won't make the team, they'll get their hearts broken — and you, who would gladly take it on yourself if it meant sparing them the heartache, can only help them so much. So you hurt on their behalf, you cry right along with them, though you have to bear the heaviness of doing it in secret so they don't see you being anything but optimistic. You'll stress over huge, potentially life-altering decisions: ones you'll make on their behalf and ones they'll make when they're technically old enough to make them, but not mature enough to be smart about it.
Motherhood is a marathon of physical and mental and emotional energy, like holding up a boulder though every muscle fiber in your arms is burning. It's a grueling, indefinite test of stamina. There is no end point in sight; all you know is that you must keep going, have to, for as long as it takes. But in the process, it changes you into something better. It shows you that you're stronger and more capable than you ever dreamed you'd be. And to get through it, you've got the greatest incentive of all — not the strength it gives you, but the strength it gives your children.
Product Credit: Left: Everlane sweatshirt, Gap sweatpants / Right: Marigot PJ shirt