People told me it would be harder. The been there done that empty nest mothers. They said, “Just wait until they’re older.” Lovely, I would think.
They would stop me in grocery stores (they were shopping alone—so jealous I was) and they would tell me how much I would miss these days—these days spent wiping butts, counters, faces, and toys with the same verve and enthusiasm a sloth shows at a marathon start line.
They told me to cherish every minute. Ha! Minutes. The only thing I was cherishing at that time was the amount of minutes I found myself catching at night. And I do mean minutes, because hours were not happening with enough frequency to even garner measurement.
Full of total crap I thought they were. Total. Crap.
There is no exhaustion greater than that of making your way through the bleary days of having a newborn.
I mean, there is no exhaustion greater than that of making your way through the bleary days of having a newborn and a toddler.
I mean, a newborn, a toddler, and a preschooler.
Hang on a sec. Retraction coming.
What I really mean is that there is no exhaustion greater than the bleary days of having a newborn, a toddler, a preschooler, and a school-aged kid. Yes. Now that’s really exhausting.
It’s the physicality of it all.
The up and down into cribs, changing tables, and high chairs. The permanent heaviness of chunky legs and solid middles wrapped around your body, sitting snuggly at your hip for hours on end of each day.
The bending over the crib to deposit a sleeping baby, the leaning over of the crib patting that same baby’s back for 30 minutes to induce deep sleep, and the changing of the pee-soaked crib sheets a few hours later—only to find yourself having to change them again the following morning.
It’s the strapping and unstrapping of 30 pound two-year-olds into five-point harnesses, the lugging of infant bucket seats into grocery carts and backseats, and the folding, unfolding, and pushing of strollers that has your tired back, triceps, and patience screaming for relief. Any relief. A nap. A hot bath. A good, long sit in a chair without someone sitting on your lap.
The years spent taking care of babies and toddlers is one long obstacle course of over touching, endurance busting, soul sucking selfless acts of love that drain you of your last ounce of energy.
You run a real, physical, bone numbing marathon daily when you have little kids, and of course you’re exhausted.
So how could it get more exhausting than that? Enter the teen years.
Because when you have teenagers, you run a metaphorical mental marathon daily, and let me be the first to add myself to the throngs of “been there done that moms” before me who once said, “Just wait until they’re older,” because they were right. I know this pill may be harder to swallow than that grainy, pink glucose concoction you had to knock back while pregnant to rule out gestational diabetes, but it’s a pill that inevitably everyone out there right now rocking a colicky baby to sleep and thinking, “This is as hard as it gets,” is going to have choke down one day.
Your three-year-old throws a fit, slams a door, stomps his feet, and yells at you because you forgot to cut the crust off his PB&J sandwich. Easy fix, you just take the sandwich back and cut off the crust. Problem solved.
Your teenager throws a fit, slams his door, stomps his feet, and is disrespectful to you simply because you exist. There is no easy fix for that, and thus begins the five-plus-years-long mentally exhaustive emotional gymnastics meet you are competing in until they go to college. (Or move out. Join the Army. Volunteer to teach across the planet—who cares, just go.)
The events at this kind of parenting mental meet go far beyond anything as easily solvable as the problems of bread crusts, skipped naps, 2 a.m. feedings, potty training accidents, and scribbles with black Sharpie on your newly painted walls. Those things—as frustrating and draining as they can be—are problems with consequences that are negligible. The problems you have (and the subsequent overthinking of them) while raising teenagers come with consequences that can bear lifelong implications. I would even dare say the level of panic, worry, and anxiety seems to increase tenfold with each year past age 13.
Handing the wrong color sippy cup to an overtired three-year-old will most certainly elicit a reaction that will wear on your short-term patience, but it will not keep your mind buzzing all night every night with worry. But you know what does? A 16-year-old out with your car until after midnight does. SAT scores, bombed calculus finals, and hormone fueled meltdowns also do. Social media infused girl drama, college application essays, and the dreaded FAFSA—all of those will keep you up at night. And then there are the worries about sexual promiscuity, drug and alcohol use, and the many long-and short-term romantic and friend-to-friend relationships that young people have to navigate.
Those worrisome issues don’t magically go away after the first few years of teen-dom. They last throughout the high school years and well into the college years—which incidentally brings with them an entirely differently menu of anxieties. What will they make of themselves? Will they choose the right majors? Will they move back home? Will they find life partners? Will they make the right career choices?
And the mental anxiety marathon in your head just keeps racing and racing, and the thought fatigue moves in and makes itself right at home in your mind’s living room of worry. And the exhaustion, though no longer physical, is truly unbearable.
There is however, a light at the end of the tunnel. Just like when there comes a point when your baby finally sleeps all night, there comes a point when your young adult begins to live his own life—which means you get to start living yours again.
The transition to empty nest can be the most rejuvenating and energetic time in your life, as it should be, because you’ve just spent the previous two decades sleepwalking through childrearing, and now it feels like you can actually take a break. You have long since forgotten the tiring 2 a.m. feedings, and standing weary by the front door at 2 a.m. waiting for you teen to pull in the driveway, so celebrate that! The only exhaustion you should be having after your kids move out should be coming from how much fun you’re having, because you’ve earned it.
(And somewhere during all that fun will be plenty of time to nap. I promise.)
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