Let me just start with this caveat: I only know my own new-mom experience, and as that time grows smaller in my rear-view, I don't know how much my recollections hew to reality, or how much they are shadows cast on a wall, longer, darker, larger than the thing that cast them.
New Mom Tired is a unicorn, unlike any other kind of tired you've ever experienced before or will ever experience again. New Mom Tired is so brutal that they use a variation of it to interrogate prisoners of war. New Mom Tired is the Great White Shark of tireds: ancient, simple, lethal, and laser-focused on its goal to break you.
New Mom Tired is a result of, sure, yes, not enough sleep, but also physical exhaustion from the marathon of labor, weariness from treading water in a bottomless ocean of powerful emotions and hormone surges, fatigue from attempting to scale the steepest learning curve of any person's life, and the burnout of trying to live your regular life with crippling deep-in-the-gut fear that something will go horribly wrong.
New Mom Tired is knowing you're alone out there. People try to help, but it's not the kind of help you need - they bring you food and tell you to take a shower, which is kind and generous of them. But when you don't know which way is up or who you are anymore, bagels and shampoo aren't the cure. You need a life raft.
You know, what?
Actually, allow me to utilize the Great White Shark metaphor to describe New Mom Tired to those of you who may not have ever had the great privilege of briefly losing your mind in the days and weeks immediately after becoming a parent.
NEW MOM TIRED
YOU'RE GONNA NEED A BIGGER BOAT TIRED
Okay, so you're swimming in the ocean.
|that's the one|
Wait! Actually, before you get in the ocean, you run a marathon, or possibly two back-to-back marathons. So you've just run between 26.2 and 52.4 miles, and now you're swimming in the ocean.
The water is deep and you know you're already tired, so you have a little knot in your stomach. You start to wonder if you shouldn't have planned ahead a little bit, maybe hired a lifeguard to come out with you, show you the ropes, and give you a minute to rest on her life raft. This is a new experience. You've never been out this far. But you look around you and you see land on 3 sides, so you think, I'm fine! There's land. This isn't, like, Mars. I can make my way back. No problem. You laugh a little. It's not like I'm the first person to run 1-2 marathons and then swim far out to sea, right? You see people on the street all the time who have done that! And I'm at least as strong and smart as they are. I'm okay. I'm okay. I'm okay.
But the water is deep. Your body is tired. And that practice loom upon which you are teaching yourself to weave keeps getting all snarled up.
OH! Didn't I mention that after running the 1 or 2 marathons and then swimming out into deep water, you have to learn a new skill completely unrelated to your previous life experience, just based on what you've seen other people do?
Every time you think about the snarled-up threads, you feel angry and embarrassed. This looks so easy when other people do it! They just pop the thread on and boom, ten minutes later there's a placemat.
You're treading water, and your legs are tired. You start to get really nervous. You start to think, something bad is going to happen.
But then you look around and you're like, calm down. There's land on 3 sides, easy swimming distance. Why are you freaking out? There's nothing to be scared of! Just calm down, master the weaving arts real quick, and -- (bump)
WHAT WAS THAT.
A little bump, a little jostle. Under the water.
Your heart is pounding as you kick a little harder and wave your arms in the air, trying to signal to the people on the beach - the smart people, the ones who didn't volunteer to run 2 marathons, dive into the middle of the ocean alone, and then attempt to acquire complex new skills without any guidance. They wave back. They're so excited for you! What an incredible day!
A speed boat swings by. It's your aunt! You reach out to her, and she throws you a casserole dish of macaroni and cheese. Then she spots your loom and says, "oh, you're weaving! Such a natural, beautiful skill. Of course, in my day weaving was out of fashion. We just bought our placemats at the store! Enjoy every minute! It goes so fast!" Then she takes your picture, guns the speedboat, and heads back to the beach party where, no doubt, they are talking about movies and books and cool new memes and not stupid weaving, for God's sake.
Speaking of weaving, when your aunt stopped by you dropped the loom. Now you scoop it out of the water and the threads become hopelessly tangled around your fingers, so when you start to weave again it really hurts. But you have to learn how to weave. Those placemats are really important. You take deep breaths and long, flat exhales, as every pull of the thread pinches a little more. This is the gig, right?
FUCK FUCK FUCK!
You gasp and splash around for a second, flailing so hard that you drop the blind, 3-legged kitten that has been balancing on your head this entire time.
OH! Didn't I mention that after running the 1 or 2 marathons and then swimming out into deep water and then learning a new skill completely unrelated to your previous life experience, just based on what you've seen other people do, you are also doing all of this while protecting the safety and nurturing the development of a defenseless, helpless creature?
The kitten mews and shivers as you pull it out of the water and cradle it to your cheek. It's okay, it's okay little one. We're going to be okay.
You start to cry.
A kayak arrives, slicing through the waves toward you. It's your friend Megan! She says, "let me hold that kitten! Oh, what a gorgeous kitten! You take a few minutes for yourself now." You hand the kitten to Megan, and take a few minutes for yourself.
There is nothing for you to do, for yourself.
You bob up and down in the waves, next to the kayak that does not have a seat for you in it.
You tread water.
You look around.
You're surprised to see that the land is still there.
You see your loom floating in the water.
You think, fuck weaving. Weaving is bullshit.
You pick up the loom and start weaving again.
It doesn't feel like you have a choice.
(bump) (a flash of gray skin slips by under the water)
"DID YOU SEE THAT?" you say to Megan. She looks up from nuzzling the now-sleeping kitten, and says, "what? I didn't see anything. Well, I'd better get back to the beach. Call me if you need anything!" You need something. You have no idea what it is. You say "thanks, I will," as she hands the kitten back to you and starts paddling back to shore, where the beach party is still going full-throttle, and you can see a couple of bonfires have been lit, and your friends are dancing, barefoot, in the sand.
Your legs are dead weight.
The loom's threads are pinching and scraping your fingers, and it's a snarl of wrong starts and knots.
The kitten on your head wakes up and begins to cry.
Your husband swims by, with long athletic strokes, and says, "I did the dishes!"
You scream, THERE IS A GREAT WHITE SHARK OUT HERE AND I AM NOT STRONG ENOUGH TO FIGHT IT! IT IS GOING TO KILL ME AND THEN WHAT WILL HAPPEN TO THE KITTEN?
Your husband dives under the water and comes up holding a piece of driftwood. "It was just a piece of wood, babe."
He doesn't understand that it doesn't matter if it was never a shark. It felt like a shark. It felt like a ticking clock. It felt like the end.
He says, "it's okay. You're okay. I'll take the kitten for awhile. You just float."
You lay on your back and stare up at the sky, shot through with brilliant sunset streaks. You see the first stars emerge, and shine down on you. You inhale. You exhale. It's going to be okay.
Your husband taps you on the shoulder. "Babe? I'm sorry... I can't get the kitten to sleep. Do you know what to do?"
As the weeks pass, you swim closer to shore. You find rickety purchase, first in sand that shifts under your feet in the riptides of sleep regressions, nipple blisters, baby's first roll off the couch, what color should the poop be again, what is hind milk, how many words should I be speaking to him...
Closer to the beach the ground firms up and your feet fumble on the rocks, some as slick as projectile vomit on your face, some as jagged as the first white tooth that cuts through the gum, some comforting in their smoothness, as lovely and round as a cheek.
You find your way back to land.
But you never forget how it feels to be New Mom Tired. New Mom Tired is a comprehensive depletion. It's heady, thrilling, terrifying, lonely. It's lovely, too, wild and beautiful.
Never will you be more grateful for rock and sand under your feet.
Never will you be prouder than when you stand on the beach and look out into the waves.
Never will your heart ache more than when you see a friend out there, bobbing, treading, casting.
You'll wave to her and remember how it felt to be waved to, how you thought those waves were a yoo-hoo, a toodle-oo, the careless gesture of the childless and lighthearted. How the arms in the air were just reminders of how far you'd drifted from where you used to be.
You'll wave to her from the beach, and understand that the arms in the air were not salutations, but salutes. They say,
You are strong enough.
I'll see you soon.