It was while I scrolling through Instagram at midnight, an hour and a half after I had come up to bed for a much-needed early night, that I suddenly felt weary. Squares and squares and squares of images, enough to make you cross-eyed, all depicting parenthood as we know it today. Many are beautiful, or life-affirming, inspiring or funny or sweet: beautifully edited pics styled in sharp monochrome and gently misty shades of grey / mothers clutching new babies and beaming self-consciously / siblings who have been told to smile and are grimacing manically at the camera. Than there are the others: the Team No Sleep slogans, the messy top-knots (because if you’re washing your hair, you probably haven’t been up all night), the 5pm drinks. And the coffee. The endless, endless coffee. I love coffee. I LOVE wine. What’s exhausting, though, is the endless fetishisation of motherhood, the twisted reality we live in now where it’s not yumminess that’s extolled, but sheer exhaustion. The new honesty about motherhood – clearly something I’ve started to spend time waffling on about – is a great, great thing, a means to make us feel less alone when we’re having a bad day and think we must be the only ones going through it. But now we’ve recognised there’s a few people out there feeling it, and it’s suddenly not enough. If parenthood is now acknowledged to be hard, suddenly it has to be really hard. If the kids are playing up, it has to drive you to drink, not just be mildly irritating. And if it was OK to be tired before, now it’s cool to be so debilitated you want to rip your face off and eat it.
The cult of exhaustion is a dangerous one. Being so sleep-deprived, for so long, is not only emotionally damaging but physically harmful and causes a whole host of health issues, from breaking down in tears in the supermarket because you can’t find the milk to heart disease and diabetes. If one of our friends was suffering from a ‘proper’ physical ailment that had the same side-effects, we would be rallying to help, sending care packages and offering to come round so you can watch the kids and they can have a rest. The fact so many of us are exhausted shouldn’t undermine it – next time your friend looks at you with blank eyes and tells you she’s just so, so tired, instead of immediately chiming in; “Oh me too! Ethel was up 3456 times last night and I barely got 15 seconds of consecutive sleep,” just listen and than ask her, seriously, how you can help. Looking at practical ways we can get through this torture – because it is torture – is key, rather than glugging coffee, than wine, than spending your early nights glued to your phone which is only making it worse (DISCLAIMER: not practising what I preach here). Talk to your husband about him doing a night shift – or taking turns so you each get one full night’s sleep occasionally – have a free consultation with a sleep trainer to see if you can glean any tips that will encourage good sleeping habits for the children, just speak to someone and ask for sympathy, not a pat on the back and a breathless I iust don’t know how you do it. Because you’re not a better mother, or more hardcore, if you don’t sleep. At the end of the day, unlike the catchy slogans which insist on the contrary, sleep isn’t for losers, coffee isn’t the answer, and someone else being exhausted too isn’t going to make you less tired.