I 100 per cent get how tired you are right now

sleep deprivation
“Oh, the sleep deprivation. I 100 per cent get how tired you are right now.”
So says the bearded tradie I’ve never met before, who is currently in my kitchen attempting to fix our under-sink plumbing.
It’s just after 8am and I am on the couch nearby in my pyjamas, bleary-eyed, feeding my squirming toddler.
We’ve been up together since 4am, except for the not-sure-if-it-was-worth-it nap I wrangled between 7.15am when hubby got up to get ready for work and 8am when the plumber banged on the front door and the kid-baton was passed back to me.
Can this guy really know what it’s like?
I’ve spent 9 months growing a human inside me, and once, twice, three times that again growing one outside my body. I can count the times she’s slept through the night on one hand, and day sleeps are but a distant memory.
Like I’m sure he can relate to being tired, but could he ever really get it, 100 per cent?
My mind wanders to the chapter of Naomi Stadlen’s beautiful book What Mothers Do, knowingly titled “So tired I could die”...
A voice from under the sink comes my way again, while I’m attempting to keep a sneaky foot from fly-kicking my throat.
“I’ve got three at home,” he says. “It’s a tough gig, this parenting business.”
He’s right. It is. Only I just can’t fully relate to the ‘parenting’ term for it. In the daytime, when we're both around, it’s definitely ‘parenting’. Between bedtime and sun up though, it feels a lot more like ‘mothering’.
Stadlen’s book, first published in 1990, recounts the stories and words of mothers with babies and toddlers who are, unsurprisingly, very tired. A mix of biological requirements, gendered paid and unpaid work splits and social attitudes at that time left most women doing the bulk of the overnight caring, as well as the majority daytime duties.
30 years later, as I was researching for my own book and reflecting on my own peers, I despairingly found these norms still rang true for so many families.
While both parents will (literally) lose sleep in the first year of baby’s life, researchers Plage, Perales and Baxter’s 2016 analysis of Australian gendered parental sleep trends tells us that mums lose the equivalent of over 6 days’ worth of sleep (that’s 150.8 hours) more than dads by each baby’s first birthday.
If you have three kids together, they tell us, the mum of the house can expect to get 8 days (192.4 hours) less sleep per year than the dad, and the sleep they’ll have will be at a lesser quality than his.
You’d think it might change if mum returns to paid work, but it doesn’t seem to: hetero fathers’ weekly paid and unpaid (household and caring) work totals 72-73hrs per week regardless of how much his female partner works outside the home.
If you’re a mum or will be soon, the sleep data for mums with kids under 4 is pretty grim reading.
I know it’s a society-wide problem, that it’s not just me. I know that it’s not about my bedroom configurations, how I feed my baby, my commitment to a bedtime routine, whether I shell out big bucks on all the programs and gadgets or support my kids’ sleep.
It’s just that kids aren’t great nighttime sleepers, and among straight-couple-with-kids families, mothers are doing the bulk of the overnight support by default, choice or default-dressed-up-as-choice.
Yes, we can negotiate it, but we’re tired. We’re tired of getting the short straw by default, tired of having to negotiate everything over and over again instead of dads just doing their share, tired of being tired.
Right now, I’m also tired of having a stranger in my kitchen rabbiting on about something of negligible interest to me while I calculate how many hours it will be until tonight’s bedtime.
I wonder what this man’s wife, who has recently emerged from Western Sydney’s lockdown where she had two kids remote learning, a toddler and a husband deemed to be an “essential worker” would think of his comment about “getting” my tiredness.
I wonder if parents outside of the heterosexual, cis-gender binary still get boxed into “primary caregiver” lines at nighttime too.
I wonder if my child will know that nuclear families stink for mothers before she (potentially) becomes one.
I wonder if… except that I don’t, because my toddler is finished and has somehow scaled the back of the couch before I’ve even managed to button my shirt up.
Our bearded guest starts throwing things loudly into a toolbox and tells me he’s finished too and to give him a call if I have any problems.
That’ll be $240, please.

[ID: Anna, a white woman with tired eyes, crouches on concrete and looks up at the camera.]


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