Burn Out, then Fade Away

My world is shrinking. I used to be able to relate to other people. I used to be able to muster sympathy. I used to be able to care for my kids without snapping at every little defiance. But right now I can’t.

I’m burned out. I’m burned out on taking care of the kids. I’m burned out on being a mom in general. When I used to hear “Mommy?” I felt needed and ready to tackle any challenge Rose had for me. Now when I hear it, I wish I could leave. Just leave, and go somewhere where there are no kids, and not have to answer her at all.

How did I get here? I should have seen it coming. For one thing, I haven’t had any time off since three hours in May, when I left the kids with Matt so I could see a movie. For another, potty training efforts went down the toilet. Rose was doing so well, and I thought she’d be fully trained before long and then she lost interest. We tried to force her by making her wear panties instead of pull ups. That led to “accidents.” They weren’t all deliberate but no matter what, I’d wind up cleaning a puddle of pee somewhere in the house every day, sometimes twice a day.

Being up to my wrists in urine all the time took its toll but Rose wasn’t finished with me yet. Her tantrums became more frequent and spectacular. She’d have at least one tantrum a day, during which she’d scream like a howler monkey, destroy whatever room she was in, and get violent with me or her baby brother.

So every day I had to clean up pee at least once and deal with one or more huge tantrums. To top it off, many of those tantrums were triggered by a refusal to nap – a battle we’d have at least three times a week – so I got no down time. I don’t get down time with them unless they both sleep at the same time. Rose has a regular naptime but Christian’s naps are unpredictable.

I did get some time without them. Rose went to camp four days a week and to a babysitter on the morning on the fifth day. Christian spent some of his mornings at the sitter’s, while Rose was in school. So I did have my mornings without the kids. But mornings were occupied by work, so they definitely weren’t “mom time.“

I am extremely grateful that I had mornings without the kids. I am. But then I feel guilty. How can I burn out when I get a four-hour reprieve from mothering every day? And further, I spend that time doing work that I love. How can I complain? It makes me feel worse because in my mind, I’m not entitled to what I’m feeling.

Part of the problem is that I rarely interact in the grownup world, and when I do, it’s with other moms, our kids are there and we all talk about them. So my whole existence outside of work revolves around children. Of course I get sick of it. I could get sick of pistachio ice cream if it was all I ate every day for months on end.

So not only am I burned out, I feel guilty for it. And this week it got worse.

Matt had a death in the family. It was the third one this year, and it was sudden and tragic. The deceased played a big role in Matt’s young life. Shocked, Matt mourned. He wanted to go to the funeral. He bought plane tickets we cannot afford to fly in and out in two days, so as not to leave me with the kids for too long.

I want to sympathize. I mean, my God, he is suffering a great loss. I want to help him through this. I want to mourn properly. But I can’t. Because I’m feeling so bad myself that my world has shrunk, all I can do is try to navigate my way out of my own feelings. And it makes me feel horrible. I’m his wife. I’m his best friend. I’m supposed to offer him comfort and support. But it’s like I’m in a plastic bag. You know, the kind that says “keep out of reach of children.” I am in the bag and trying to breathe and each breath sucks the bag closer and closer to my face, making my world smaller and smaller, threatening to suffocate me.

So here I am, suffocating. Matt left today and I’m spending two days alone with the kids – a Friday and a Saturday. I honestly don’t know if I’ll make it through. If I do, Matt has promised to give me some time off Sunday. For now, I’ve got a plan. Gym tonight, because they have babysitting. Gym tomorrow morning, same reason. McDonald’s PlayPlace after that. Hopefully naps. Then a party with the Parrot Heads. It’s easier to take them out of the house than to be bored and gloomy at home. Plus some of the Parrot Heads will give them some attention. Plus there’s alcohol there. Can’t go wrong with alcohol.

If I make it, I’ll need a new plan. Just like I plan for the kids’ needs, I must plan for my own. I can’t let this happen again. I need to schedule some days off. I need to use my mother’s day gift – one night at a bed and breakfast. I need to find ways to move in the grownup world.

I’m not going to let this happen again. I let it go too long and I am burned out at the worst possible time. There’s no good time to fail as a parent or spouse, but some times are worse than others and this time is particularly bad. I have to get back some of myself. Until I do that, I won’t have any of myself to give.

The Passion for the Pacifier

I spoke too soon. I knew saying it would bite me in the butt. Remember when I gloated over two parental wins – Rose quitting her pacifier and Christian crying himself to sleep? Well, it turns out we weren’t quite as successful as we thought.

It seems we can still maintain one victory – Christian crying himself to sleep – but Rose quitting the pacifier? I should have known it wouldn’t be that easy.

Since the first week, when we thought we’d licked the pacifier habit (and I wrote a whole post about it), Rose decided that she did not want to give it up. First she decided she couldn’t sleep without it.

“Iiiiiii waaant a paaaaciiii,” she’d moan as we tucked her in.

“If you sleep without it you’ll get a surprise in the morning,” I’d say.

“What is it?”

“If I told you, it wouldn’t be a surprise.”

“Ohhh kaaay,” she frowned, lowering her head to the pillow.

“That’s my big girl!” I’d say, walking away smiling.

Eight minutes later, “Mooommyyy!!”

“What is it, Baby?”

“Iiiiii waaaant a paaacciii,” she’d moan.

“But what about your surprise? You can’t have it if you have your paci.”

“I want my paaacciiii!”

“Just try to go to sleep. Try for five minutes and see, okay?”

“Okay,” she sniffed.

“Just lie down and close your eyes and you won’t even notice,” I’d say, walking away.

Two minutes later, “Moooommmmyyyy!”

“I waaant myyy paaaaciii. Please Mommy!”

Sigh, “Okay. I’ll get it.” We’ll quit tomorrow. It’s the only way we’re gonna get any sleep tonight.

But we didn’t quit tomorrow. We tried, but she just would not stop crying or fall asleep and we couldn’t take anymore.

For a while, she was ok with the pacifiers I’d cut off at the tips, but then her brother’s pacis started disappearing. When we put Rose to bed — nap or nighttime — she’d lie down with one arm under her pillow. The first time I reached under, I found one of Christian’s pacis, with her hair wrapped around the base. She likes to do that with her hair. Yes, it’s gross, but we can’t stop her. It started once we cut her hair too short for her to chew on. She reaches up, plucks out a few hairs, puts them in her mouth and wraps them around her pacifier. Since her hair was already on it and she was just getting to bed, she must have used it already – at nap time or last night. Great. I confiscated the offending Binky.

“Nooooo! I waaant it. I waaant it,” she sobbed.

“Baby, this is your brother’s. You have your own paci.”

“I want one with no hole in it,” she sobbed.

“Rose, you’ve got to give up your paci. You can use these for now but you can’t use your brother’s.”

“But he can use it,” she said.

“That’s because he’s a baby. Pacis are for babies.”

“I waaaanna be a baaaaby!”

“Oh, Honey, you’re a grown-up girl. You can do so many things babies can’t do. If you were a baby, you couldn’t go to preschool, or swing so high, or watch Dora.”

“I just waaaant a paaaci,” she sobbed.

“You have one. Use the one you have.”

“I want one of Christian’s!”

“I’m sorry, Baby, this is what you get,” I said.

And that happened every nap and every night, until she was able to steal another paci. I noticed she was unusually happy at nap time, with her arm under her pillow, so I reached under and grabbed another paci, making her cry.

“I WAAANT IT!” she screamed.

“Baby, no. You have your own paci,” I walked away.

“NOOOOOOO!!!”

She’s still using her pacis to go to sleep. Both have the tips cut off, and she’d rather have them intact, but she settles for them because they’re all she’s got. Today I cut them down a little more. She didn’t seem to notice. I’m hoping that the smaller they get, the less she’ll need them but realistically, the smaller they get, the harder she’ll work to steal her brother’s pacifiers. She can’t use them forever, but I’m not sure how hard I should push, either. Right now, he brother wakes up early. Matt gets up with him and then goes back to sleep when I get up, but neither of us are getting enough sleep. It’s not easy for us to motivate to stay up late with Rose, too.

The other thing is that Rose is doing really well on her potty training. She averages one accident a day, which is ok for now, but she has to get better by August, when she goes to a new camp. The camp requires children to have “independent toileting skills” as I read in the camp manifesto when I signed her up. I’m afraid that if she has an accident or two, they’ll kick her out, and I need the childcare. So we need to focus on potty training. That said, last year we put off potty training until after her brother was born because I wanted her to deal with one thing at a time, plus she’s the type of kid to regress. She would totally have gone back to diapers when Christian was born.

We never intended to put off paci quitting. There was just never a time when we thought, Hey, this is the perfect time to lose sleep for a few weeks. Let’s do it! Her dentist told me last year that three is the magic number when it comes to pacifiers. They’ve got to give them up by their third birthday. Rose is three-and-a-half and instead of forcing her to give up her paci, I put off getting her dental checkup. She has an overbite that either comes from my genes or my inability to clamp down and take away the paci. The dentist warned me that her overbite would only get worse, and every day it gnaws at me that it’s my fault the kids will call her “Rabbit Face” or “Chipmunk,” and that she’ll hate her braces because our insurance won’t pay for the clear kind.

This is not my proudest parenting moment, but when I think of all that pacifier did for me – all the sleep it facilitated, all the crying it curtailed, all the boo-boos it bandaged – I can see why I’m having such a hard time letting it go. That paci was the Robin to my Batman, my trusty sidearm, my ace-in-the-hole. Considering how difficult it’s been for Rose to quit, we did consider opting out of the paci habit entirely with Christian, but we decided against it. We decided that we need our pacifier. Once it’s gone, as we’ve seen, nothing can take its place. I just hope we survive the withdrawal.

Banishing Bad Baby Behaviors

Well, we did it. We quit the pacifier with one kid and “cried it out” with the other. When I wrote “Who Needs Sleep?” I said we’d combine these ordeals into one short period of pure hell. I got a lot of “Yeah, good luck with that,” from other parents. And I really can’t believe it myself, but it worked.

When I discussed the pacifier issue on the blog last year, a friend told me to try this method: Give the pacifier anytime she wants, just cut it smaller every day. Well, we had already restricted the pacifier to bed time, but I cut off the top, making a big hole in it, and Rose said she didn’t like it anymore. The first day!! She kept telling me to throw it out and I kept giving it back, because this was too good to be true. As I left her room, I thought for certain she’d be calling me back, whining “I waaant a paaaaci…please?” But no such request was forthcoming.

The next day, I figured she’d look for the paci as soon as she awoke, but she just sat on the couch and asked for breakfast. At nap time, I brought the rejected paci to her bed. Again she told me to throw it out. Then she refused to take a nap. It made sense that there would be consequences to quitting the paci cold turkey. She stayed in her room during nap time and I sucked it up.

That was Monday. She’s missed one more nap since, but I think it was more about not having burned her energy than not having the pacifier.

On Tuesday, I was holding Christian as he fought sleep. Whining, wriggling, watching and wheedling, he was beginning to get on my nerves. I’d made the commitment to let him cry it out, so I tried it. I heard him cry for less than five minutes and then silence. It was so quick I had to check to make sure he was still breathing. When I did, there was my baby boy, peacefully sleeping in his crib.

This is too easy, I thought. Rose cried for at least an hour when we did this with her, how could Christian be so quick? I couldn’t wait for his next nap to try it again. Next nap, same thing. Less than five minutes. Still breathing. How was this possible?

Ok, so now that I’ve met two major parenting goals, I figure I can blow off any parental ambition for at least a few months. But this whole process has taught me something. I could have done this months ago and reduced my stress, not to mention Rose’s need for braces. I treated the whole thing like vacuuming. I will put off vacuuming for weeks. My carpet will fill with popcorn, raisins, Play-doh, and still, I cannot motivate to vacuum. If by some miracle, I do get the motivation, vacuuming’s done in five minutes. So I’ve spent so much time putting off something I could have done in five minutes. I do the same thing with sewing. Rose’s Hawaiian dress lost a strap months ago and it’s still sitting in my sewing pile. I even bought that glue that’s supposed to replace stitches. How long could it possibly take to glue fabric together? Still, it languishes in the pile.

So I guess I’ve learned that I expend more energy avoiding things than I would if I actually did them. I’m going to check out my sewing as soon as I’m done writing. But I doubt I’ll vacuum anytime soon.

Who Needs Sleep?

Two weeks ago, my husband, Matt, and I were two smug parents. Why not? After suffering five months of midnight feedings and one month of 6 a.m. wakeups, our boy started to sleep later, until 6:30 or 7, sometimes even 7:15. Yes, we thought, we conquered the night. Christian was finally a good sleeper. We could rest easily and enough.

Until now. For no apparent reason, the kid started waking at 4 a.m. again. By stuffing him with rice cereal, we were able to coax him back to 5:30 a.m., but that was it. We came, we saw, but this time the night kicked our collective ass.

At the beginning of the ordeal, Matt’s shift lasted until 6:30 a.m., when mine started. Although he’s the one who works outside the home, he’s much better at losing sleep than I am. He can function on five hours sleep – badly, but still. I can’t function unless I get at least eight hours. I know what you’re saying and you’re right. I’m a sleep wimp. And it took a long time and a lot of 5:30 a.m. wakeups for Matt to believe in my need for sleep. But now he does. And he loves me so much that he volunteers for the midnight baby shift. And for that, I am truly grateful.

Although I like to attribute his sacrifice to love, affection may not be his prime motivator. On the days that started at dawn or earlier, I’d grab the baby and plod to the living room, where I would feed him and place him on the floor to play. Then I would crawl under a blanket on the couch and doze until my daughter, Rose, or Matt would wake up. If Rose awoke first, I’d get her breakfast and crawl back under the blanket to doze until Matt’s alarm at 7. Then I’d go back to the bedroom to hand the baby off to Matt and sleep for an hour until Matt absolutely had to get ready for work.

When Rose was an infant, I’d wake up early with her and fight sleep like a teamster on the night shift. Sometimes, I was ashamed to say, sleep would win. Christian is my second child and I definitely treat him as such. I don’t even pretend to be awake this time around. The living room is childproofed, so I tell myself it’s a safe environment and of course, if he gets somewhere uncomfortable, he’ll let me know. I know it’s bad parenting but I can only give what I’ve got, and I have not got 5:30 a.m. wakeups in me. I think that Matt took the early morning shift to shield the children from my neglect. And again, I’m grateful.

But all this losing sleep is taking its toll. Matt woke at 5:30 with Christian today and I got up at 6:45 so he could go back to sleep. He had until 8 to sleep, and I thought an hour and 15 minutes would give him some much-needed rest, but he awoke in a horrible mood, bemoaning the whole morning process. Apparently he’s not as good at losing sleep as we thought.

Exhaustion has taken its toll on our relationship, too. We no longer have the energy to meet each other’s emotional needs. We both know we’re just tired, but nevertheless, we get touchy when we miss our hugs and kisses or private grownup conversations.

We need to find a solution that works for both of us. I spent the morning reading up on infant sleep. If we could just go back to that sweet spot of 7 a.m. wakeups, everything would be fine.

We know what we must do, sooner or later. We’ll have to let him “Cry it out.” Every effective sleep solution I’ve seen is some version of “cry it out” –where the baby must cry itself to sleep. Every parent I’ve known who had sleep issues had to endure “cry it out” eventually. We did it with Rose when she was nine months old and it worked. She cried herself to sleep and learned to go back to sleep if she awoke. Although I didn’t think so at the time, “cry it out” was easy with one child. I had a high tolerance for crying, and at the time, we, and the neighbors in our building, were the only ones losing sleep. But when we have Christian “cry it out” he’s going to wake Rose in the next room. And she’s a monster when she’s cranky.

So here’s my solution: Rose needs to lose her pacifier, so if we banish the binky and “cry it out” at the same time, they’ll both cry and we can condense all of our misery into a few days or, at worst, a week. And once Christian sleeps and Rose quits the binky, maybe Matt and I can get some sleep again.