The other day, after nagging my children to clean up their rooms for weeks, my 12-year-old daughter finally did. And under the mounds of dirty clothes and clean laundry mixed together, the piles of papers and balls of colorful string for making friendship bracelets, she found her old diaries.
She called me in, so we could marvel together at her sweet, long-ago eight-year-old self.
She opened a little pink book embossed with flower designs to the first passage. “I love my family. My dad is funny. My mom is smart. My brother likes the drums. I like tv.”
Then, a few pages later, “My mom loves me. My mom gets mad a lot.”
My smile faded.
And the next page, “I love cats and dogs. My mom gets mad at me.”
My heart started to hurt.
She wrote on in her third-grade scrawl about fun family trips and friends, how she hated combing her tangled hair, and other normal preoccupations of the age. But here and there, the same deflating phrase kept popping up: “My mom gets mad at me.”
I wanted to explain. You have no idea, I thought, how insane it can feel sometimes — when you’ve been up till midnight finishing a story and an editor just asks, ”What’s next?” When you’re trying to fit in parent-teacher conferences, and waiting for the guy to come fix the AC, and suddenly remember you forgot to get anything for dinner. Or forgot it was your turn to drive the carpool to All City Band or to wrestling practice, or ballet. Or forgot to pay the flute teacher. Or the babysitter’s sick and you’re stuck in traffic. Or that, once again, you missed the one-day sign up for the cool summer camp you’ve never gotten yourself together enough to get your kids into.
You have no idea, I wanted to tell her, how it feels to do all that on about four or five hours of sleep, half of it spent trying to breathe normally again after an anxiety attack about all the stuff left undone, half done, or poorly done. How all that inadequacy weighs on your chest. How that long, long list of things Yet To Do scrolls unceasingly across your mind like the news ticker marching across the bottom of the screen on CNN.
Instead, I said again what I realized had been a sadly common phrase throughout her young life: “I’m sorry I snapped.”
And so, when I wrote on Tuesday about the new Pew Research Center report that found that mothers are more exhausted than fathers in every sphere of life: work, housework, child care and leisure, the shame I felt while my daughter shared her diaries began to make sense.
Because when you’re exhausted, when, as one reader wrote me, you’re “one sick kid away from a nervous breakdown,” it’s close to impossible to do the kind of meaningful work you’d like to do, or to be the kind of loving parent who never loses their cool that you’d like to be, much less get the laundry done or take a few moments of downtime.
It’s close to impossible, sometimes, to even feel like you’re inhabiting your life, rather than holding onto it for dear life with your fingernails as it flies past.
I know that research shows women’s time is more fragmented than men’s, that women are still expected to be the primary caregiver and homemaker, even when they work full-time, and that, as a result, women still carry a heavier “psychic load.”
But I know that fathers are exhausted, too. New research is finding that fathers who want to be more involved with children and home duties are feeling intense conflicts and even more harried than mothers.
We’re all tired.
Americans work among the longest hours of any industrialized country. American parents, however exhausted, spend among the most time with their children. We take fewer vacations. We sleep less. We have less time to pause. And the World Health Organization has found that we are the most anxious country in the world.
And it’s costing us. The National Institutes of Health is in the middle of a $30 million study about how stress and overwork is making us sicker. Our exhaustion and stress, researchers are finding, even acts as a “contagion,” like the flu, and spreads throughout the rest of the family, spiking children’s stress hormones, like cortisol, as well as our own.
Children, like my daughter, often remember most clearly what most frightens them. And a haggard, on edge parent at the end of their rope, losing it over a pile of toys on the floor or homework that didn’t get done packs a powerful impression.
What to do?
Perhaps the best place to start is to recognize something Katrina Alcorn, author of Maxed Out: American Moms on the Brink, told me: It’s time that workplaces stopped expecting everyone to work all hours as if they didn’t have kids — or lives. And it’s time that we all stopped expecting mothers to parent as if they didn’t have jobs.
Most moms work. Their labor is a big part of the engine driving economic growth since the 1970s, when manufacturing jobs began to disappear. Surveys show most dads don’t want to be the distant providers, staying late at the office or pulling a second shift and never going near a diaper, or checking homework, like many of their own fathers.
And new human performance, innovation and motivation science is showing that everyone — with kids and without — works better when their jobs have purpose, when their mission is clearly defined, and they’re given the autonomy to master it when, where and how best suits them.
Which brings me back to my daughter.
Ellen Galinsky, president of the Families and Work Institute interviewed 1,000 children between the ages of 8 and 18 for her report, “Ask the Children: What America’s Children Really Think About Working Parents.” What they really want? They didn’t mind that their parents worked, she said. They just wanted them to be less stressed and less tired. They wanted their parents “to be there for them.” They wanted time.
I can never take back those tired, angry words. I can never get that time back with my bubbly little daughter. But I can make the most of the time I have left.
So I’m going to stop working now. Go hang out with my kids before they’re grown and gone. And get some sleep.