The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

This was the tired year

What did it mean to be a working mother in America in 2022? It meant needing sleep — and being unable to sleep.

7 min

The things I have tried in an effort to get my toddler to sleep past 5 o’clock in the morning would baffle you, or at least they baffle me, and I’m the one who tried them. Later bedtimes, earlier bedtimes, night logs, blackout curtains, wake windows, sleep cycles, dream feeds, Woolino sacks: If you have no idea what these terms mean, then you probably do not have a toddler who wakes up at 5 a.m., in which case, congratulations, and also bugger off.

I talked to one sleep expert who said my daughter just needed to cry it out for a few minutes, but that did not work. I talked to another sleep expert who said we needed to move dinner 30 minutes later, but that did not work. I tried a method called “wake to sleep,” wherein my husband or I were supposed to creep into my daughter’s bedroom at 4 a.m. every night for two weeks and lightly jostle her, which would theoretically reset her body and disrupt her habitual 5 a.m. wake-up, and that temporarily worked, except it gave me, myself, a habitual wake-up of 4 a.m., and nobody was willing to jostle me at 3.

It’s been one year since I returned to work after maternity leave, and I told my editor that this column was going to be about everything I’ve learned about being a working mother in America, except that nobody I know in 2022 felt as if they were parenting in America; they felt as if they were parenting from a crater on the moon.

It’s a rocky landscape, where one day seems like 29.5 days, and an onslaught of viruses — the tripledemic — keeps attacking your family like alien life-forms, and when you squint, you can see Earth, a planet you vaguely remember once living on and to which you one day hope to return. Covid was “over,” except that child-care shortages, plus your children’s pandemic-rattled immune systems, plus employers who had used up all of their patience before omicron, left parents still gasping for air and desperately seeking gravity.

We are living in virus hell

In the middle of all this, I wanted to sleep past 5 a.m.

What I learned about being a working mother in America is that nobody feels as if they are doing it particularly well. What I learned is that day-care teachers can somehow get your child to eat chicken when she absolutely does not eat chicken. What I learned is that cheerfully kvetching about parenting is encouraged — the kind of kvetching embodied by a T-shirt reading, “I run on coffee and chaos!” — but agitating for actual systemic support, such as guaranteed sick leave or universal preschool, is seen as greedy. Any politician who smarmily calls mothers “superheroes” is telling on himself: The whole point of superheroes is that they don’t complain and that they would never dream of asking for tax dollars to pay for state-subsidized child care.

I learned to only buy pajamas with zippers, not snaps.

I learned that string cheese and 97 peas are fine for dinner.

I learned that the way your daughter says hi when you get her in the morning — even when morning is the pitch black of 5 a.m. — feels like a new color has been invented. A new color that only you can see, one that matches you exactly, but you can’t really describe it, and when you try, it sends the breath right out of your body.

Forget about being a working mother. Forget about being a working woman. This was an exhausting year to be any kind of woman, or any kind of person who cared about any kind of woman.

This was a year to learn that the Supreme Court considered it a private matter if a man wanted to take over the 50-yard line after a high school football game to pray in public, but not a private matter if a woman wanted to end a pregnancy in her own uterus.

This was a year in which state legislators who couldn’t chart an ovulation cycle if their lives depended on it felt free to blithely propose legislation that other people’s lives did depend on: “heartbeat” laws that prohibited abortions after six weeks, a point in time at which many women don’t even know they’re pregnant. Bills banning rape and incest exceptions.

The year 2022 had whole dystopian side plots related to targeting womanhood. Groups persecuting drag queens who were just trying to read children’s books at library story hours, or persecuting transgender girls who were just trying to run cross-country. In Ohio, the House passed a bill that permitted gynecological exams performed on any student whose gender had been questioned. (The state Senate modified the bill to replace pelvic exams with birth-certificate checks.)

“Can you provide a definition for the word ‘woman?’” Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) demanded of Ketanji Brown Jackson at her Supreme Court confirmation hearings. The point wasn’t that Blackburn needed a biology lesson; the point was that she wanted a culture war.

Throughout this year, I kept thinking about a moment in one of the comedian Hannah Gadsby’s stand-up routines. “I’m clearly gender not-normal. I don’t think even lesbian is the right identity for me. I really don’t,” she told her audience. “I might as well come out now. I identify as tired. I’m just tired.”

Can you imagine what it would be like to not be tired? To wake one morning not because democracy was screaming in the nursery next door, but because you were actually refreshed and rested?

Can you imagine what it would be like to feel as if you could catch a breath, to go to sleep secure in the knowledge that the things that desperately needed your attention could wait until the morning? The country wouldn’t startle you awake in the middle of the night. The country wouldn’t pull off its own diaper.

To be a parent or to be a citizen means knowing there is nobody to fix this but you: in the nursery, in the voting booth, at protests, in conversations with your own family. It means acknowledging that sometimes when we’re asked the most is when we have the least to give, but somehow, you give it anyway. You just keep getting up.

I’ve been thinking about something a friend told me, a friend whose children are old enough to get themselves out of bed in the morning. I had told her about how my daughter wakes at 5 a.m. And my friend said: “Yes, she does that now. She did that today. But maybe she won’t do that tomorrow. She won’t do it forever.”

A few days before I typed this, my daughter slept until 6:07 a.m. I don’t know why. Nothing special had been attempted; no new schedules had been employed. A car honked, and she slept. A dog barked, and she slept. And I slept, too, for the first time in months. It was enough to show me the possibility of better things.

The next morning, she was back up at 5.

This is my New Year’s wish for you: I wish for restful pauses. Chances to gather yourself. Glimpses of better things. I wish for you to struggle on, tired as you are, toward the better things and then, eventually, to sleep through the night.