The ugly side of parenthood is often depicted through humor. Memes of frazzled parents in messy homes, before and after shots of men who lost their cool when they became dads and GIFs of snarky mums clapping back at demanding children grace social media, offering parents the gift of reprieve in the form of a laugh. The sense that "it's not just my house that's crazy" feels good.
And yet, the bigger message parents receive from these same social media channels is perfection. Perfection is implied in beautiful photos of school lunches with perfectly cut triangular sandwiches that fit inside colorful bento boxes, and happy children who are clean and not addicted to Fortnite. The worst offenders are the images of relaxed mothers doing yoga, drinking enough water, eating perfect combinations of carbs and protein, and laughing with careless abandon at their child's antics. This choreographed and curated depiction of how parents should be in the world is pernicious and leaves little room for how it really feels to raise children.
In a word: exhausting.
When I became a parent, I knew better than to fall for that curated parenting perfection. I was realistic about how kids would change my life – no more late nights, going broke paying for day care – but I was shellshocked to learn how spiritually, emotionally and physically hard motherhood would be. Clearly, I had not paid attention to mum friends who had taken the plunge before me. I saw the results of their labor – kids who weathered adolescence well, attended college, had jobs – but I missed the behind-the-scenes homework struggles, inconsolable toddlers, cracks in once-solid relationships and self-doubt for not living up to societal expectations.
Now, 12 years into the parenting game, I know better. The reality is not pretty.
I can't count how many nights I have awakened to find the television still on, almost like it's watching me. Noticing the trend, my 12-year-old son commented, "Mum, you fall asleep with the TV on a lot. That's not good for the environment." Busted, I nodded in the affirmative and mumbled "I will do better" to his accusation that my carbon footprint was too big.
I don't bother to bore him with the real reason the TV stays on all night. He cannot handle the truth, I think, but my friends can. So I share that with them, commiserating that after another very long day, I am too worn out to reach the remote on the pillow next to me, so the television stays on until I roll on top of it or I get up to use the bathroom.
Then my girly daughter came along.
When her brother was a toddler through early elementary school, we spent hours listening to "Muffin Man" and other kid-friendly music. Likewise, my daughter adored those tunes and would bop her little head to the beats. It was fun seeing her eyes light up when Raffi sang about bananas. Heck, I even joined her.
Then one day, those early-morning sing-a-longs lost their luster. I could no longer maintain the same enthusiasm for the sweet songs. I was over the animal sounds and sick of hearing adults imitating kids. I started fantasizing about breaking CDs in half as I drove away from day care, thinking I would rather jump from a moving vehicle than listen to The Wheels on the Bus one more time. My mum friends laughed.
I wonder if I should tell my kids the reason I let the dishes air dry. There is no way I can wash, dry and put them away, and still be available to help my son with pre-algebra, or listen to my daughter's retelling of life through her 6-year-old filter.
Countless stories that start with "Mummy, guess what?" trigger a switch in my brain to focus and lift my voice a few octaves higher. "Tell me, sweet cheeks," I encourage. While I am mostly enchanted by the stories of who did her wrong, there are times when I wish she'd get to the bottom line. While she's talking, I'm doing the math, trying to calculate how long it will take for her to bathe, brush her teeth, read a book and hit the hay. Sometimes I tune out and "uh-huh" her until she stops. Or if it looks like it's going to be a doozy, I promise to hear all about it in the morning, which is a lie.
I'm spent and hope she forgets.
I'll probably tell my kids these and other stories when they're grown and considering parenthood for themselves. For now, I'll swap tales with my exhausted friends who also present the face of loving sacrifice, even when they're hanging on by a thread. We remain grateful for the opportunity to shepherd these souls into adulthood, knowing that many women cannot conceive, IVF did not work and alternate paths to parenthood were not appealing to them. Motherhood was, after all, our choice, not our kids'.
But I also wonder if we do our kids a disservice by not letting them see how fatigued we are. Hiding the truth sets them up for an unrealistic parenting experience. They may be disappointed that things are far from perfect. And lying by omission denies them some important life lessons: Everyone will not love them the way their mother does; everything they do is not cute; and moms need to recharge, without the kids around.
While I figure out which pill to take – honesty or deceit – I squeeze in time for myself. It's not nearly enough, but regular exercise, going to book club meetings and watching melodramatic programs featuring ladies with ridiculous manicures or dedicated detectives able to solve real-life cold cases goes a long way. These dedicated acts of self-preservation allow me to accept that exhaustion is part of my parenting journey and to trust the wisdom of empty-nesters: "They grow up so fast. Enjoy the ride."
Nefertiti Austin is the author of the forthcoming Motherhood So White: A Memoir of Race, Gender, and Parenting.
The Washington Post