As a parent, I have compassion fatigue

They feel like it's their bed, too, so it's become a den for baby tigers who want to roll around wrestling, eating and ...
They feel like it's their bed, too, so it's become a den for baby tigers who want to roll around wrestling, eating and squealing. Photo: Stocksy

My daughter is having nightmares, which means that I am too, and I'm furious. Hey, I never claimed to be Florence Nightingale.

Did I mention that my eight-year-old twins sleep with me? Seemed like a cute idea on holidays a couple of years ago, but because they are smarter than me and know how to capitalise on my desperation for sleep, they're still there. "We're scared of the holiday beds. Can we sleep with you?"

"Oh, for God's sake. All right."

"Can we watch TV in bed for half an hour first?"

"Oh, please help me someone. Okay.

"Can we throw a nightly B&S ball in your bed for the pets, all of our toys and all of our shoes, which you'll then have to clear out before you can lay your exhausted body down?"

I'm joking of course – as if they actually ask if they can turn my bed upside down every afternoon after school. They feel like it's their bed too, so it's become like a den for baby tigers who want to roll around wrestling, eating and squealing in their own filth.

But I'm a grown woman, damn it! I want a neat and flowery refuge of low lighting and crisp, clean sheets in which to read and recharge. So every night before I can go to bed I have to pull it back together. Every night we perform the same ritual: they stand aside in their nice clean jammies, their damp hair combed neatly to the side and on their faces their best attempt at a pretence of shame, as I say wearily, "You people are killing me."

Then, with the bed made perfectly again (although always somehow with a rogue My Little Pony waiting to wedge itself in my body in the middle of the night), they climb aboard, call the dogs in and commence kicking and pulling the sheets and blankets and arguing over what to watch on TV. Eventually, and usually quite suddenly, they fall silent. I revel for a few weary moments in their steady, rhythmic breathing. No more squabbles to referee, schoolyard dramas to mull over or requests for water. The day's parenting is finally done, and I … can go … to sleep.


"MUM!" I hear in the darkness. I pretend I haven't heard it, so she says it again louder, and adds a rib-poke. "MUM! I've had a nightmare!"

"No, no, no!" I think, because I know what this means for me. It means lights on for hours. It means whimpered descriptions of various stupid computer game and YouTube characters that kids at school have told her about. It means endless inquiries as to how long it is until morning. And it means no more sleep for me.

I know it makes me a selfish old moll, but I'm admitting to you right now that really, for the most part, I'd run out of that real, emotional surge of compassion by the time I lied about the dog eating their dummies. That's right: as a parent, I have compassion fatigue.

Look, I can go through the motions, I can pat a back, I can cuddle on the couch and I can genuinely listen – we have great communication. But what I can't do is sit bolt upright in bed at 2am and really feel for my daughter and her nightmare, because I'm so consumed by my rage at being woken up again! Does that make me a bad person?

Maybe it's a mum-of-twins thing, maybe it's a me thing, maybe it's because these people are killing me, but I've always been more of a pragmatic reactor to their pain. Yes, that's a more positive spin. I like that. I just don't get over-emotional.

It's probably character-building for my daughter to be threatened with being sent into her own room to sleep by herself if she doesn't stop whimpering. She'll no doubt thank me for it in a stirring speech in adulthood. Or it'll be read out in a court room one day, but let's allow the future to take care of itself, shall we?

For now I just need some advice, if you have it, on helping kids overcome nightmares – and hiding My Little Ponies from people too old to believe dogs eat them.