Dear Gentle Butch,
My husband and I had our second child a little over a year ago, and we’ve been having a really rough time.
Our daughter had a fairly run-of-the mill infancy and is now a bright, verbal, inquisitive, high-energy four-year-old.
Our son doesn’t have any serious medical issues or anything, but he was colicky for the first six months of his life, and had a bunch of random ailments (back-to-back ear infections, a giant canker sore on the tip of his tongue that prevented him from nursing or taking a bottle for 10 days, etc.) that led to a lot of misery and lost sleep for all of us.
He’s physically healthier now, and developing normally, but he’s still an anxious, clingy banshee screamer who hates sleep–seriously, when he’s at full volume he sounds like a concrete saw or a dentist’s drill or a Nazgul or I don’t even know what. The CIA tortures people with noises like this.
I dragged my husband and myself to therapy when the baby was 6 months old, because I could see that things were bad and not getting better, and it turned out we both had postpartum depression–I didn’t even know men could get it. Therapy helped somewhat through the end of the year, but then we had to end it because the deductible reset and it was no longer affordable.
I work a full-time job and my husband is a stay-at-home parent; I’m the primary parent whenever I’m home in the early mornings, nights, and weekends, so we’re actually both doing about 50% of the child care, only I’m working a full-time job on top of that, and he has some sensory issues that take a very high toll on him having to listen to the banshee screaming all day every day.
We’re exhausted and miserable, we’re barely able to be present enough to connect with our daughter and give her the care she needs, and we’ve almost given up on trying to spend time together and connect as a couple. He gets a few hours to himself in the evenings between dinner and bedtime, but my free time is so fragmented and unpredictable that I’ve given up trying to do anything meaningful with it–if I get a moment where no one is demanding anything of me, all I do is scroll mindlessly on my phone, because I have no way of knowing when I’m going to be interrupted next.
Everyone keeps giving me “it gets better” speeches, but I’ve lost the ability to think far enough ahead to believe that. So yeah, we’re pretty burned out.
The reason I’m writing to you is because I feel really guilty for being burned out. We’re white, straight-passing, middle class, and able-bodied, and I have a stable, well-paying job with (mediocre, but still) health insurance. My husband’s parents are local to us and our daughter is able to spend the night over there every week or two, to give us a bit of a break (the baby can’t do overnights yet, he’s 13 months and doesn’t sleep through the night reliably, plus he gets very anxious, unhappy, and screamy when left with other caregivers). We have an amazing community of friends who have brought us meals, babysat the kids for free so we can get out for a bit, and provided endless sympathy and commiseration.
But even with all this privilege on our side and all the help we’ve been able to get, I’m still running on fumes with no end in sight, and beating myself up about it because so many other people have it so much worse than us, and why can’t I do better and be better when I have so much to work with here?
Do you have any advice that could help me stop feeling bad about feeling bad? How do I let go of the guilt so I can move on with just the ordinary difficulties of everyday life?
— Burned Out
Dear Burned Out,
I absolutely ache for you.
There is a part of my psyche that is trapped in the hellish twilight of sleep deprivation, exhaustion, and despair that is having very young children.
I was so sleep-deprived that I hallucinated bugs crawling on me. Our baby and then toddler kept having more tantrums than really seemed normal, and it got worse when we tried to rock and hold him. Then when we had two, and everything got exponentially harder. My kid was punching his preschool teacher and throwing fits nearly constantly. When we found out that he had Tourette’s and autism, we added in at least two or three weekly doctor and therapy appointments to our plate. I didn’t make very much money and my spouse stayed at home, we had no relatives in town, and we felt that we couldn’t leave our baby with anyone else, either.
I had a particularly difficult time when raising my boys when they were young, with very little if any outside help.
And I think you have it worse than I did.
I need to say that again to be very clear: You have it worse than I did.
I tell you this because what you are describing sounds just unlivable. A baby who cries especially loudly AND constantly AND won’t sleep, just by itself, is a nightmare. Caring for that baby while trying to take care of a bright, verbal, inquisitive, high-energy four-year-old sounds nearly impossible. It’s exhausting enough to run around with a high-energy kid, especially an inquisitive one, without anything else to do.
You literally never get a break. Ever. Your parents might take the four-year old two or three times a month, but you are still with that baby who screams and screams. And working full time while also taking the burden full-time of caring for your children as you’re giving your husband a break is going to burn anyone out.
Now. Let’s look at your privileges, and how they are helping you right now.
You say you have parents who live close, who give you a break every once in a while. I mean, that’s great, but since you feel you can’t hand over the baby, this is only a very slight advantage, and it’s mainly for your daughter who will get uninterrupted and quiet adult time.
You say you are able-bodied. Perhaps you’re able-bodied as far as mobility is concerned, but one of you has sensory issues that make a crying baby even more difficult for him, which is not only awful for him but also means that the breaks he need are vital, probably daily without fail, and that puts more pressure on you. You were BOTH diagnosed with Postpartum Depression.
So . . . ableds? Not so much.
You’re middle class with a stable, well-paying job. Really? I mean, you can’t afford counseling. I’m sure that having a stable job means you worry about money and housing less than many other parents, but that supposedly well-paying job doesn’t leave you with enough cash available for counseling, and I assume that it doesn’t pay you well enough to hire some help to come help a few times a week. And you’re living on one wage, which is really hard to live on for most people, even if your job is stable and well-paying.
I’ve gone through this in painstaking detail because I want you to see that you genuinely have it rough, and some of the privileges you have aren’t quite as privilege-y right now for your family.
Anyone in your situation would be completely burned out. Anyone in that situation would find themselves sobbing in the car on their way to work, probably deeply stressed in their relationships, and barely able to function.
The United States, man. Our hateful late-stage capitalism doesn’t offer many jobs that pay enough to support a family. We do not offer our citizens reliable, quality, or remotely affordable health care, so many of us do without. We have absolutely no preschool or toddler daycare or childcare options that are anything less than insanely expensive, let alone equipped for kids who are struggling like your baby is. Our housing costs are skyrocketing, groceries have become an absolutely giant expense that somehow our government doesn’t have to count toward any measurements of our economy, and then we have this fucking Calvinist bullshit that we’ve taken from those religious lunatics who first came here and started murdering the local populace: if you suffer, it is because God wants you to suffer. If God wants you to suffer, you must be a shitty person.
It’s not explicitly religious anymore, but it sure is woven into the fabric of our society so tightly that even someone like you who barely hanging on feels like she doesn’t have the right to feel burned out by her incredibly high-octane life.
In other words, all of this isn’t the economy. It isn’t a lack of supports for new parents. It isn’t having to work full time to pay the bills when your kids have intense needs. IT’S YOU. ALL YOUR FAULT. YOU DID THIS TO YOURSELF.
If we keep blaming ourselves and chasing our tails, we’ll be too worn out and filled with self loathing to make any systemic change, yeah? Our system is specifically designed to make you feel this way, to perpetuate itself.
So, some people have it worse. Why should this somehow sustain you and give you buoyancy and hope? There is always someone, somewhere, who has it worse. This does not mean that we do not also suffer and that we do not also have completely human reactions to inhuman conditions.
You are having a completely human reaction. If you weren’t feeling burned out, I would suspect you of being in denial.
Don’t let your stupid hateful capitalist Calvinist culture and our barebones economy and poisonous messages jammed into your subconscious tell you that you have no right to be miserable in a miserable situation! Sadly, you have earned this burnout and to expect yourself to sail through it like Mary Poppins is just too. Damn. Much.
PS PLEASE take a deep breath and leave your baby with other people for a few hours here and there, and even overnight. So what if they need earplugs for a few hours or have one rough night of sleep? You say you have supportive friends. Let them support you in the way you really need it.