The Gift of Exhaustion
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When all you can do is surrender
It’s spring break. I have two kids, ages nine and 11, and I’m the only parent in this house. I work from home, as a freelance writer and creativity coach, but I didn’t always work for money. For the first eight and 10 years of my kids’ lives, respectively, they had a stay-at-home mom: me. Then my spouse moved out, and my paid workload has been growing ever since.
Mostly my kids haven’t noticed the shift in my work schedule. Mostly I work when they are at school or at their other parent’s house. But my professional life has been starting to nibble at the edges of our time together. For example, I used to lay down with each of my kids at night, snuggle into their beds and whisper stories or questions until they were settled and ready to sleep. Recently that routine has been more of a three-minute hug and a “Sorry, kiddo, I’ve gotta go catch up on some work.”
The “work” might be the dishes, the laundry, or a final edit on a draft that’s due by midnight. Sometimes it’s all three. I do what I can before I collapse into bed, and then I wake up at 5:45 a.m. and start all over again.
Two days ago, my youngest son called me out on my absence—or, more accurately, since I work at home, my lack of presence, even when I am in the same room. “I don’t like it when you’re working. You used to play with us, and now you don’t.”
“Really?” I asked. “Do I really not play with you?” I started a mental count of the number of bike rides and scooter rides I’d fit in recently.
“Well, not as much,” he said.
He’s right. When my kids were released from school last Friday, kicking off their spring break, I was 450 miles away at a work conference. I don’t remember a spring break during which I didn’t take them on some kind of vacation, or at least a series of day-trip adventures. But there I was, returned from my conference, and what did I have on the docket for the day? Nothing. Nothing at all.
So my youngest kid headed to the neighbor’s to play, and his big bro sat on the couch, watching a movie.
I did have a few small plans set for later in the week, and having just returned to an inbox full of work-related messages, I knew I’d need to work as many minutes as I could in the dark hours of the morning and night to clear my days for kid fun.
I also knew that my up-early/up-late plan would leave me exactly where I am today: exhausted.
And it’s only Tuesday.
This is the kind of reality-check exhaustion that causes items to slide off my to-do list, one after the next in a cascading avalanche. There goes weeding the overgrown yard, washing the dishes, and averting the “laundry crisis,” as the nine-year-old calls it, and there goes my seventh hour of sleep, and my sixth, and God, no, not my fifth?
And here I am, at my computer, expecting myself to think and write clearly, with only a haze on the horizon.
The upside of this bone-tired exhaustion? I have no choice but to surrender to it. My brain can’t multitask the way it usually does, simultaneously editing an essay in my head while planning dinner while responding to a kid who asks me to reach for one of the up-high drinking glasses while wondering how early I can get them to bed so I can really concentrate while . . .
Nope. This kind of exhaustion knocks me down to one thought, one action at a time, which means: without the effort it usually takes me to do so, I arrive, fully present, in this moment, doing this task, because it is the only thing I can do.
And then I remember that surrender—even the surrender of exhaustion—is actually kind of sweet.
In this state of surrender, as I’m walking back to my shed, which doubles as a home office, after the millionth kid interruption today, I notice that the grapevines have sprung baby grapes, with no effort or attention from me.
Then I wonder how much unnecessary tending, worrying, and planning do I do in a day? Because I’m not doing it right now, and everything, in this moment, seems to be OK.
Surrender doesn’t solve all problems, of course. For instance, an essay isn’t going to write itself. But if I’m not expending unnecessary energy simultaneously planning dinner in my head and wondering when the next bout of sibling bickering will throw down, and feeling agitated by the site of overgrown weeds, and, and, and . . . then even in this state of exhaustion, I have the energy to write the essay.
Which begs the question: Exactly how much unnecessary energy am I always expending?
That thought reminds me of the final lines from that Robert Bly poem “Things to Think”:
When someone knocks on the door, think that he’s about
To give you something large: tell you you’re forgiven,
Or that it’s not necessary to work all the time, or that it’s
Been decided that if you lie down no one will die.
And that’s when I remember, in this total and complete, exhausted surrender, You know what? I do not have to hold up the sky. The sky will take care of itself.
And then the exhaustion? I’m actually grateful for it, for kicking my always running legs out from under me and for insisting that my mind calms and I sit still for a while—maybe long enough for my nine-year-old to find me, as he does, here in my office, and curl up in my lap.
Cheryl Dumesnil, ESME’s LGBTQ Resource Guide, is an author, educator, writing coach, all-around do-gooder, and one of two moms separately coparenting two amazing boys. You can follow her on Twitter at @cheryladumesnil.
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