Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Ease Into Exhaustion

Last night, I lay in bed thinking about exhaustion. No, the irony was not lost on me.

Thankfully, I got eight hours of sleep last night for the first time in about four weeks. I don’t have a newborn, I’m not working graveyard, and I’ve even been going to bed at a decent hour (well, most nights). I just can’t sleep. This got me to thinking about a time when I was really tired. No, I mean really, REALLY tired.

I’ve never trained for a marathon. I have friends that have trained and completed marathons. Apparently if you’re really hardcore, losing your toenails is not uncommon. After race day, you are supposed to rest for at least one day for every mile you run. Your body can get so depleted, that you need to rest for weeks in order to recover. In case I forgot to mention it, I have no intention of ever running a marathon.

I have watched a television show about Navy SEALS, and how they have to qualify in all sorts of grueling events before they can “join the team”. I distinctly remember the SEAL recruits having to lie on the sand at the edge of the ocean in freezing cold temperatures. The waves were crashing over the young men, clad only in cotton t-shirts and shorts. They hadn’t slept for almost 24 hours, they were battling hypothermia, and their instructors were yelling – and it wasn't words of encouragement. I remember sitting on my comfortable couch, covered in a warm blanket, eating from a bowl filled with ice cream dripping in chocolate sauce and thinking “I would never do that.”

A little less than a year later, my firstborn arrived. There’s nothing like a newborn to help introduce you to true sleep deprivation. If you happen to have one of those wonderful angel babies that slept constantly and barely woke you to eat, then I encourage you to have a newborn and a one year old that wakes up at 5:30 am. If you're really lucky, the one year old won’t fall asleep until 9 pm (thank heaven for baby jails cribs!) and only takes a two hour nap. Is this worse than your toenails falling off? Worse than a 24 hour torture session with icy salt water slapping your face every 5 seconds?

Um, maybe. There are some important distinctions that must be made from the above three scenarios. First, the marathon. When planning on running ridiculous distances for no logical reason (sometimes you even end up where you started!) you get to train. You start slowly and build up to levels your body can handle. Sure, you’re pushing yourself the entire time, but you get to go in incremental levels designed to keep your legs from falling off.

The Navy SEAL training? There are so many distinctions to make it’s almost impossible. First, all these guys had to do was say “Uncle” and they could be relieved of their pain. Yes, shame would follow in short order, but they still had a choice. Speaking of choice, they had all chosen this test of endurance because they wanted to be a part of an elite squadron who protects the lives of fellow Americans and keeps our country free. Quite a noble profession, and one which requires much hardening of the body and soul (people do shoot at you, after all).

Finally, the newborn. Yes, I know it was a choice. This doesn’t put it on the same level as the choice to become a Navy SEAL though. I didn’t sign up for this in the hopes of saving the world or risking life and limb for freedom. I just wanted my kids to draw pictures of our family, complete with a little house whose smoke producing chimney hints at the fire burning on the sunniest day you ever saw. (If you were inclined to check, I’m sure the A/C would be on and all the windows would be open too.) I wanted my son to bring me a wilted dandelion that I could proudly display on the dinner table. I wanted my daughter to go shopping with me. (And not lay down in the middle of an aisle because she "felt she needed a rest.”)

Marathon runners and SEALS get training. Moms? We might get an epidural and some ice chips. Almost half of us get major abdominal surgery and a notice from our insurance company. After hours of intense physical discomfort and the complete loss of any dignity we may have had, the closest a mom gets to training: feed your baby when she cries.

Yes. Great. Thanks for the tip.

In retrospect, getting up three times a night to empty the three teaspoons of pee from an incredibly full pregnancy bladder is a hint of what's to come. However, since you’re generally back in bed within five minutes and you know how to “use the potty”, it really doesn’t correspond to the forty-five minute middle of the night feedings and endless diaper changes.

The biggest difference? At some point, the marathon is over and the SEALS get to request a vacation. Or a sabbatical. Or whatever it is SEALS do after killing people. Moms – especially moms of newborns – don’t get to say “Uncle”. They can’t mark a date on their calendar and tell themselves that after that accomplishment, they can hang up their running shoes and bottle warmers and relax. Moms are on duty 24/7/365. Sleep exhaustion does subside (I’m told) but there is no moment in the future at which you can mark a calendar and say, "That’s it! I’ve done it! I’m all finished with that task, on to the next."

I’ve discussed this predicament with more than one mom along the way, and it will probably come as no surprise that every one of them told me: “Thinking back on all the sleepless nights, dirty diapers, loads of laundry, filthy floors, temper tantrums, and potty training – if I had to do it all over again, I’d be willing to do it twice.”

I couldn’t agree more.

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