Exhaustion is not the same as tiredness

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I'm the lucky mother of a beautiful six-week-old baby and I'm exhausted.

Considering this is my third baby I know I've been hit by exhaustion before, but just as you forget the pain of childbirth, I'd forgotten the intense power of exhaustion. I had forgotten how it messes with your brain and makes life almost unrecognisable.

So when someone recently asked me how I was feeling, I felt torn. While one part of me is completely swept under a blanket of love, the other part is paddling backwards under heavy waves of exhaustion.

So I answered, "I'm tired."

I'm not quite sure why I used the word tired, because when the other person chimed in to say "me too", part of me wanted to say the following instead:

"Actually, I'm not tired, I'm exhausted. There's a difference."

Tiredness is a decaf skinny latte drunk under a tepid, spring sun. Exhaustion is a double shot of espresso drunk under a cold shower.

Exhaustion is when you're so tired that the only way you can tear yourself away from bed in the morning is the promise of strong coffee (and the idea that you'll nap as soon as possible).

Exhaustion is also living in the extremes of life; swinging between the highs and lows, never settling on that middle ground that usually makes up the majority of life.


When you're utterly exhausted life is either really funny, or really hard. When it's funny, it's hysterical. You do funny things, like putting your kids' toothbrushes in the dishwasher. And then you find those things so funny – toothbrushes in the dishwasher! In the dishwasher! Have you ever heard such a thing?

And you find yourself funny too. You walk around the house silently chuckling (the dishwasher!) and feeling so light and floaty and amused by yourself.

But then exhaustion turns. And the world seems like a dark place. Everything makes you want to cry. Watching ads for life insurance leaves you a snotty, whimpering mess.

It's not just sad TV that gets to you. You find yourself crying because you can't find your runners. Or crying because you're out of toothpaste. Or crying because … Well, you'll surely find a reason if you look hard enough, but the truth is you know it's all just exhaustion.

And exhaustion makes you indecisive and overwhelmed and a whole other set of negative emotions. And when you feel that way, it all feels so real and you can't remember ever not feeling that way, and you convince yourself that you'll spend the rest of your life feeling that way. Because (you got it): exhaustion.

You're not yourself, either. Your ability to find the right words, string them together in the right order and make yourself understood seems almost impossible (which isn't very good when you're a writer).

For instance, you play Words with Friends (an online version of Scrabble) with your husband and are very proud of yourself for getting the word 'hat'.

Then he comes back, using all his letters, with 'diether' (seriously? Is that even a word?).

And you respond (proudly, I must add) with 'cat'.

That's exhaustion.

Exhaustion also makes the world seem like it's moving really fast. People talk to you and move from topic to topic and your brain is trying so hard to just focus on them and follow the conversation that you're not quite sure when to make the appropriate noises which show you're listening (like 'hmmm' and 'I see' and 'oh yes'), so you end up saying nothing and then you freak out because you think you're being rude. Then you try to say something and realise you've totally lost track of what the other person was saying anyway, and then you just want to go home to bed because - you guessed it - exhaustion.

But then one night you actually get some sleep. And you wake up bright-eyed at 5am ready to start the day, wondering how anyone in the history of the world could ever be tired if they'd slept six straight hours in a row.

And you're so wide-awake after that sleep that you start to notice yourself again. You try to capture that feeling, to really grasp it and appreciate it, so you can remind yourself the next day (or the one after that) that when you're feeling low, or overwhelmed, or life is moving too fast, that the world will right itself again.

And one day, this fog of exhaustion will lift and you'll merely be tired. And then, when someone asks how you are, you will smile and say, "I'm tired" - and you won't feel like going on a huge rant if they reply, "Me too".

* This article was written after a particularly rough night with the author's new baby. Thankfully, that time didn't last long. The author can now report that she is no longer exhausted, just merely tired instead.