Exhaustential Dread Is Ruining Parents’ Sleep and Sex Lives

Sleep? What is sleep?

family all trying to sleep in same room
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No matter the culprit—sickness, nightmares, sleep regressions or simply a dogged determination to be nocturnal—one thing is for sure: If your kid’s not sleeping, you aren’t either. “There’s got to be a word for it,” a friend confided to me over lunch. “That feeling of dreading the night ahead.” Bedtime drags on, usually until you’ve fallen asleep in your kid’s room—maybe even before they have—and rest continually evades you, as you get up to inspect the caterwauling down the hall.

Often, as a parent, you can see the signs of a sleepless night hours in advance. Not again, you think. Not when I have so much to do tomorrow! “The Sound of Silence” rattles through your skull as you stare off into the distance. Forget Netflix and especially chilling—in a 26,000-person survey, data scientist Emily Oster found that most parents had sex less often after having kids, and the majority said it wasn’t happening often enough. Why? Many said they’re too—you guessed it—tired. (The impact stretches even farther than that: A 2022 Penn State study found that most parents are roughly an hour shy of a decent night’s rest, and that improved sleep leads to better mental health and overall life satisfaction, even more so than exercise.)

Sound familiar? You, friend, are struggling with exhaustential dread. It encompasses a range of emotions, which—based completely on anecdotal evidence from parents polled for this story—seems to fit into stages:

1. Denial

It will be different this time, you tell yourself, as you follow every sleep consultant on TikTok’s advice. You’re going to stick to the bedtime routine, you will be reassuring and supportive and yet, as it creeps closer to tuck-in, you can’t help but feel…

2. Anger

“Not proud of it, but I feel so much anger when I recognize that I'll have to basically pull an all-nighter,” another mom told me. “I suppress it, but the big feelings are there.” Soon, that frustration gives way to…

3. Guilt

You love your kids and you regularly put their needs before yours; it’s what you signed up for. But still, there’s a tipping point, and even if you have a partner who can take shifts during the night, it can still be exhausting. “Be patient with yourself,” says Dr. Shelby Harris, Director of Sleep Health at Sleepopolis. You’re not less of a parent because you crave the chance to rest. Even if you make peace with that feeling of guilt, there’s a good chance you’ll still feel a sense of…

4. Wariness

You’ve accepted that you’re in for a long night, but it doesn’t mean you’re looking forward to it.

So, what’s a parent to do, beyond waiting it out?

Oster’s data reveals parents’ sex lives tend to bounce back as their kids age, but considering how much of our mental health is tied to getting a good night’s rest, what can be done here and now?

On the relationship front, focus on building intimacy gradually. That doesn’t have to mean sex; that can mean finding time to kiss and cuddle, or talk about things other than the fact that your kid’s not sleeping. And not beating yourself up if you’re just not in the mood. In fact, if your partner is pushing to be more intimate and it’s bothering you, “ask yourself, ‘How deprived am I in my own self-care? What do I need to do to take care of myself in order to feel connected to my own sexuality?’” said Dr. Alexandra Sacks, a reproductive psychiatrist, told the New York Times. Consider it a sign that you need a little more time for you, and that’s not just OK, it’s crucial for feeling better overall, whether that’s having an honest talk with your partner about better dividing your workload or incorporating feel-good activities that aren’t taking a shower or going on a Target run.

In terms of reclaiming your shut-eye, it’s easier said than done, but Dr. Harris suggests trying to squeeze in short—”20-minute max!”—naps throughout the day, ideally in a cool (65- to 68-degree), dark environment that will help foster good sleep. She also suggests soaking up some natural sunlight and staying hydrated, which can help you sleep better overall.

If you can’t find time to squeeze in a nap, the researchers from the Penn State study recommend avoiding large meals at dinner and caffeine close to bedtime. You may feel like you need to power up before a long night, but that can just leave you feeling wired when you finally do get a chance to rest your eyes.

And when all else fails, remember the wise words of Gandalf, who was practically a father to all those Hobbits: This too shall pass.

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candace davison bio

VP of editorial, recipe developer, kitsch-lover

Candace Davison oversees PureWow's food and home content, as well as its franchises, like the PureWow100 review series and the Happy Kid Awards. She’s covered all things lifestyle...