Mothering when Exhausted

I'm exhausted and with good reason – Scott and I both are up the night a lot right now. If we're not up helping older kids get to the bathroom or changing sheets (we're working on bedwetting issues) then Galen is having a wakeful night.

Despite first trying to convince myself that I don't actually need sleep, I realized that I needed to acknowledge that this is just a really tiring time in my life. I know I'm not alone in any way, and that you and many other moms are dealing with the same problem (though the causes are varied.) A lot of us are just plain exhausted.

How do You Function?

That is an essential question for an exhausted mother. You ask yourself “how am I supposed to function on so little sleep?” At one point in my life I could go to bed at 3am and be up again at 7am with seemingly no ill effects…but long gone are those late nights as a theatre techie… For some reason dealing with all the issues that crop up as a mother are much, much harder without sleep.

It's important to come at life with a plan when you're so tired – and it's also good to know just when you should chuck the plan. In this article I'm going to focus on some strategies to help you while you're sleep-deprived. I won't focus on how to help you get more sleep because in many situations that's just not going to happen. You have to make your way through a tired season of life.

One tip I will give, if you're up with a baby often, is to sleep as much as possible when your baby sleeps. As a mother of four, my days of this luxury are long, long gone ;p

In most instances having a simple schedule will help you greatly. In addition, a well-organized kitchen and meal strategies can help greatly. Streamlining your cleaning can be helpful. And know when to forget all of the above. Detail on all of this below. I'll also cover outside commitments, and how some grounding and centering time for yourself can be helpful.

A Simple Schedule

I've covered scheduling pretty extensively in previous articles on managing motherhood. I really believe that having a regular daily routine can help you a lot. For bigger families like mine, a more organized and detailed schedule can be helpful. If you just have a baby or only very young children a guiding routine can be sufficient.

The reason having a scheduled day helps when you're absolutely exhausted is you don't have to think. Relieving yourself of the burden of decision making is one of the greatest gifts you can give yourself in a time of little sleep. Decision making can seem overwhelming and requires energy you would rather put elsewhere.

A set schedule or routine allows you to know exactly what is coming. You know when you get up you make breakfast, then you wash dishes, then you and the little ones take a walk. You have some outside play then come in for a snack. Then some stories and playtime and it's time for lunch. After lunch a short time outside is followed by a nap. And so forth.

You know what is going on when, you don't have to decide what to do when. It can be really beneficial when you're tired. It's also good during times of grief when life seems tough (such as when you lose a loved one). A set schedule helps you “go through the motions” so to speak, to keep everyone cared for even while it's harder for you to plan.

This also helps you ensure that you are able to spend time with your children doing the things important to you – such as reading to them daily. Sometimes in the stress and tiredness of life these things get forgotten. Then another common mothering issue – guilt – surfaces. By having a storytime, or tea party time, or vehicle play time, set into your daily routine you assure you're able to be there for your little ones.


Ah the kitchen – every mother's favorite. You need to feed your family, but the last thing you want is to be stuck in the kitchen when you can hardly keep your eyes open. This is a big issue for me too; I feel so tired and it takes a lot satisfy my family.

Simplify Breakfast and Lunch

I've learned some tricks that will help you, however. First, pick a breakfast and stick with it. Oatmeal is a good nourishing breakfast. We have oatmeal and scrambled eggs most mornings. Another breakfast idea is sourdough toast and peanut butter. This breakfast can be served on paper towels for easy clean-up (or on coffee filters – an idea I learned volunteering in a special needs preschool.)

I recommend a similar strategy for lunch – pick a lunch for each day of the week and use that every week. For instance, bean and cheese burritos every Monday. Tuna salad every Tuesday. Chicken and rice soup every Wednesday. Or if your family is small enough to have sufficient leftovers you could plan to have leftovers from supper most days.

These strategies again eliminate the need for decision making and the benefits are the same as I described for scheduling. You help to relieve yourself of stress and uncertainty. It also simplifies the grocery list and helps you know what to stock up on during sales.

Supper Strategies

For supper you can do something similar – have the same meal every night of the week. Perhaps plan different meals on the weekends. Or repeat one menu for four weeks – I did this while I was a single mother and after we made an inter-state move. I planned on week's grocery menu and then repeated that for four weeks.

A variation of this is to plan certain types of meals for certain nights of the week – Monday is always Mexican food. Tuesday is always some sort of roast. Friday is always homemade pizza night, etc. Then your recipes are varied but ingredients are similar and a “theme” helps you narrow down the food choices.

A crock pot is a great addition to the above ideas, and even more important if you don't want to repeat meals. Crockpot meals can be virtually effortless and let you put the ingredients in then forgot about supper. You can toss together a quick salad just before it's time to eat (or open a bagged salad if it will save your sanity) and you have a delicious meal ready to go.

Other easy choices are quick-to-put together casseroles and “one skillet meals.” Try and choose healthy basic meals over processed food – you and the kids will feel better for it. But processed food every once in awhile isn't going to hurt. Jarred spaghetti sauce and ground meat, canned beans added to rice, and taco kits with ground meat are some quick choices that are healthier than other processed foods.

If you have a recipe you can easily double go ahead and do that, then freeze the doubled (or tripled) portion. This gives you a good, home-cooked meal on a day that you have absolutely no energy to cook.


Ok. So far as cleaning goes I believe in letting it go when you really need to. Cleaning should be the first thing you drop if you're feeling exhausted. In fact, if life is incredibly overwhelming I'll be the first to tell you go buy some paper plates and plastic utensils – it doesn't matter how un-natural it is. Sometimes your sanity is worth it.

But, if you're like me a clean home is a home that makes you feel better. Here are some strategies that can help:

First, clean as you go. If you've just emptied a pot or pan in the kitchen, wash it right away. Running a bit of warm water and soap in your sink as you get your meal started can help with this. Throw packaging and food waste away (or put it in the compost bucket) as soon as you generate it. If you spill something on the floor take a moment to wipe it right down.

You can also look for quick cleaning opportunities. This is a habit I'm trying to develop in my own life. Keep a bottle of natural spray cleaner (or your own home made bottle) in a cabinet in the bathroom. When you take a bathroom break take a moment to spray the counter and wipe it down quickly. The next time you come in do the same with the toilet seat and rim. Quickly sweep the kitchen or bathroom floor just before you leave the room.

These quick cleaning sessions will help you keep on top of things, and keep that little sparkle and shine in your home – which helps you feel better.

One of my favorite tips for handling kid clutter is to have a “clean up basket.” I prefer to have my kids put their toys away into separate baskets/tins/bags for the toy. For instance all our blocks go into one basket. Cassidy's horse toys go in another. The boy's toy vehicles go in another. But this can seem overwhelming when there are toys all over the house.

This is when you grab a sturdy basket and walk through the house, picking up all the toys. Then you and the children sit down and sort them into their appropriate place from the basket.

Teach them to help

Speaking of children, I recommend you begin to include your children around the house early on. Even a small child can be given his or her own cloth to wipe a counter after you. If you sing a “clean up song” as you work at putting things away it will help your small child to enjoy the activity. If put a few blocks into his basket, then hand your young child a block, he will naturally imitate you and put his block away! Take advantage of your young child's natural drive to imitate, and his enthusiasm, to help you 🙂

My favorite cleaning routine (outside of day-to-day things that I try and do as soon as is needed) is taking a morning to clean. I use Friday mornings to first take care of our family's finances and then to clean – I clean the bathroom, the bathroom and kitchen floors, vacuum, and do an overall straighten of the house. Other mothers prefer to do one of these areas each day throughout the week.

Another thing that may work for you is to do your cleaning while your partner is home. Each of you can take a couple of areas of the cleaning to manage, then take a nap and enjoy the afternoon in your clean home.

Chucking All of That

I've given you some good tips above. Having a set routine, simplifying and advance meal prep, and bite-sized cleaning tips can all help make life go more smoothly for you. These things also tend to help keep the children content.

However, there are going to be some days when you are too exhausted to manage. You may have been up every night with the baby. You may be early in pregnancy. For whatever reason life may just be overwhelming.

There are times when you should just chuck everything. If you feel like you need to just let things go I recommend you plant yourself on the couch or in the bed with a bunch of storybooks and just read to your children. Crayons and paper can also help. Or if the weather is nice take your child to the park (or back yard) and just sit and watch while they run and play.

Always keep your children with you if you're tired. If you are resting on the couch, have them with you in the room. Don't let them be in another room where they could get into something. If they are in the room with you, you can keep a sleepy eye on them.

If you absolutely need a break this is a good time to call eager and energetic aunts, uncles, godparents or others who will be happy to chase your young children around. Grandparents are also a good option 🙂

When You Get Sick

Sometimes when you're “running on empty” you end up getting sick. This is a lot more likely if you have older children – but it can happen even if you're just tending the baby.

If you get sick go ahead and follow the suggestions above. There are also some other things you can do.

If you need to sleep and you have young children you may want to create a baby-proofed space in their bedroom. Put up a baby gate, have some toys, and you lie down and rest as much as possible while they play.

Running a shallow bath and putting them in to play while you sit and relax in a chair in the bathroom is a good option for a few minutes of not having to chase children around as well.

Again, as I said above, keep your children in the same room with you. You will immediately see if they do something they shouldn't. You don't have to worry about them getting into something in another room. If there are sibling fights or bad attitudes you will have seen what happened and be able to address it immediately.

Outside Commitments

I am a firm believer in staying close to the home with children. One playgroup a week, if that, is sufficient for a small child. You can your children need to have a living, breathing rhythm at home. Modern culture may tell you that you need to have your little ones involved in sports, art classes, dance, preschool, and various other extracurricular activities but the reality is your little ones will become bright, inquisitive children just by being home and helping you with daily life. A trip to the grocery store where they are involved is a thrilling learning experience.

Say “no” to many outside commitments. Pick one playgroup with mothers you enjoy and playmates your child enjoys. Spend the rest of your days in a comforting routine at home. Don't drag your child all over town on errands if you can help it (I know sometimes you just can't). A trip to the market once a week and a playgroup can become beloved parts of a child's routine – things they look forward to. But otherwise young children are content to be home helping you (unless they have been taught to expect constant entertainment. If that is the case I humbly recommend you change your expectations and help them change theirs!)

You will feel better if you are not “go, go, go” each and every day. I constantly evaluate what we do. In our city there are lots of playgroups, classes, and lessons I could take the children to each and every week. There's a lot that I want to do. I find myself saying “no” to a lot of it, however. I get stressed and the children get stressed when we're always “out and about.” I try and pick the opportunity that best fits me and the children, and stick with that.

It's hard to say “no” and it's hard to put aside things we want to do (go to the bookstore or mall) but there are times when it's best for our children that we do just that. If you'd like to go out it may make sense to wait until your spouse or a relative/friend can watch your children and you can browse the bookstore in peace 😉


I don't want to leave this off because I think it's important. Beliefs are varied and different and those that you and I hold may be different. Ok. Political correctness aside, keeping yourself grounded from a spiritual perspective can really help.

My own beliefs help me get through the roughest days. Even when everything feels like it's going wrong and I feel like I'm getting absolutely nothing done, I know that I can remain calm and work through the issues. I have this peace because of the grounding my beliefs give me. And if I absolutely blow it (which I do sometimes, being human) my beliefs also allow me to bring myself to apologize and move on.

The time I take to read and study, even if it's just minutes here or there, also help me greatly. They allow me to live past my own emotions and be the mother I want to be – not ruled by frustration and anger, which are very burdensome emotions to struggle with as a mother. It's far better to have freedom from those and taking the time to grow in my own faith gives me that.

I encourage you to examine your own beliefs and find the strength you can in taking that time for you – and pray if it helps. As mothers it's oftentimes the only thing we can do 😉

Realize that letting go of your emotions is often better than being chained to them. Let go of frustration and anger – and self-pity. They don't control you 🙂

In summary

This has been a really long article! I considered breaking it down and decided against that. I may in time elaborate on the various sections. But a comprehensive picture on how to function while you're worn out is helpful. Take what helps you in this article – it's written from a lot of personal experience.

Last of all, remember that even though this time in your life is tiring, enjoy it. You will only have children for a set period of time, and then there will be more full nights of sleep, mornings to sleep in, and hours to sit reading or daydreaming. Once that time comes, you'll probably spend your hours daydreaming about those sweet days when your children were little. So do enjoy them while they're here, even though life is very tiring right now!


I'm a wife and mother who loves working online. This is my little home on the web. I run Milk and Mud to share what I'm discovering as I run my own business and explore personal development.

amy - September 29, 2011

I just wanted you to know that I’ve read as many articles of yours as I could in the last half hour and they have blessed me so much. This one especially. I’m so tired. Thank you for taking the time to write these… I’m going to try my best to follow them! Take care, amy

    Kristen - September 29, 2011

    Thank you Amy! I love writing to help other mothers! Life is busy right now so I haven’t gotten a lot of new articles up on this blog lately. I plan to begin working on it in earnest soon. In the meantime please enjoy what’s here. You may also find some entries of interest on my other blog: https://www.naturalbirthandbabycare.com/blog/ – it has more of a focus on mothering through pregnancy and with babies and toddlers, but I do write a lot on handling the day-to-day challenges there, too 🙂 Don’t hesitate to let me know if I can help with anything!

[email protected] mum - January 29, 2012

Hmm it seems like your blog ate my first comment (it was extremely long) so I guess I’ll just sum it up what I submitted and say, I’m thoroughly enjoying your blog. I too am an aspiring blog writer but I’m still new to everything. Do you have any helpful hints for rookie blog writers? I’d genuinely appreciate it.

    Kristen - January 29, 2012

    Hi Toby, I went through all of my comments and all filtered comments and didn’t see anything else from you. Sorry it got eaten 🙁 I’m glad that you’ve found my blog helpful.

    My best advice for a newbie blogger is to be yourself. Don’t try and be somebody else, or an expert, or even like the author of your favorite blog. Find your inspiration, yes, but use your own unique voice 🙂

    A more “technical” tip that has helped me is to keep a little calendar of when I want to put up regular posts. I also like it because I can jot down a blog topic and a few notes on that topic when inspiration hits. That way I generally have material to blog about 🙂

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