How to Preserve Your Brain Power When Parenting Mentally Exhausts You

by Candy Mickels Mejia August 03, 2017

picture of a brain

Summer break. Winter break. Weekends. Long weekends. What do these all have in common? When you have children, it’s the exhaustion you feel at the end of those breaks.

Kids are work, this we know. We also know that kids are joy. We love them. We want the best for them. We want them to feel safe and loved. But sometimes? Sometimes we just need them to be quiet. Just for five minutes. Please.

No questions. No arguments. No telling us something “real quick” about “Odd Squad” or Pottermore. Just: SHHHH. Shhhhh…

We often feel this need for quiet at the end of a long day, and especially at the end of several long days. On top of all our regular adult responsibilities – work, laundry, meal prep, paying bills, making appointments – must we also be faced with, “Can I have a snack?" "Can I watch TV?" "Can I have a friend over?" "Can we dye my hair?”

Some days it feels like too much for our brains to handle because it actually is too much, according to science. It’s why at nine am your answer to “Can I have a piece of candy?” is “No,” but at five pm your answer is “I don’t care.”

All the decisions we have to make on a daily basis take a toll on our mental discipline. When our kids are present, the number of decisions we're required to make is multiplied. This is especially true on days that you take your kids with you to do an errand, like shopping. While you're trying to decide which toilet paper is the better deal, you're also reminding your kid not to dance in the middle of the aisle when people are passing by (dancing on one side of the aisle is acceptable, or course).

The result is that you're eventually exhausted to the point of brain numbness, so much so that when the cashier asks you if you found everything okay, your answer is, “Huh?”

This is called "decision fatigue." It does not mean that you are a bad parent, you're simply a human with a brain that has been pushed to its limits.

In an article in The New York Times Magazine, John Tierney shares examples from courtrooms, social psychology labs, and everyday life that show decision fatigue does not discriminate. He cites the work of Roy F. Baumeister, who coined the term “decision fatigue.” Tierney and Baumeister wrote a book on the topic called “Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength” that explores the idea of willpower and the challenges we all face when trying to summon it. In regards to decision fatigue, Baumeister found that not only do short breaks help, but glucose helps, too.

Glucose, like the kind our bodies get from food. Yes, this means “hangry” is real. (Science!) The good news is your brain isn’t ruined forever, decision fatigue is only temporary.

In the article, Baumeister says, “Even the wisest people won’t make good choices when they’re not rested and their glucose is low. The best decision makers,” he says, “are the ones who know when not to trust themselves.”

So, what does this mean for you as a parent?

One thing you can (and probably should) do is table some questions until a time when you're better prepared to answer them. It’s fine to tell your kiddo, “I can’t answer that right now. Ask me again in ten minutes.” Then go grab a Snickers.

These rules apply to conversations between you and your partner as well. Making major decisions immediately after the kids go to bed might seem like good timing, but try taking a break from the tail end of chaos before you tackle big issues. If you need proof in your own life that a timeout is necessary, answer this: How many times today have you fantasized about sitting on the couch and watching junk TV with an adult beverage in your hand?

Setting rules to eliminate decisions can help, too. For example, I always put my keys in the same place. If they aren’t there, the only reason is that they sprouted legs and ran away because I always put them on that hook.

Other “rules” I’ve put into place are: using a set of index cards for meal planning (the cards include meals we have frequently so I don’t have to reinvent dinner every week); creating a “uniform” with a limited color palette for my everyday clothes (i.e. everything matches everything); and (this is a biggie) letting some things go. I do not need to spend my mental energy on things that don’t actually matter, like correcting my daughter’s perpetually mis-matched outfits.

These rules limit my choices so that less mental discipline is required of me. In other words, the choices I face are not hard ones to make. Radiolab has a fascinating episode about why it’s so hard for us to make choices. One reason is that we (humans) hate to lose, and if we have too many choices, we feel like we didn’t make the best choice (and therefore did not win).

Sometimes being good parents means tricking our brains a little. We're all trying to do our best, but at times we just don’t have the tools at hand to know what “best” is.

Consider this permission to take a break. After all, it’s science.

Candy Mickels Mejia


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