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Why the phrase ‘you don’t know what tired feels like’ belittles child-free women

Why the phrase ‘you don't know what tired feels like’ belittles child-free women

Parenting is demanding, sometimes making it easy to forget that child-free women also experience severe exhaustion.

The pressures of parenthood certainly take their toll – the persistent lack of sleep, anxiety, and unexpected parenting challenges often contribute to unprecedented exhaustion and fatigue

A study of 17,409 parents from 42 countries found that parental burnout was higher in Western countries, with a strong emphasis on individualism. Individualism creates the expectation to approach parenting in an intensely solitary way, with parents feeling isolated from their community and lacking support.

And yet, the idea that child-free women don’t understand ‘true tiredness’ is an outdated and narrow view of the broad range of pressures that come with modern living. No singular life experience grants someone the monopoly on feeling tired or burnt out.

Is the proclamation that child-free people ‘don’t know what tired feels like’ meant to belittle or dismiss the plight of those without children? Or is it an innocent, hyperbolic way of expressing the struggle of raising a family and seeking support?

Unpacking the culture of parental comparison culture

It’s important to remember that child-free women are not immune to exhaustion. They may work long hours, care for elderly parents, or manage debilitating illnesses. It is unfair and inaccurate to say they do not understand ‘true tiredness’.

Everyone experiences exhaustion differently, and every person’s fatigue is valid, regardless of parental status.

We’ve all heard the saying, ‘comparison is the thief of joy’, but what about connection and support? Comparison is a natural human instinct that helps us make sense of the world and find safety and belonging. It is also becoming increasingly pervasive, leading to increased jealousy, insecurities, and the belief that others are better off than us.

Comparison hinders connection in two ways: we envy those we perceive as superior to us in some way and scorn those we perceive as inferior. Both dynamics play out when parents claim they are the only ones who know ‘true tiredness’.

Perhaps there is a level of martyrdom-like superiority to those who don’t experience the daily challenges of parenting. Conversely, envy about child-free people’s perceived freedom and peaceful lives may cause these unfair comparisons.

Parents often use comparison to justify their exhaustion or seek validation. They may not be intentionally trying to be dismissive or one-up, but it can come across that way.

Parents often experience judgement from others, so they may use comparison to defend themselves. They may feel they need to prove that they are doing a good job and that their lives are just as hard, if not harder, than child-free people.

Further, when humans are tired, their worldview can shrink to their life experiences and struggles. They may envy or romanticise other people’s lives, forget how tired they were before children, and have inaccurate memories of child-free life.

This shift in mindset is partially biologically driven. The hormonal changes that come with childbearing can narrow parents’ focus so much on protecting and raising their children that everything else seems almost petty by comparison. The hormones released during childbirth can make parents feel incredibly protective of their babies, leading to a laser focus on their needs.

While these reasons make a lot of sense as to why parents may dismiss child-free people’s exhaustion, it shouldn’t excuse deliberately ignoring the valid causes of fatigue among child-free women.

Perhaps they are already grappling with informal caregiving responsibilities for a sibling or parent. They may have had a long struggle with fertility which has zapped their energy. Perhaps they are experiencing severe mental or physical health challenges, without which they would have loved to explore parenthood.

Maybe they work multiple demanding jobs to pay off debt or support their loved ones. Or perhaps they are simply exhausted from the universally confusing, uncertain, and often dreary human experience.

It’s important to remember that everyone experiences exhaustion differently. There is no one right way to be tired. What is important is that we respect each other’s experiences and avoid making comparisons that could be hurtful.

How to respond to people who dismiss the tiredness of child-free women

Maintaining compassion for people struggling with the ups and downs of raising a family is admirable. It’s also crucial not to minimise your life challenges and needs.

If someone important to you has had an outlook shift since having children, and you feel dismissed or minimised, here are some strategies that can help.

Acknowledge, validate, and accept your own emotions

While we all want our friends to be supportive, we can’t expect them to caretake our entire emotional experience on our behalf.

As adults, we can learn to navigate our emotions, including difficult feelings like resentment or annoyance with those we love. From this self-compassionate place, we can gently challenge our thoughts and feelings.

Are our friends truly implying that we don’t know what it is to be tired? Is it just a hyperbolic way of expressing their struggles and indirectly asking for support? Are we feeling triggered by the implication of what our life is worth without the role of motherhood?

Getting gently curious about our emotions is a critical strategy for self-care and making conscious decisions that don’t jeopardise our relationships prematurely.

Manage expectations of what your friends with children can offer

Before having children, perhaps certain friends were your critical pillars of support and connection. After entering parenthood, it’s natural to feel a little sad about having less time to spend together or the natural shift in priorities that comes with raising a child.

Try to recognise and validate these feelings, and also understand that your friend is likely lost in a new world of nurturing an infant, dealing with the loss of independence and freedom, changes or disruptions to their career, body changes, and much more.

This doesn’t mean invalidating your feelings or needs in the relationship but finding other ways to meet your needs. Doing so avoids you feeling resentful or assuming your friend no longer cares or has become flaky when they are simply burnt out.

Beware of the trap of defensiveness and comparing challenges

Defensiveness is a natural response to a statement we feel implies something untrue or unfair about us. The knee-jerk reaction can be to respond to the message ‘you don’t know tired’ with refusal or rejection.

When our identities feel threatened, the higher-functioning part of our brains shut down. That part of your awareness probably knows deep down that the comment wasn’t meant to offend or even be taken literally.

Creating space by slowing down and acknowledging that two things can be true simultaneously can help this internal conflict. Yes, your friend is experiencing new and extreme tiredness, and your life challenges are equally valid and important.

Being empathetic doesn’t mean dismissing your own needs. It doesn’t even require always being congenial or happy about the changes affecting your life. You can understand and care about the changes in your friend’s life while maintaining fierce self-compassion and boundaries.

If you’re feeling dismissed or minimised by a friend who insists you don’t understand true tiredness, know it has nothing to do with you. Your friend is likely overwhelmed and not thinking straight, and perhaps down the track, will realise the unfairness of their words.

If not, maybe it’s a good time to take some space from the relationship, particularly if you don’t feel comfortable raising the issue right now.

It’s always best to process your emotions and return to a centred, calm state of mind before raising issues with those you love.

Remember, you don’t need to be a parent to feel burnt out or exhausted. Childcare responsibilities are not the only challenge that matters in a woman’s life, nor is it the only valid excuse to need time off work or other responsibilities.

If you are child-free by choice or childless by circumstance, make the most of it, and don’t allow anyone to shame you into feeling you deserve less rest and care than someone with kids. You need and deserve truly restorative rest, regardless of your status.

Emma Lennon

Emma Lennon

Emma Lennon is a passionate writer, editor and community development professional. With over ten years’ experience in the disability, health and advocacy sectors, Emma is dedicated to creating work that highlights important social issues.