You're Still Exhausted

This is the midweek edition of Culture Study — the newsletter from Anne Helen Petersen, which you can read about here. If you like it and want more like it in your inbox, consider subscribing

Like a lot of people, I have found myself overscheduled this summer. I’m still doing less than summers of the pre-pandemic past, which often felt like one wedding sliding straight into another without end, but it still feels like too much. Too much moving around, too much preparing, too much hosting, too much packing and unpacking and arranging while packing in concerted chunks of work in between. I’ve let things go (we are essentially eating mixed vegetable grill every night, it’s great); I’ve cancelled plans and been transparent about why. I’m trying to work less, or at least segment work more effectively. But I’m still tired.

At this point, I’m not complaining so much as in the throes of realization that I could spend a year doing pretty much nothing at all and still, with just a moderate amount of social life, find myself drained. Am I getting old? (Yes! But that’s not all of it!) Am I an introvert who’s always needed time on my own to recharge? (Absolutely, my mom has referred to my need for “Some Annie Time” since I was, oh, five years old). Am I socially awkward? (Clearly, this is part of why I’m a writer).

But I think the real problem is that life is still exhausting because the pandemic was and remains exhausting in so many invisible ways — and we still haven’t given ourselves space to even begin to recover. Instead, we’re just softly boiling over, emptying and evaporating whatever stores of energy and patience and grace remain.

You see this phenomenon in people’s relationship to their jobs: the feeling that the dynamic has become so toxic that no amount of recentering or manager-conversations can actually substantially change the way you’ve come to feel about the work you do. The only solution: quit.

You see this in people’s feelings about parenting — particularly, I think, amongst mothers who felt like they were left to shoulder the weight of the pandemic with very little support, and are now expected to just…deal with it? Do it all over again this Fall? Forget that we still use women as this country’s social safety net? Put their kids in masks and send them to school and cross their fingers?

You see it in conversations about the mental load, like this thread about meal planning, and the real bitterness that, well, we’re just….still doing this? Everything fell apart, and we could’ve put it back together differently, but we just put it back together the same broke-ass way as before? And you see it in the reaction to the Delta Variant, and our inability to process or trust health communication (I’m writing a whole piece on that, so more to come).

For brief period this summer, we pretended that everything was back to normal. We papered over the deep fault lines in service of nights out and weekends away, because they felt good and nourishing if not always exactly what they thought they would feel like. The season felt at once familiar and stolen: I knew the motions of summer and socializing, and I really absorbed the joy and the relief, but I also felt like I was experiencing those emotions on uneven ground.

And now, there’s something hovering in the air. Not an unease, not a fear, but a real lingering fatigue, like second-day soreness after a hard workout that you just can’t shake. That’s because for the vast majority of people, the pandemic year+ was not rest. It was not quiet. For families, it did not provide opportunity for solitude or contemplation. It was unsatisfying sameness, so familiar we forgot to try and even name it. But it was isolated, extended, slow-motion trauma.

Earlier this week, I was talking with Liz O’Donnell, an author and advocate who helps run a community for adult children serving as caregivers for their parents. She told me that over the course of the pandemic, there were hundreds of articles on the difficulties of parenting during a pandemic — as there should be. But there were just a handful that even acknowledged the particular challenges of eldercare. Most companies made allowances of some sort for parents working from home, but there were few policies to accommodate the “working children,” as O’Donnell puts it, of elders. No one talked about the specific grief of your parent being in a retirement community, and knowing that you’ve probably missed their last lucid window — that you might see them again, but they won’t remember you again.

That sort of grief — it’s enormous. It’s so much. Just think of how much work it would take to keep it effectively invisible. Now realize that you’re probably doing some version of that work, with your own pocket of still-expanding grief, right now.

That’s why it feels like you’re paying down exorbitant interest on an unpaid bill and never touching the principal. That’s why you wake up tired from what you thought was a full night’s sleep. That’s why you’re still sore and tender in places you’d forgotten you’d bruised. You never recovered, and you haven’t still.

I wish we could’ve taken a legitimate societal summer slow-down, but most people didn’t have that option. Instead, we find themselves juggling all the things that felt like too much during the pandemic, with the complications (and joys!) of a social life layered on top. Because our society, our jobs, even our family arrangements — none of them are engineered to accommodate rest, let alone grief. It’s not going to happen unless we force space for it in some way.

Depending on your job, that might mean quitting — I know that’s terrifying, but this is actually a great time to find a new job in pretty much any field — or having a conversation with a manager about a short leave of absence. Depending on your family situation, it might mean forcing a real, concerted recalibration of labor in the home. It might also mean stopping or stepping back from something you don’t want to, and having conversations you’d rather not.

And while I’m always ready to point to the structural issues that make actual rest difficult, I also think that we, as individuals, are garbage at recognizing our need for it. It’s not that we’re anti-social, Bad Wine Moms, “unproductive,” lacking in “grit,” or just need to wash our faces. We’re just chronically under-resourced and over-burdened.

So the first step is recognizing that you, too, need rest. Don’t just want it, don’t just fantasize about it, don’t just talk about it and then deny it, but need it, require it, in order to keep going. The second step is advocating for the structures that make it possible — on a personal, professional, and societal level — so that others can ask and receive rest too.

And the third step is actually taking it. For some of you, that’s easy. But for others, addicted to the feeling of constant utility, that’s the hardest part. But your refusal helps set the impossible standards for everyone around you. You are beloved and worthy of rest. Now act like it.

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