Rise of the 'competitively exhausted' parents (and how to spot if YOU'RE one)

First published on Tuesday 20 February 2024

tired parents with kids running around

Tired of having the same old argument with your partner about, er, who’s more tired? You’re not alone. 'Competitive exhaustion' among parents is real, and it can have a big impact on your relationship...

Louise*, 39, scanned the kitchen surfaces and felt her heart sink. It was 9.30pm and she’d spent the last two hours trying to settle her refluxy six-month old son to sleep. Finally back downstairs, she’d put some bread in the toaster (her dinner) and clocked the scene waiting for her: baby bottles waiting to be cleaned and sterilised, the day’s pots and pans piled high in the sink, and the washing machine beeping relentlessly, reminding her that its wet contents needed to be hung and dried.

'At that moment, my husband Pete* called out from the front room that he was knackered and going up to bed, and I just felt this ball of rage explode inside me,' says Louise. 

What followed was one of the worst arguments Louise and Pete had ever had in their six year marriage.

'It started with the usual: "You’re tired? You’re tired? Don’t talk to me about tired’. But it just went on and on from there.'

Sleeping dad with baby on his back

For Louise, the six-month exhaustion of having a sleep-resistant baby was made worse by the fact that she was living in London, far away from her mum, sister and circle of friends. In the daytime, she felt lonely and at night, Pete was sleeping in the spare room so that he could still function in his job as a civil servant. 

‘I was fine with that at first but the mix of long days and sleepless nights by myself gradually left me feeling strung out and resentful. And when Pete offered to do the occasional night shift, he’d complain about how exhausted he was for days afterwards. I felt like he had no idea of how bone-tired and desperate I was.'

Louise and Pete had found themselves in the unenviable category of being Competitively Tired Parents... and it’s something many of us experience. 

'Stuck in a toxic pattern'

'It’s an extremely common cycle for people to fall into,' says relationship psychotherapist Matt Davies, author of You, Me and the Space Between Us. 'I work with couples to try and name that cycle and work through it. Many people don’t even realise the patterns of behaviour they’re stuck in as they become so familiar.'

This was the case for Louise and Pete who eventually sought help from a couples counsellor to help them break the deadlock and restore some kindness to their daily interactions. 'We were stuck in a toxic pattern,' says Louise. 'It’s taken two years but we’ve gone from having zero empathy for each other to a much better place.'

tired mum breastfeeding baby

'With tiredness comes stress'

According to Davies, tiredness is particularly likely to create negative patterns, ranging from having the same repeated argument to explosive showdowns.

'When you’re tired, you’re often looking for validation and support but if both partners are tired, neither will be getting it. This leads to a cycle of neither party feeling validated,' he explains. 'On top of that, with tiredness comes stress, and when you’re stressed, your nervous system is in fight or flight mode. This can make some people withdraw to ‘protect’ themselves, which can then provoke the other person to fly into a rage because they feel like they’re banging their head against a brick wall.'

Like Louise, Keri Rock’s marriage to her husband James suffered as a consequence of sleep deprivation. Now a sleep consultant (, she helps other parents improve their children’s sleep and, as a result, revive their marriages. 

'Felt like we were just bickering about tiredness'

'By the time my son was seven months old, I felt like I was going insane,' says Keri, 35. 'And I was just so angry with my husband all the time. He was out of the house from 7am to 7pm and he often complained about his tiredness levels, which just made me see red!

'There can be a perception that being at home is the easier option, which is infuriating for the parent who has the child, a million things that need to be done, and the mental load that comes with looking after a whole new person. For a long time, it felt like we were just bickering about tiredness. We weren’t on the same team at all.'

'Digging your own "exhausted trenches"'

Clinical psychologist Michaela Thomas ( helps couples navigate the choppy waters of competitive tiredness. 

'When you’re chronically sleep deprived, you’re likely to be impatient, irritable, snappy and frazzled. Not only will it be harder to take your partner’s perspective, you might also lack the energy to even care about what they’re going through.'

In the end, you become polarised, digging in to your own ‘exhausted’ trenches.

Thomas refers to the flare-ups of resentment and anger that inevitably arise as 'goblin moments,' and says that both sides need to be willing to forgive one another for things they say and do when they’re at peak tiredness.

'One thing that can help you stop being in constant competition is having a visual prompt that stops you in your tracks. So when I went through this in my own family, we had a whiteboard with the question: "Have I been kind today?" It can be a way of making you think yes, this season of life is hard, but are we navigating it with kindness?'

She says it’s also important for couples to simply accept and surrender to the reality that parenting young children simply will be exhausting for a time. 

'I see a lot of couples who haven’t gone through that acceptance and so the fact that it’s tough leads them to make assumptions that the entire relationship isn’t working. It’s helpful if couples prepare themselves for the storm that’s coming because that also leads on to a conversation about, "How are we going to face into it together?"'

'We’ve realised everyone with kids is exhausted'

This idea strikes a chord with journalist Kat Storr, who has twin five-year-old boys and a seven-year-old son. Kat says she and her husband have called a truce thanks to the realisation that exhaustion simply goes hand-in-hand with having a young family. 

Kat explains: 'For a long time, it was very easy for resentment to build over who was the most tired, and why. Those rows continued for a few years but now, since life has settled down and we’ve realised everyone with kids is exhausted, we don’t argue about it as much.

'It seems a waste of energy to be competitive over who is more tired. Instead, we give each other time to exercise or have some space away from family life so things don’t feel as intense and exhausting.'

shocked couple under a duvet cover

How to overcome competitive exhaustion

Matt says following Kat’s example is key to breaking out of the point-scoring habit. 

'It’s important to learn tools for self-soothing,' he says. 'We expect so much from our partners, but they can’t always give us what we need especially when small kids are around. So being empathetic, and giving one another space to self-soothe – whether that’s going for a walk along or listening to a podcast – can really help when we’re feeling depleted.'

This was certainly the case for Keri, who prioritised self-care when she had her second child. 'I was adamant that we couldn’t have a repeat of what we’d been through the first time so we made lots of big changes, like moving closer to family. But I also did things for myself like meditation and cold water swimming.'

The theory goes that if you’re feeling more like yourself, and you’ve met more of your own needs and cravings, you’ll be better able to withstand lack of sleep, and more likely to have empathy for your partner. 

Thomas adds that once you’ve broken the deadlock, a great way to keep your relationship collaborative rather than competitive is through regular 'energy check-ins'.

'We often want to split things 50/50 but that doesn’t take into account how each person is doing individually. So ask each other: "How charged are your batteries?" If they say, 80% then great – they can do more. If they say 20%, then you know you need to cut them some slack and they need some time for self-care. It’s about constant calibration – accepting that there will be ebb and flow, and having compassion for each other.'

*Name has been changed

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