There are few topics that allow me to present myself as an expert, but this is an exception.
There have been many times during my almost 15 years as a mother when I have experienced–maybe even asked for–mommy burnout. And while mommy burnout is probably most acute during the years when there are small, needy infants and toddlers in the home, I’ve learned that burnout can occur at any stage of motherhood.
Take this month for example. (This month we are highlighting The Power of Balance. What comic irony! I have been anything but balanced.) After moving all the contents of our home two times in one week while staying in a hotel (long story, don’t ask), hosting out of town family for my daughter’s baptism as well as a week-long reunion (part of the time in the hotel, part of the time in our new home which had neither a refrigerator nor washer/dryer for several days), immediately packing up my family (again) for a week-long reunion with the other side of the family, and then coming back home for just one day to prepare a dinner for about 70 family members at yet another larger, extended family reunion where we would be camping overnight (deep breath), I was feeling a teensy weensy bit off kilter; especially when I finally came home “for good” to a house still full of boxes and messes.
One night smack dab in the middle of all this craziness, the effects of burnout played out in a most unfortunate way. My youngest, a 4-year-old, was obviously feeling off kilter too because she woke up crying not once, but twice in the middle of the night–our first at yet another hotel. After going to bed absolutely exhausted and then spending over an hour trying to get her back to sleep around 2 am (and another hour trying to get myself back to sleep as she unintentionally kicked me over and over again), she woke up screaming and crying–again. (I thought I was done with middle of the night crying jags!)
What can I say? It was the final straw. I lost it, was less than patient, and threw a little tantrum of my own. My husband wasn’t meeting up with us until the next day, so I was doubly frustrated by not having any back up. Needless to say, by morning I wasn’t quite feeling the love for any of my children when the requests came for breakfast and clean underwear.
And therein lies the rub of motherhood: There is no day off. No mandatory 15 minute break. No vacation time. No 5:00 finish line. No TGIF. It’s a 24/7, all day, every day kind of job that can be absolutely unrelenting in its demands while receiving very little recognition, appreciation, or validation. And if you’re going at it alone on a daily diet of Diet Coke, Teddy Grahams, and adrenaline-you’re totally setting yourself up for burnout.
The good thing about my situation is that it was temporary. What’s really worrisome are the mothers who endure chronic stress day in and day out without ever taking a break. That will unravel the best of mothers. And while I feel a little guilty about illustrating all the travails of moving into a beautiful new home, experiencing my daughter’s baptism, and attending multiple family reunions with loved ones, that’s the other tough thing about feeling burnout in motherhood: it’s supposed to be wonderful, and you’re supposed to be happy about it. Like adding insult to injury, many burned out mothers heap guilt on top of their other burdens simply because they aren’t feeling deliriously happy and grateful all of the time. But everyone would agree that it’s hard to feel happy and grateful when you haven’t even had time to eat breakfast or take a shower.
Stress is stress, whether it’s the good kind that accompanies the birth of a new baby and family reunions, or the tough kind that accompanies moving and middle-of-the-night scream fests. And chronic stress leads to burnout. These past few weeks of chronic stress were a good reminder for me of why it is so important to strive for balance in both the good times and the bad, because imbalance, chronic stress, and burnout suck the joy out of every type of life experience.
Wondering if you have mommy burnout? Ask yourself if you are experiencing any of these classic symptoms:
- chronic physical and/or emotional exhaustion or illness
- cynicism about your situation and the suggestion that things could be better
- a sense of powerlessness and hopelessness
- a lack of meaning or personal accomplishment in your work
- a general feeling of being disengaged and uninterested in your life
I don’t know about you, but I am just dense enough that sometimes I have to learn my lessons the hard way. So without further ado, I give you my personal list (from my personal experience) of the top ten ways to achieve mommy burnout.
- Neglect your body. Burn the candle at both ends so you are chronically sleep deprived. Stay up really late at night so you can get some “quality” alone time, and then sleep in until the kids wake you up so that your day begins with a feeling of panic and dread. Do not nap, do not exercise (not even a 15 minute walk around the block), and definitely do not eat healthy foods. When you’re feeling fatigued, eat lots and lots of simple sugar carbs and caffeinated beverages. You can’t afford the time it takes to do things that will make you feel better.
- Starve your spirit. Because you are waking up to the sound of children bellowing from the four corners of the earth, forget the idea of indulging in such things as personal meditation or prayer. Reading uplifting literature or scripture is also a selfish luxury you can no longer afford. Your children need you. NOW! Stop attending your usual place of worship. It’s a pain in the neck to get everyone there looking half decent, and no one wants to see or hear your wriggling, whispering children anyway.
- Forget fun. Leave behind all outside interests and passions that made your life full and interesting before having children. You have more important responsibilities now. Date night with your spouse is also superfluous. You need to save money for your children’s college fund, and it’s too much of a hassle to find a babysitter or try to swap with another couple. Mothers don’t have fun; fun is for kids. Anyone in a similar life situation who looks like they are enjoying themselves too much is obviously not tending to their highest priorities. Parenting is serious business.
- Keep to yourself. Shun the practice of socializing with friends who can commiserate and help give you perspective by laughing with you about your life. Do not join any kind of supportive group for mothers, whether it be a weekly park day or an online community like Power of Moms. No one wants to hang out with you anymore anyway since you lost your sense of fun.
- Practice negative self-talk. Tell yourself that you stink as a mother. All. Day. Long. Never acknowledge your accomplishments. Never make mental or physical lists of all the ways you have succeeded. Only seek validation from outside sources that value motherhood in terms of post-postpartum jean size, the ability to clean and organize, and the number of words per minute your child can read by age three.
- Expect perfection. From yourself, from your children, and from your spouse. Expect your home to be perfectly clean, your children to be perfectly well behaved, your body to be perfectly trim and toned, and your husband to be perfectly understanding and compliant. When you all fail at perfection (which you will), beat yourself up by comparing your small handful of weaknesses to everyone else’s real or imaginary combined strengths.
- Say yes to everything. Be sure to over-schedule yourself and your children by saying yes to every invitation and request you receive. Sign your children up for all the extracurricular activities they are interested in, buckle up, and drive your life away! Spend the time your children are in school at school as well, heading up every committee humanly possible. Take on extra projects at work to impress your boss so he/she won’t think you’ve gone soft now that you’re a mom.
- Shun all outside help. Only wimpy whiners ask for help, and no one can do it as well as you anyway. Don’t risk your child’s well-being by hiring an incompetent babysitter, don’t let a cleaning person anywhere near your bathroom floor, don’t let your husband do a load of laundry in his own special way, and–heaven forbid–don’t spend your hard earned money on precut vegetables!
- Avoid being in the moment. Don’t take the multiple opportunities that present themselves on a daily basis to be in the moment with your children and remember why it was you signed up for this crazy life in the first place. Stick to your ever-important to-do list and avoid playing with your children. Do not slow down to linger over them and watch them do the adorable things that children do. Do not bend down or pick them up so you can look them in the eye and listen to them with all of your heart. Keep your daily routine as superficial and mundane as possible.
- Miss the big picture entirely. Avoid any practice of mindfulness that would help you see the big picture. Forget journaling, taking pictures or videos, reflecting with your spouse or someone else who loves your children on the joys of motherhood and the uniqueness of each of your children. Don’t take the time to celebrate the big or the little events in your family’s life that would help you appreciate the simple as well as the grand joys of being a mother. Just keep focusing on how annoying and pointless it is to try to organize the pantry while a toddler screeches and pulls on your leg for the fruit snacks on the upper shelf.
While there will always be unavoidable times of imbalance like I experienced this past month, most of us have the power to do something in our lives if they are full of chronic stress and potential burn out. (I wrote this article last year with those truly overworked and frazzled moms in mind.) I hope this post prevents at least one mother from biting the dust. See you at the playground! (Let’s taaaawk.)
QUESTION: Have you ever experienced mommy burnout? What caused it? How did you get over it?
CHALLENGE: If you are experiencing burnout or have successfully overcome it, please share your thoughts in the comment section below. If you know another mother who is experiencing burnout, please share this with her!
Originally published on July 20, 2012.