Some days, being an adult is hard, and parenting is really, really hard. But being a mom, well, that’s arguably the hardest job of all.
Motherhood is a job with zero days off. Literally, zero. But what do you do on days when mothering just feels like too much to handle? Because let’s be honest, mommy burnout is real. Some days it feels like the world is crumbling around us, and in those moments, being a mom is just too much to bear. This is why coping with burnout is such an important part of mothering these days.
Moms have undoubtedly gotten the short end of the stick when it comes to the negative impact of pandemic life, for example. In the past two years, mothers have suddenly been thrust into an unsustainable situation where they are the caretaker, teacher, chef, chauffeur, cleaning staff, and psychologist, all while also trying to manage a career (often from home).
The expectation that any parent would survive those demands is outrageous and unfair. Those unrealistic expectations, combined with the stress and anxiety many parents are experiencing, have led to some seriously alarming statistics around burnout.
What exactly is burnout?
According to Psychology Today, the medical definition is “a state of emotional, mental, and often physical exhaustion brought on by prolonged or repeated stress.”
But from one mom to another, burnout is the feeling that you just cannot fold one more load of laundry. You absolutely cannot wipe one more tushy while answering a work call and trying to remember to if you ate lunch. It’s the feeling that you are just at capacity — mentally, emotionally, physically — and you’re so irritable that you might burst if your kids ask for one more snack before dinner.
Don’t worry, moms, if this sounds eerily familiar, you’re not alone.
A recent survey conducted by TODAY Parents found that 83 percent of moms are feeling burnt out by pandemic parenting. 83 percent! Sixty-nine percent of moms reported feeling overwhelmed, and sadly 60 percent said that they rarely or never take time for their own well-being.
“Moms have been hit especially hard this past year…The mom often has to play superhero, but no one is immune from compassion fatigue and burnout,” explains Dr. Joanna B. Wolfson, Ph.D. senior psychologist at the Rusk Institute of Rehabilitation at NYU Langone Medical Center.
“Mommy burnout is the emotional and physical exhaustion that you feel from the chronic stress of parenting. It’s feeling like you’re over your kid sometimes,” explains psychologist Sheryl Ziegler, author of the book Mommy Burnout. “You feel a reduced sense of personal accomplishment — it’s a fancy way of feeling like you’re never doing a good job. The prolonged nature to it, like there’s no end in sight,” she told Today.
Furthermore, it’s important to note that mommy burnout is not always synonymous with depression. While they can go hand in hand, they are not the same thing. “You lose your motivation and passion. Mommy burnout is not an extension of depression. You can be burned out but not be depressed,” says Ziegler.
While many recognize that this state of burnout has put mothers in an impossible situation where they are forced to make unfair and challenging decisions for their families, others are going a step beyond burnout and calling it a societal betrayal.
“This isn’t burnout — this is societal choice,” Dr. Wendy Dean, a psychiatrist, tells the New York Times. “It’s driving mothers to make decisions that nobody should ever have to make for their kids.” She continues to suggest that while burnout places the responsibility on moms, implying we are not tough enough to handle the challenge, betrayal points more appropriately to the broken structures impacting parents.
So, now what? Many of us are struggling with burnout, and we all have occasional days (fine, frequent days) when mothering feels like too much. While it’s complicated at times, it can also be incredibly simple. From managing your mental health to moving your body and reducing your responsibilities to others, these steps can help you figure it all out on days when mothering just feels like too much.
Focus on One Task at a Time
Part of burnout stems from feeling overwhelmed and unable to achieve all the tasks you have committed to or that have been dumped on your plate. So instead of looking at your 10-page long to-do list, start with just one task, one. Only focus on that one task, and once you have completed it to the best of your ability, move on and don’t look back. It might be laundry, making lunch, answering a work email, taking the kids for a walk, or emptying the garbage. Just pick one thing because you have to begin somewhere, and even if you get nothing else productive done, at least you did that one thing.
Order Takeout (without a Side of Guilt)
Take a look at your plate full of responsibilities and ask yourself, “what could I unload on someone else?” The low-hanging fruit is most likely meals. Instead of feeling like every meal should be a home-cooked meal, opt for the easy way out once in a while. Buy a prepared meal at the supermarket. Order a to-go meal from a local restaurant. There is no shame in ordering delivery, allowing a friend to drop off a casserole, heating up leftovers, or *shudder* eating a frozen meal. Take that one source of stress out of the equation and see how it makes you feel.
Focus on Your Mental Health
Don’t underestimate how important it is to take care of your mental health. That means something different to everyone, but at a minimum, taking a few moments to just breathe and decompress can make a huge difference. Get fresh air and move your body. Exercise, especially outdoor activities, can help clear your head and re-invigorate you. Meditate—practice mindfulness. Keep a gratitude journal. Seek out the help of a listening ear, whether a therapist or a trusted friend.
Whatever you do, remember that you can only be a good parent if you are a healthy parent, and that starts with self-care to protect your mental health.
Call in for Reinforcements
Remember that you do not have to do it alone. Find your tribe and call in for backup. Perhaps a friend can pick up your kids from school. Maybe your mother or mother-in-law can help watch the kids while you run errands or (gasp!) take a break.
If you’re in a relationship, ask your spouse for support! No mom should be mothering solo without some level of commitment and assistance from her partner. Split the household duties so everyone has a moment to breathe, and even better, get your kids involved, so they have chores that also help your workload. Think putting away their toys, helping to sort laundry, setting the dinner table. Not only will you be teaching them a valuable lesson about contributing to the household, but you’ll be getting some much-needed help.
Clean Up Your Life — Literally
Research shows that women who maintain a tidy, organized home experience less stress than women who live amongst the clutter. We know it seems counter-intuitive. Cleaning equals extra work and makes you feel stressed. But having a clean home makes you feel calmer. Go figure.
So, try to tidy up where you can. That doesn’t mean to spend an entire day worrying about whether or not you did a good enough job mopping the floors. That does mean putting away clutter where you can, getting rid of the things you don’t need, and trying to create a comfortable living space that has some degree of order, so you’re not stepping on LEGOs every time you get out of bed. It will help your ability to be efficient in your daily tasks and improve your inner peace.
One of the most important things for moms to do when mothering just feels too overwhelming is probably the most difficult: say no.
When someone asks you to take on another responsibility, say no. When your friend asks you to handle school pickup, say no. When your boss asks you to do “just one more quick thing,” say no. When you get invited to a dinner or a PTA meeting, or a work event, say no.
It’s not easy. As moms, we often are programmed to “yes” people to death, constantly putting out own needs last as we bite off more than we can chew. But try to say no when you’re feeling stretched too thin and when burnout is taking over. Boundaries are essential, and we promise that one small word can change your life and make you a better parent.