To this day, I regret it.
My husband had been traveling for weeks on end. Our 2-year-old had just gotten over a bug. I’d been juggling deadlines, meals, diaper changes, dog duties — the works! — and our house looked like a tornado struck it. One evening, after an excruciating exchange with my son during which he refused to fall asleep and instead rolled around, catapulting stuffed animals out of the crib, I couldn’t take it anymore. I yelled at him.
“THAT’S ENOUGH! GO TO BED!”
I used my scary mommy voice, the one comes out only when I’m feeling unstable. Under different circumstances, I wouldn’t have shouted. But I did. And the worst part is, I did it more than once. Then, I stalked off to my bedroom, anger simmering under my skin, and flung myself on the mattress. The tears came rushing down like a waterfall.
What I didn’t know then? My outburst was a side effect of burnout — grinding too hard, taking on too much, not asking for help, ignoring self-care, and never stopping to rest. Not only is burnout pervasive among millennials, all moms, whether they work in the home or outside of it, are especially susceptible to it.
That’s because as moms, we are socialized to put our children first and our needs last. Motherhood demands we carry heavy physical and mental loads. But how do you know you’re burned out rather than tired? Burnout is defined largely as “exhaustion of physical or emotional strength or motivation usually as a result of prolonged stress or frustration.”
Warning signs of burnout include emotional depletion, cynicism, and reduced productivity, writes physician Susan Biali for Psychology Today. My short fuse and extended crying fit clued me in that something was not right. This wasn’t your average parenting frustration, this was a different animal — mom burnout.
So, what do you do when you’re suffering from it?
Step 1: Admit you have a problem
It’s time to check-in and do some heart work. When was the last time you took a break? Do you relish life at a fast pace? Feel like you always have to be “on” for your children and others? Consider your current mood and what feels off about it. Take a moment to acknowledge you have burnout by writing it down or saying it out loud. Then, share it with a trusted friend or family member.
A desperate text to my husband, followed by a painful phone conversation, confirmed I was running on empty. I wanted to be the strong mom, so I just kept pushing and pushing to keep up with life’s daily demands. I woke up early, stayed up late, and worked obsessively — either on the house or writing projects. I rarely gave myself permission to rest or recharge. Admitting my situation to myself made me see there is strength in vulnerability.
Mama, you gotta be honest with yourself in order to move forward.
Step 2: Childcare
I know, I know. Trustworthy childcare is hard to find, and furthermore, it’s expensive. Know that any money you spend on this is an investment in your wellbeing. Time away from your little ones is essential to curing mom burnout. So, what would it take for you to escape for a few hours, or, better yet, take a full day to yourself?
Find someone reliable, such as your partner, your regular babysitter or your close family member/friend to watch your child(ren) so you can actually relax when you’re away. If you work in an office and have regular weekday childcare, you might even take a personal day during the workweek. Whatever your situation, work with your support system to secure childcare as soon as possible — ideally within the week.
Step 3: Self-care
OK, so, now you’ve carved out some time for yourself by investing in childcare. You are going on a solo self-care retreat, whether that’s a half-day or overnight away from your kiddos.
Here are the ground rules:
- You are allowed to go wherever you want and do whatever you want.
- You are not allowed to check your phone, save for messages from your sitter.
- Do bring sustenance — your favorite snacks or meals and something to drink.
- Don’t bring work along. Or anyone else. Especially kids. (See step two.)
- You have one goal for this time: Self-care.
Self-care looks different for every mom. What have you been craving? What lights you up? Before you depart, brainstorm a list of your favorite forms of it — boxing, hot yoga, painting, browsing a book store, eating an ice cream cone, taking yourself out to a matinee, getting a facial, etc. — and select a few you could do during your free window of time. (By the way, it is perfectly OK if all you want to do is nap. If that’s the case, find a way to make it happen kid-free. Could your kiddos head to Grandma’s house for the day?) Remember: this is your time. Alone.
My own retreat was actually forced. Days after my outburst, I came down with the same bug my son had. Consequently, I called off sick. I felt miserable, but at least I could stay in bed and do nothing but binge-watch Queer Eye and eat popsicles and soup by myself. I lounged and rested until it was time to pick up my son from daycare.
It. Was. Glorious.
Did this cure my burnout? Not quite. But the mental clarity I gained from taking a full day to myself taught me something important.
Step 4: Reflection and re-entry
That night after I put my son to bed, I realized I couldn’t keep doing it all when my husband was gone. I got sick precisely because of it. I had to figure out a new way to live when he traveled. And I needed to get some help.
After your mini-retreat but before you jump back into everyday chaos, carve out time before bed or early in the morning to reflect. Journal or think through what led you to burnout. What habits do you want to keep and what do you need to let go of? Is there any obligation or limiting belief you can release?
Check-in with your heart again. How are you feeling? Are you refreshed, or are you still anxious? Depressed? If you have any inklings of depression or crippling anxiety, where you fear getting out of bed in the morning, seek professional help from a licensed therapist.
There are two factors that contribute to burnout: internal and external pressures. Some external pressures, such as unrealistic societal expectations for moms, are impossible to change single-handedly. Others, such as the division of labor in your household, might be renegotiated through concerted discussion with your partner. Similarly, though we can’t change the way we were raised, we can familiarize ourselves with our own inner critic and see if there are any oppressive personal expectations we have for the way we mother that we can rewrite/unlearn.
For the longest time, I thought being a good mom meant cooking healthy meals for my son every night. Now I know that even if I don’t cook those meals for my family, I am still a good mom. I take the pressure off myself a few nights by buying semi-homemade food like rotisserie chicken and frozen organic vegetables. Microwave a couple of sweet potatoes, and you have a decent meal. This simple shift in thinking — that I can’t and don’t need to cook every night for them — was a game-changer.
Nevertheless, recovering from burnout is far more complex than accumulating your own “mom hacks.”
“To really recover from burnout, we must change not just our schedules but also our thinking,” writes vulnerability researcher and author Brené Brown. “We must accept that what we produce and contribute is not our value — and get clear on what is. The people who matter most to me don’t love me for what I do or for what I’m doing for them; they love me for who I am,” Brown said.
This is the lesson I need to be reminded of daily: my worth as a mom is not determined by what I do. And neither is yours.
I don’t have all the answers to curing mom burnout. I do know that prioritizing true self-care and rest can reignite the fire within. Some days, you cannot rest, I know, but I do hope you will find rest in the knowledge that you are loved not for what you do but who you are — somebody’s mama.
Disclaimer: The advice in this article is not meant to substitute that of a doctor. If you are depressed or deeply anxious, please seek professional help.