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Mothering Burnout: What It Is and What You Can Do

By Kathleen Kendall-Tackett, PhD
Henniker, NH USA
From: NEW BEGINNINGS, Vol. 18 No. 3, May-June 2001, p. 84-87

Karen's baby is napping. She sits at the kitchen table, wondering whether to try to take a shower or take a nap herself. She decides instead to call a friend to chat, but before she can pick up the phone, it rings. Her sister-in-law is calling to talk about her troubles with her teenager, Karen's nephew. Karen listens listlessly, unable to get a word in edgewise about her own struggles with being a new mother. An hour later, she hangs up the phone when she hears her baby waking up from his nap, thinking that maybe she'll have time for a shower later.

Karen has a shelf full of books on breastfeeding and parenting and she loves her family deeply, but she still feels like a failure. Each day feels like an endless treadmill of too much to do in too little time. She wonders why she just can't seem to do all the things she thinks she should be doing. Sometimes, she even fantasizes about running away, but of course she quickly feels guilty for even thinking of it.

Mothering can be tough sometimes. When the demands on your time stretch beyond your capacities, there may come a point when you feel you can't give any more. If you are at that point, you may be suffering from mothering burnout. Burnout can be defined as a loss of enthusiasm, energy, idealism, perspective, and purpose. It is a state of total exhaustion - physical, mental, and spiritual - brought on by too many demands on too few resources. To admit that you are burned out doesn't mean you've failed. On the contrary, it's often the mothers who care the most, like Karen, who are the most prone to burnout.

What Causes Burnout?

There are a variety of factors that can put you at risk for burnout. Many women have unrealistic expectations about how much they'll be able to do after the birth of a baby. Messages from media and society may fuel those unrealistic expectations. Mothers sometimes take on too much responsibility for caregiving, both for their babies and other family members. All these things can make mothering seem impossible at times.

Unrealistic Expectations

Mothers may have ideas about motherhood that are not based on reality. Unrealistic expectations often take the form of "should" statements and/or perfectionism. Each such expectation involves beliefs about what mothers should be and do. Here are some examples.

"A mother should anticipate all her family's needs."

"A mother should be able to take care of everything."

"A mother should not take time off because that would be lazy."

"A mother should never get angry."

"A mother's thoughts should always be loving and nurturing."

Measuring real life against such beliefs can be harmful. Even though a mother may realize that such beliefs are unrealistic, she may still feel like a failure when she doesn't live up to them. With practice, one can learn to recognize that no human being can anticipate all of another's needs, take care of everything, or never take time off. In order to do all that, one would need to be psychic, all-powerful, and totally untiring. Human beings don't have those qualities, and mothers are only human.

Having excessively high standards for yourself or others is a part of unrealistic expectations. If you feel that you have to do all things well, or that your best is never good enough, you are in danger of becoming burned out. Mothers who are survivors of childhood abuse are especially prone to perfectionism, particularly in regard to parenting. They may strive to be perfect mothers, feet that they can't make any mistakes, and believe that even their thoughts must always be loving and nurturing. They may fear that negative thoughts will lead to them abusing their children as they were abused.

Unrealistic expectations are reinforced by messages from media. Television shows and commercials bombard women with hundreds of messages daily. To sell products, television and print advertisers make claims that can subtly undermine self-esteem in an effort to convince consumers that they need the advertised product in order to have a happy life. These messages are so pervasive that even when there is abundant evidence to the contrary, women often believe the lies. Think about it. How many women do you know who have the flawless bodies you see in advertisements? How many families do you know who live in perfectly clean, impeccably decorated homes? Are they the majority? Yet those images may be the ones that women use as an unconscious standard by which they judge themselves. It can be hard to change that habit.

What You Can Do

To counter unrealistic expectations, you first need to become aware of them. Next time you are feeling bad about yourself or your life, write down what you are thinking. Now examine it and ask yourself whether it is true. Imagine how you might see things differently if a friend or loved one told you they were in a similar position. (It's often easier to be more compassionate with others than we are with ourselves.) Talking with other mothers is also helpful. Over time, you'll begin to see that you are not the only one who seems to fall short of impossibly high standards. In time, you'll begin to recognize quickly when your expectations for yourself are too high. Then it will be easier to make changes in your behaviors to help you feel more competent more of the time. By changing your behavior and not holding yourself to impossible standards, you will be better able to make room in your life for relaxing and enjoying yourself and your family.

An Impossible Job

Unrealistic expectations are only part of the problem. Another part is that the job of mothering itself - if you do all that US culture implies is necessary - is truly impossible. Sometimes mothers burn out simply because they are physically exhausted. Remember the old expression: "A man works from sun to sun, but a woman's work is never done." The prospect of trying to do work that is "never done" puts mothers at risk. Caring for babies or toddlers can take many hours of each day. Beyond the immense responsibility of caring for babies and older children, the "job description" for motherhood often includes being a meal planner, home decorator, hostess, activity coordinator, health and safety supervisor, family entertainment planner, and counselor.

Mothers plan for the sustenance of their families. In addition to the actual cooking, mothers quite frequently are the ones who make the lists, buy the food, plan the meals, and make sure food is prepared so it's ready when needed.

It frequently falls upon mothers to make their homes nice places to be. Physical surroundings do influence the mood in a home, and mothers are typically responsible for them. They are also responsible for entertaining friends, family members, and even occasionally hostessing gatherings such as LLL Series Meetings.

Mothers are frequently the ones who coordinate children's activities. For toddlers, mothers buy clothes, select toys and books, sign up for playgroup or preschool, take little ones to gym or music classes, and find other families with whom to socialize. Depending on the family, older children may engage in scouting, soccer, music lessons or religious education classes. Mothers meet with schoolteachers, monitor homework, make sure permission slips are signed, and bring homemade cupcakes to school for birthdays and class parties. No wonder many mothers feel as if they are always in the car!

Mothers make the doctor and dentist appointments, know where the vaccination records are, and take children for checkups. Mothers are often the ones who take care of the animals, houseplants, and garden. They typically keep the family supplied with toothpaste, toilet paper, cold remedies, and prescription medicines. Mothers make sure their families are eating healthful meals and snacks. In short, the health and safety of their families is in their hands.

Mothers typically make the plans for social engagements and vacations. When there is an occasion to celebrate, mothers buy the gift, wrap it, and send it - then send the thank-you notes. Mothers are also responsible for any religious or secular holiday preparations including costumes or special clothes, decorations, ritual preparation, housecleaning, supplies, and general planning. When the parents each come from different backgrounds, it can multiply the number of holidays and special events they celebrate. That can make for more joy, but it can also make more work for the mother.

Evaluate and Prioritize

As you can see, the role of mother covers a very wide range of activities. And many of these tasks, such as laundry, need to be done over and over. When you are faced with too much work, your goal is to simplify and prioritize tasks and find some balance between responsibilities and rest.

Begin by paying attention to how you spend your days. This can help you identify work that can be eliminated. Some of the activities you list may be ones you enjoy. This listing doesn't mean you should cut out activities you like. But it helps to consider whether you need to do them all, or do them all now.

Some tasks can be delayed. When life is too busy, it helps to let go of some activities and tasks for a while. You can always start doing those things again when you find you have the time.

For jobs that you decide must be done now, start delegating as much as you can. For most types of work, you are not the only one who can do it. You're just the one who learned to do it and continued doing it. Contrary to popular belief, mothers are not the only ones capable of tackling household projects. Share the planning and the doing with your spouse. If you have older children, teaching them how to handle household chores now is an investment in their future peaceful relationships with roommates.

Caregiving Overload

Like it or not, fair or not, in most families caregiving becomes the woman is responsibility. Caregiving can take many forms. Mothers care for children, aging parents, and sick partners and friends. While caregiving can enrich you, it can also deplete you if you don't have support or don't take time for self-care.

Even when employed outside the home, women do the bulk of the childcare. In some families, childcare is equitably divided, or the mother may do most of these activities by choice. In others, it is simply assumed that these are the mother's responsibilities, even if she is employed full of part-time.

Not all children are born equal. Some children have high-need temperaments, and have an especially strong need to be with you. Older children may also have learning disabilities such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Children with chronic illnesses can dramatically increase caregiving responsibilities. All of these can isolate you from others, as this mother describes.

"On a bad day, I feel like Sisyphus of the Greek myth ... just when things seem to even out, a new set of daunting challenges presents itself..At these times, I enter a state beyond fatigue that is akin to despair" (Greenspan 1998 p. 42).

Children closely spaced in age can also lead to caregiving overload since the caregiving tasks feel unrelenting. Caregiving responsibilities may be so intense in the early days after the birth of multiples that everything else goes on hold: the house, the job, friends. It's easy to lose yourself in the routine.

Single Parenting

According to the US Census Bureau, there are 10 million single mothers in the United States, and they make up approximately 27 percent of all parent-child situations (Census Bureau 1998). Single parents report having no time to rest or do things they enjoy and relentless childcare responsibilities. Loneliness and isolation can also be challenges for the single mothers. And mother-headed households have a higher likelihood of poverty (Jones 1997).

The challenges of single parenting may vary depending on the circumstances. If you are single against your will either through death or divorce, single parenting may feel more challenging than if you're single parenting by choice. Some mothers have periodic bouts of single parenting when their spouse travels, works long hours, or is in the military. While individual women in such circumstances will each react differently, anger, depression, and burnout are common feelings. Anne describes her feelings about being a single mother of teens, one of whom has special needs.

"I have virtually no social life. I have very little time alone. I am facing the challenges of raising two teenagers at this point. Through all the grieving and loss of dreams, I have learned that I am a spiritual being no matter how bogged down I get in day-to-day experiences. Each day I need to rediscover this or I simply cannot cope. In the end I want to know that I have, in good conscience, done the best I knew how at the time."

Codependency is a word that has been so overused that it is almost a cliché. Nevertheless, it's often the women who take on responsibility for soothing everyone else's troubles who are at highest risk for burning out. Carrying the problems of others may overwhelm us. Mothers need wisdom when trying to determine how to spend their limited time and energy. They also need to put some limits on how involved they get in problems that are not their own. When you have a new baby in the house, a moment of peace and quiet is priceless, and you may need to be selective about how you spend those moments. Investing some time in taking care of yourself will enrich everyone you care for along with yourself.

Connect with others who can give back to you. This can include your friends, family members, or a spiritual counselor. You might also find it helpful to connect with others facing similar challenges. LLL Series Meetings are a great place to meet women in similar circumstances. And don't forget the Internet. If you are feeling isolated, online support can be a lifeline.

Another important task is to set some boundaries. Acknowledge that there is a limit to how much you can do. Do other people always come to you with their problems? Do you have trouble saying "no" to others? Most women do. You must learn to set some reasonable limits, even with your children. You are, after all, only human. You don't have to meet everyone's needs all the time. You can't even make your baby happy all the time, let alone everyone else.

This doesn't mean that you should stop caring about others. But you can put some reasonable limits on their requests, and make sure that at least some of your relationships also give back to you. Different friends may fill different needs, depending on the interests you share.

Some Final Thoughts

Burnout may feel hopeless to you. Fortunately, it is not. There are things you can do, and there is a light at the end of this tunnel. Try to become comfortable with your new role as a "real life" mother. Let go of all the media images that give us such an innacurate view of home life. Recognize that there are only so many hours in the day and that, first and foremost, your family needs must come first, before any other commitments. You can then pick and choose what activities you are going to be involved in. Accept help. Ask for help. Find friends who share your philosophy of parenting and who will support you in your efforts to be the best mother you can be. You deserve time to care for yourself and dream your own dreams.

How to Combat Burnout

Recognize the problem

When you are burned out, you often don't recognize it because you may be blaming yourself for getting into the position to begin with. If you are dragging yourself through each day, admit it and resolve to take some positive action.

Get treatment for depression

Depression may be a significant part of burnout. If you think that you might be depressed, look into your treatment options and get help. Depression is an illness, and there are effective treatments for it, just like anyother illness.

Take care of your physical needs

Women who don't take care of themselves are often the most vulnerable to burnout. Make it a priority to get enough sleep (even if you have to nap during the day), eat well, and exercise. Moderate exercise produces endorphins that will help your mood.

Change your self-talk

Break the pattern of constantly mentally rehearsing your daily difficulties. Instead of these automatic thoughts, try to think creatively about how you can change the situation. The Winning Family, by Dr. Louise Hart (may be available in your local LLL Group Library); chapter 18 explains more about how to change such patterns.

References

Burns, D. Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy. New York: Avon, 1999. See especially Chapters 10-14.
Hart, Dr. Louise. The Winning Family. Berkeley, CA: Celestial Arts, 1993.
Jones, F. and Jones, A. Come Home to Your Children. Toronto: Stoddart, 1997.
Minirth, F., P. Meier, D. Hawkins, C. Thurman & R. Flournoy. Beating Burnout. Balanced Living For Busy People. New York: Inspirational Press, 1997.
Potter, B. Overcoming Job Burnout: How to Renew Enthusiasm for Work. Berkeley, CA: Ronin, 1998.
Ramirez Basco, M. Never Good Enough: Freeing Yourself from the Chains of Perfectionism. New York: The Free Press, 1999.

Last updated November 13, 2006 by njb.
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