You’re helping one kid complete her assignment between Zoom classes when you look across the room and see your younger child coating his feet in the paint for an art project. Paint on the rug and his clothes, your older child is upset that your attention is split, you’ve had to pee for as long as you can remember, you haven’t eaten since 6 pm the night before and there is no support in sight. No wonder mom burnout is so prevalent.
In addition to taking care of all of the daily tasks for the family: laundry, meal prep, clean up, you name it, moms also play the central role in managing the family schedule, organizing family activities, taking charge of each person’s to-dos, and holding space for the emotional needs of the household.
For the more than 25% of US mothers who are stay-at-home moms, sometimes there is no respite from these duties. The stress of managing everyone else’s needs continues to build on itself until burnout inevitably arises.
Mom Burnout Defined
Burnout arises from chronic and unremitting stress. The vast majority of research is centered around professional burnout, but it can be translated to parenting too. How many people would apply for a job that has no sick leave, no overtime protection, and no pay? Parenting is not easy.
If you’re a stay-at-home mom—or dad—and are feeling drained, disconnected, and inadequate, you may be dealing with parental burnout.
Parental burnout is defined as a combination of three distinct experiences:
- feeling emotionally and physically exhausted
- feeling emotionally distant from your children
- feeling incompetent as a parent
The thing with burnout is that while you experience this drain on your internal resources, the world keeps spinning and the demands continue to pile up.
Mom burnout during COVID-19 is even more burdensome. Beyond adding a new level of isolation and uncertainty to your life, you’ve also lost access to some of the things that you used to do to find solace. The pandemic has largely taken away connecting with your friends, dining out (no dishes to clean), traveling, and accessing family support.
At this point the question may not even be how to avoid mom burnout but rather what to do with mom burnout. There are broad, systemic things that would help like affordable childcare, parental leave, and undoing many of the “isms” that impact moms. That stuff is not going to change overnight though and in the meantime, you still need tools to cope.
As you are probably already aware, managing burnout is not simple. It requires more than an occasional act of self-care like a lavender-infused bath or your favorite takeout. Those sound lovely, and by all means partake. But think of burnout as something much larger. Don’t be disappointed to find it still lingering once you throw away the takeout containers or get out of the bath.
Take heart in knowing that it doesn’t have to be this way. Building resilience and managing mom burnout is a long game. And while the last thing an overstretched mom needs is another to-do, preventing burnout will take some investment. In the end, it’s well worth it.
While avoiding it altogether may not always be in the cards, here are 4 strategies to reduce and manage mom burnout.
Cut Yourself a Break
Why is it so easy to be kind and generous to other people but so hard to be that way towards ourselves?
In our culture, women and moms can have very high expectations for themselves. When we feel like we’re not up to par we tend to be very self-critical. Everyone else is handling it, why can’t I? What’s wrong with me? When you notice that critical voice in your head, see if you can engage a kinder and wiser voice inside of you. Be gentle with yourself.
There are a lot of opinions on parenting out there, especially if you’re on social media. It can be a wonderful resource and method of connection, but it can also breed loneliness and depression. Know yourself and notice your reactions so you can tune out the noise and tune inward when that is what you most need.
Toys on the floor, a mismatched outfit, and dirty dishes in the sink, while anxiety-provoking, are not going to go down in the history of your life as what is most important. The truth is, good enough parenting is ideal parenting. You’re creating a model for your children that you do not have to be perfect to be valuable, important or loved.
Spend Meaningful Time With Your Kids
This might seem counter-intuitive. Spending too much time with your children is one of the things that cause mom burnout, right? It turns out that investing in your relationship with your kids and building a connection with them can actually combat burnout. By engaging in the part of your role as a parent that fills you with purpose, you can find yourself rejuvenated.
To make it as simple as possible, focus on the pieces of parenthood that come most naturally to you and that you enjoy. This could be a walk, sharing a meal, baking, coloring, reading, or learning something new together. All that matters is that you incorporate consistent time outside of the get dressed-eat-bathe-bed routine that fills you with meaning and connection.
Make Sure You Also Have Meaningful Alone Time
As a busy stay-at-home mom, you may feel as though your entire existence is based around supporting others. All mothers had lives before becoming a parent. Maybe you had a career, a hobby, or something that you dedicated your time and energy to that you no longer do.
It’s important to acknowledge that loss of identity and to find ways to continue to create your identity as a mom and as an individual. Whether it’s a book club, regular consistent time with friends, a creative project, or a yoga class, think about what will be meaningful and fulfilling to you and find a way to work it into your regular routine.
By now you might be thinking if I could do that I wouldn’t be reading this article! But my family lives far away, I can’t afford childcare, my partner works long hours, and I really have no support.
Your concern is completely valid. Try also to gently push back on the idea that help is absolutely not accessible to you. Think outside the box and see what creative ways you can come up with to get that space.
While the pandemic may not allow for a childcare swap, you might consider creating a regular quiet time each day at home. Depending on the ages of your children, this may be when they nap or play in a different room, giving you the time you need for yourself and giving your child a chance to build their creativity, develop their problem-solving skills, and explore their individual identities.
The tricky part is that this is no longer the time to do the dishes or quickly cross off as many to-dos as you can. This is now “you time.” It is the time to do those things that support your identity and fill you with personal meaning. And it is the time to engage in self-care that is regenerative. If something else doesn’t get done, having this time was still a non-negotiable.
Get Help From a Mental Health Professional
Parenting can unearth all kinds of deep-seated issues that can be stressful, confusing, and overwhelming. Mom burnout, and particularly mom burnout during COVID-19 is as real as it gets.
Burnout is not a minor issue to be swept under the rug. On the contrary, it is an actual health problem with real health consequences including diabetes, heart disease, high cholesterol, headaches, insomnia, and mental health issues like depression.
You’re not supposed to do this all by yourself nor should you have to. A therapist will help you make sense of your struggles and develop coping strategies and resilience to reduce burnout. In therapy, you can work together on identifying your negative self-talk, figuring out how to ask for help when you need it, and coming up with a plan to support and nourish yourself during this challenging time.
With online therapy, you can now access high-quality, insightful, and supportive therapists from the comfort of your home. As a busy stay-at-home mom, you don’t have to find childcare or leave your kids at home alone to get help. You absolutely deserve the support and both you and your family will benefit from it.
Kate Dubé is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) and mental health writer trained at UC Berkeley and UCSF. She specializes in creating a therapeutic space to work through daily stressors, anxiety, depression, trauma, relationship issues and life transitions, including parenthood. Kate incorporates her clinical expertise to create well-researched, accessible content on topics ranging from the individual to the systemic. When you-or a loved one-is struggling with a mental health issue, you can rely on her for evidence-based, empathetic, and useful information.Read more