I was standing in the kitchen eyeing a full pot of chili I’d absent-mindedly left out overnight, made to last at least a few dinners. A year before, I’d have spent some energy upset about the waste. Instead, I shrugged and blankly stared out the kitchen window, the trees becoming a hazy blur as the chili slid down the drain. I was too tired to care.
This wasn’t the first day I’d had such an apathetic reaction. Off and on for months, I’d felt impatient, anxious, maybe even uninterested in parenting. It was a challenging state of mind, one I’d drifted into while caring for my 2-year-old son and 5-month-old identical twin daughters. As the chili disappeared, I gave up on assembling a solidly nutritious lunch for my son and poured him some cereal.
That’s when it hit me: I was burned out. Toasted. Crisped to a multigrain Cheerios level that required far more intervention than a coffee date or pedicure.
Though it was little consolation, I knew I wasn’t alone. Late-night or rapid-fire naptime texts from friends often consisted of confessions—of exhaustion, of feeling overwhelmed, of day-to-day parenting minutiae leading to minimal patience, dissatisfaction and emotional withdrawal. The number of moms reeling from this host of emotions is well documented in books, articles, medical journals and surveys.
A Care.com survey from 2014, for instance, found that “one in four working moms cry alone at least once a week,” due to the stressors of balancing work, child care and household duties. And “Exhausted Parents,” a study published in Frontiers in Psychology, documented that nearly 13% of mothers are experiencing “high burnout.”
“Burnout makes you irritable, moody, unable to manage responsibilities—in short, it’s the worst version of yourself on autopilot.”
There’s an official term for this hung-out-to-dry state: It’s “mommy burnout,” and it’s widely recognized as a real—and potentially serious—problem. It creates a seemingly inescapable emptiness that impedes your ability to properly care for yourself—and your family.
Despite previously devoting your full being to every aspect of your child’s life, it becomes hard to enjoy a moment with them—hard to simply think. You lose interest in parenting and have a hard time coping. Burnout makes you irritable, moody, unable to manage responsibilities—in short, it’s the worst version of yourself on autopilot. It’s a dark place, and it’s one that more and more moms are finding themselves in.
Do I Have Mommy Burnout?
After months of mothering, it was clear I’d reached an utterly drained state of mind. I took a burnout quiz created by two of the “Exhausted Parents,” researchers, Isabelle Roskam and Moira Mikolajczak. To gauge your own burnout level, take the assessment at the burnoutparental.com. According to the quiz, I am at the “moderate burnout” level, meaning I need to get to a better place—soon.
The intensity of mommy burnout lies between stress and postpartum depression, according to the “Exhausted Parents” study. Burnout compounds when perceived demands continually outweigh resources—when there is no respite from acute stress. In other words, it happens when stress becomes chronic. It’s akin to having a completely overwhelming day—day after day.
“It’s like a bank account that keeps dwindling,” says Katie Sardone, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist and owner of Behavioral Health Dallas who specializes in peripartum and postpartum depression. “You hit your limit and you keep going, and once you overdraft, there are fees and fines, and you’re going into debt. It takes so long for people to see that they are in the red.”
In simply struggling to get through the day, it’s easy to miss warning signs on the road to burnout. Cognitive errors, such as being at fault in a minor accident or making an unusual mistake at the office, are red flags, Sardone says.
Sheryl Ziegler spent years observing mothers who were suffering from the rigors of parenthood. When she had her second child, the Denver-based doctor of psychology began to struggle alongside her patients. “I felt like I was drowning,” she says. “I didn’t have enough time, and thought, ‘Am I even a good mom anymore?’”
This led her to write Mommy Burnout: How to Reclaim Your Life and Raise Healthier Children in the Process. In her book, Ziegler, who now has three kids under 11, notes that signs of burnout also include having too little energy to speak to friends, having less interest in sex, erratic and unhealthy eating, and self-deprecation. “A hallmark of mommy burnout is that you no longer feel good at your job,” Ziegler says.
In a 2018 study published in Frontiers in Psychology, researchers Sarah Hubert and Isabelle Aujoulat found the same underlying theme in worn-out moms: fear. Moms are afraid of being bad parents, afraid of losing control and afraid of losing their sense of self.
Desperate for a Night Off
The evening after delivering my twins via unexpected C-section, I found myself downright relaxed—giddy, even—as I lay in my hospital bed. My 19-month-old rainbow baby, my first son, was snoozing in his crib (confirmed via iPhone app), the substantial weight and stress of carrying my preemies had lifted, and the girls were being cared for in the NICU. Dinner was delivered, and it felt like I was on vacation.
Before the twins, I’d devoted every minute to my precious son, and while pregnant, didn’t feel good enough to take any sort of real vacation. (Not to mention I worked harder than ever to earn the time off and financial cushion I’d need when my twins arrived.)
Sadly, I’m not alone in enjoying a hospital visit. Maybe you know the feeling—that urge to “escape” for a break, even if it means being in an unfavorable situation. Women suffering from burnout often look to debilitating circumstances for downtime, Ziegler says. “When women tell me they want to run away or get injured so they will be taken care of for a change, I hear chronic stress that has turned into mommy burnout ringing through,” she writes.
She speaks from experience—once, she thought she might need surgery and was looking forward to a “much-needed break.” Then when doctors determined she didn’t need surgery after all, Ziegler was actually disappointed not to be getting a “night off” in the hospital.
“Women are expected to be CEO of a company and manage the household, creating grocery lists and helping with bills. Any woman can’t keep all of those balls up at the same time.”
Not only do burned-out mothers feel a loss of self-identity, they also feel trapped. And that’s how they end up fantasizing about having an ailment or sickness that warrants a night away.
Eight months after my hospital stay, following severe sleep deprivation (my husband and I clocked three hours in total too many nights to count), near-constant pumping, and a home as dirty as I’d ever lived in, I found solace in spending two hours at Starbucks working. It was an escape, if temporary. You can’t quit motherhood like you can a job—and this can ultimately lead to frustration and emotional distancing.
Burnout is often reinforced by feelings of “guilt, shame and loneliness,” the 2018 study says. The researchers found that mothers who were intentionally overinvolved “gradually developed a sense of being overwhelmed by the pressure that they perceived was being put on them.” And they blamed themselves instead of their situation—I know I did—therefore becoming both the “victims and perpetrators.”
So, do these internal pressures or societal and other external pressures cause burnout? The answer is a mix.
The Economics of Stress
Parental burnout triggers are wide ranging, but experts and research confirm that intensive parenting norms and the pressure for perfectionism—both societal and individual—are two of the main culprits.
Parents are feeling more pressure to raise successful, well-rounded kids, possibly thanks in part to income inequality. In the U.S., inequality has drastically risen since the ’80s, and as economists Matthias Doepke and Fabrizio Zilibotti explained in a Quartz article earlier this year, the wider the economic disparity, the higher the parenting fervor. Fueled by concern for their kids’ futures, middle- and upper-class parents are trying their best to ensure their kids go to college and have successful careers.
“My goodness, the pressure on these moms and dads to have their kids in every activity known to man,” says Beth Ann Contreras, a licensed therapist and counselor and the Bedford site director for Logos Counseling. Contreras and her husband have three grown daughters, and now she’s watching them raise children of their own in this environment of frantic overscheduling.
“It borders on insanity,” she laments, adding that of course parents feel the strain of “being in the right place at the right time, with the right clothing and the right equipment, in the right car…” This might be why “overzealous, overcommitted” parents are most at risk for burnout, according to the “Exhausted Parents” study.
In any case, it is clear we are devoting a lot more time to hands-on parenting. According to Pew Research Center data, the average time U.S. mothers spent caring for children increased by four hours weekly from 1965 to 2016. A 2016 study for the National Council on Family Relations’ Journal of Marriage and Family found much the same.
“We don’t raise children around our extended families, and we are not meant to raise generations of children without help.”
Ziegler notes that because of this increase in engagement, today’s families lack the freedoms we—and therefore, our parents—once had. In the past, “there was much more of an emphasis to go outside and play, and ‘Don’t come in until it’s dark,’” she says. “Now we are like, ‘Let’s do flash cards together.’ We have taken on the role of play dates, coaches and stimulators.”
I can relate. Homemade sensory or motor-skill-building activities found via Pinterest? Check. Apps with tips on challenging your newborn daily? Check.
As we’re spending more time on parenting, we’re also spending more time at work. Pew Research Center data shows that mothers spend 16 more hours a week at their jobs than they did in 1965. (To help balance the difference, we’ve cut time on household chores, but there’s still a two-hour disparity.)
Not only are we working more and spending more time with our children—we have less help. Experts say there are vast differences in the familial structure today versus that of the 1950s and ’60s.
“Throughout the history of humans, communities used to raise babies together,” says Sardone, who has two daughters, ages 4 and 2. Now, “it’s more common to live away from parents and has become harder and harder to get practical support.”
Ziegler agrees. “We don’t raise children around our extended families, and we are not meant to raise generations of children without help,” she says.
High Expectations for Ourselves
Even with abundant resources, women often have a hard time delegating, which could be credited to an unspoken societal pressure to be “supermom.” Kelly Krug, a physician assistant formerly at Olympus Family Medicine in Frisco, attributes our society’s “females can do everything” mentality to some of our stress.
“I’m not opposed to the idea that women should have equal rights, but we haven’t managed our expectations,” explains Krug, who has a 14-year-old stepson, 6-year-old son and 4-year-old daughter. “Women are expected to be CEO of a company and manage the household, creating grocery lists and helping with bills. Any woman can’t keep all of those balls up at the same time.”
Krug works three days a week and stays home the other two days, and still struggles to maintain a balance. “Trying to juggle naps, appointments and take care of tiny humans that are needing all day long is exhausting,” she says. She believes our empowerment is a double-edged sword: “Women are taking on the role that men traditionally did of working full-time, then trying to be a perfect mom, perfect employee and perfect wife, and it’s impossible.”
These high expectations are costly, resulting in “maternal guilt, lower self-efficacy beliefs, and higher stress levels,” notes a 2018 study titled “Feeling Pressure To Be a Perfect Mother Relates to Parental Burnout and Career Ambitions.” What’s more, mothers fear “social penalties” for falling short of these high standards—perhaps feeling like an outsider or being looked down upon by other parents.
To make matters worse, efforts to live up to these standards only worsen perfectionism, which is rampant among mothers. DFWChild Mom-Approved psychologist Paula Miltenberger, Ph.D., of Dallas-based Women’s Mental Wellness says about 85% of her clients struggle with unattainable expectations.
“A lot of women tend to have perfectionist personalities, which can lead to never feeling good enough,” she says. This pressure leads to a dangerous thinking pattern of I should or I must.” She adds, “When our thinking patterns get that way, we add additional stress on ourselves.”
Then there’s that other big stressor that feeds right into our own self-doubt: social media. It’s a pressure-cooker of images from parents who expertly conjure balanced (and, of course, organic) bento box meals, make crafts that rival preschool teachers’ projects, and assemble magical playrooms.
“We have taken on the role of play dates, coaches and stimulators.”
Moms in the past didn’t have this “barometer people were judging themselves by,” says Miltenberger. “I don’t have a bone in my body that can craft, but if I were to look at all these mothers on social media who do crafting, I’d be setting myself up for disappointment and negative thoughts.”
Which is what many of us do—to our own detriment. “Social media can significantly exacerbate depression and anxiety,” Sardone says. For many, time spent on social media is a substitute for real phone conversations or time spent with friends—those face-to-face connections that Ziegler contends are key to motherhood fruition. “One of the reasons moms are so unhappy is the lack of connection and isolation in motherhood,” she says.
“Moms are very isolated,” agrees Contreras. She says that stay-at-home moms, especially, can lose their sense of self because they lack meaningful interactions with family, friends, neighbors, even strangers at the grocery store. “A stay-at-home mom doesn’t have what historically women had, which is connection,” she explains. “It’s all about the child, and they don’t have an adult to speak to all day long.” In short, we are loaded with more expectations and work than ever before, with less support than ever before. It all equates to lots of stress and little personal time for matriarchs.
Unfortunately, healing requires more than a quick fix. As I’ve discovered in my own efforts to achieve postpartum normalcy, beating burnout is a journey that requires consistent dedication and the most precious of commodities: time.
Is it Burnout, Depression or Anxiety?
While mommy burnout can have serious ramifications, it isn’t genetic and medicine is not required for treatment. Anxiety and depression, meanwhile, are psychiatric disorders that can require medicine and/or therapy for complete healing. (They also can be experienced simultaneously.)
But how can you determine whether you’re dealing with mommy burnout, postpartum depression (PPD), general depression or anxiety? Burnout crosses into postpartum depression, for instance, when a mother’s daily abilities are severely impaired and she is unable to eat, sleep and take care of herself. Because depression or anxiety might require different interventions than burnout, it’s important to seek help from a doctor or therapist when symptoms start to interfere with daily life.
Here are a few symptoms that cross the line from burnout to depression or anxiety, according to Mommy Burnout by Sheryl Ziegler.
Have you been…
- Engaging in reckless behavior to escape your family and responsibilities?
- Experiencing real problems with concentration?
- Experiencing headaches and stomachaches?
- Having suicidal thoughts or fantasies such as “disappearing permanently”?
- Abandoning your goals completely?
- Snapping at people easily and exhibiting close to zero patience for your kids or spouse?
- Struggling to get out of bed in the morning and fantasizing about sleeping all the time?
Then you might be depressed.
Have you been…
- Preoccupied with something most days of the week and hours of the day for the past six months?
- Experiencing trouble sitting still, fatigue, trouble concentrating, agitation, tight or sore muscles, or difficulty falling or staying asleep?
- Dealing with so much worry that it causes significant stress and interferes with daily life?
Then you might be anxious.
What About Dad?
According to research, burnout is not limited to moms. As dads have become more involved in child-rearing, they’re also susceptible to parental burnout; the “Exhausted Parents” study published in 2017 found that dads “who put an effort into their fathering … had the same probability of burnout as mothers.”
This article was originally published in November 2019.
Photography by Cindy James; pictured: Reese, Blakely and Ashley of Fort Worth