At this very moment, I have exactly 23 precious spare minutes—a rarity with three children under 2. But by the time I’ve determined what to do with my unexpected time (Write my overdue story? Eat something? Respond to long-unanswered texts? Research the best sippy cup? Plan a date night? Shower?), the moment has passed. And I’m still as frazzled as my postpartum hair.
That’s the eternal struggle of motherhood, isn’t it? Trying to manage it all, with dwindling time. Compared to mothers of the past, we’re working more and we’re investing more into hands-on parenting. We’re expected to be unceasingly “on,” and to gracefully deal with chronic stress. So we go and go and go until we collapse into a tired heap.
In part one of this story, we covered the causes and symptoms of mommy burnout. The main takeaway: Unrealistic expectations, whether self-imposed or societal, along with a host of other problems including lack of face-to-face connections, absence of familial support and hyper-involved parenting, are leading to mommy burnout. The syndrome is recognized by experts as a real and pervasive problem.
At risk: reaching a state of utter exhaustion that can lead to emotional detachment from our children and a feeling of incompetence as a parent.
The good news is that mommy burnout is preventable—and curable. The bad news? The solution requires ongoing dedication and commitment when reserves are empty, and, ironically, the one thing we all need more of: time. But your family life—and your health—may depend on it.
When Mama Ain’t Happy
I’ve never been known to have an excess of patience. But at my most burned out, practically everything made me snap, whether mildly or wildly: my 22-month-old son throwing a spoonful of yogurt across the kitchen, my 3-month-old twin daughters refusing to eat on schedule, my husband simply coughing and waking the babies—really. My blood pressure was a constant roller coaster.
Problems can escalate when a mom remains in a burnout state, says Denver-based author and psychologist Sheryl Ziegler. As she explains in her book Mommy Burnout, headaches can become migraines, irritability can shift to rage, verbal aggression can intensify to physical aggression, sleeplessness can transform into insomnia, worry can lead to constant anxiety and forgetfulness can become memory impairment. These issues—and a desire to unwind and de-stress—can even lead to substance abuse, Ziegler says.
“Spend time with other people. That’s what the research is clear on. Our loneliness is driving an incredible level of stress.”
Mothers who have high burnout also tend to snap more, like I did. “If you’re exhausted, haven’t eaten yet, and your kid has a tantrum, in that scenario you won’t respond the best,” says Katie Sardone, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist and owner of Behavioral Health Dallas. “If you had a nice morning, got to exercise and got breakfast, it gives you a mental recharge to handle those emotions. But if your emotions aren’t restored and you can’t handle yours, how can you handle a child’s?”
Focusing on yourself can help you shore up reserves of patience and control your temper.
Stefanie Prentiss, a Highland Park mom and owner of luxury travel concierge Posh Voyage, regularly has to keep her emotions in check. “When I don’t give myself the oxygen mask first, I’m running on empty, and my husband gets home and I’m a witch,” she says. Ensuring your own well-being is “a gift you are giving to yourself and to everyone in your family.”
Because when Mom is struggling, the entire family unit suffers. “Mommy burnout affects our entire lives, our work, our relationships, our marriage, our children,” Ziegler says. “That should give us pause.”
She reveals that when a mother is burned out, her kids are more likely to experience anxiety, trouble sleeping and even physical pain such as bellyaches and headaches.
Mommy burnout can also damage a child’s feeling of attachment to their mom, which affects how they relate to others now and in adulthood, explains Sardone. “It’s important to prioritize yourself so you can prioritize that relationship with your child,” she says. “Instead of cutting star-shaped sandwiches, what’s more important is to get good sleep so you can give them good attention.”
Get Yourself Back
When the thought of changing just one more diaper, driving to one more soccer game or negotiating one more bedtime stall tactic is enough to melt you into a puddle of irritation, the solution is to step away and re–center. “A lot of women think there’s no way out,” says psychologist Paula Miltenberger, Ph.D., of Dallas-based Women’s Mental Wellness. “But sometimes they just need permission.”
That means saying no to social invitations and school commitments unless they are guaranteed to bring joy to your family.
This can mean arranging time off work for respite and taking a long, hard look at your daily routines. “You have to think, ‘Am I set up for success in my schedule, my life, my home, my reinforcements?’” says Sardone. “Stabilize and manage issues first. Prioritize more sleep by utilizing your husband, a mother-in-law, a night nanny—it’s really about thinking flexibly. Then you can figure out how to get more child–free time to recuperate.”
When it comes to scheduling, determining your core values and prioritizing them is key, Miltenberger says. “We have to remember there’s certain things we can control and different choices we can make to alleviate stress,” she says. “If your value is family, it can’t always be about family togetherness, but if you are overscheduled and at six different sporting events on the weekend, there is a disconnect between what you value and how your life is living out.”
We may be spending more time in cars and at activities but missing out on true togetherness. Quality one-on-one time beats just about any activity, says Beth Ann Contreras, a licensed therapist and counselor and the Bedford site director for Logos Counseling. “If you ask a kid what kind of ‘care’ they want, it’s playing a game together,” she says. “You need quality with the quantity.”
A solution might be to go against societal norms and limit extracurricular activities to one per child. As parents, we are the ones who control our children’s schedules, enroll them in classes, drive them to sports, take them to parties—and we have the power to cut back. That means saying no to social invitations and school commitments unless they are guaranteed to bring joy to your family. In other words, Marie Kondo your schedule.
We also can limit or ignore pressure to undertake sensory activities, flash cards and educational crafts. Simply going on a walk or preparing lunch together is enough—or allowing the kids to entertain themselves. And, if we need more time to ourselves in the evening, whether for a break or to rest, an early bedtime never hurt anyone. Sleep or personal time should prevail, every time.
Easier said than done, right? The pressure to stay busy can create anxiety over simply being still, and paring down schedules can be stressful by comparison—are we doing as much as other parents to prepare our kids for college and for life? Are our children missing out?
“You have to be willing to not chase after all of the things on social media or the things the friends in your mommy group are doing,” Sardone says. “It’s learning strategies to tune out some of that. You have to focus on your own values.” (See our social media detox tips below for ways to limit unhealthy influences.)
“Comparison is the killer,” Miltenberger agrees. “Nobody’s circumstance is just like ours.”
Self-care is not selfish. It is crucial to maintaining your patience, your mood, your approach to every day—it is a human need, Sardone says. She touts the benefits of behavioral activation, or regularly getting dressed and out of the house, spending time with friends and walking the dog.
When Elysa Ellis brought home her son, the Addison mom started penciling in stroller walks around her neighborhood. To eliminate excuses, she kept her jogging stroller “packed with backup diapers and teethers, so we could leave in five minutes.” Short breaks are always good for burnout prevention, but longer time away can be more restorative. The overwritten-about “momcation” isn’t always the answer for burnout, but it can help.
“Focus on your genuine emotional well–being and not just distracting your mind.”
Prentiss, the travel concierge owner, knows her telltale sign of entering the red zone is minimal patience. (My own red flags are a perennially raised voice, entering a dazed state when it’s playtime and simply feeling too tired to do anything.) When Prentiss starts snapping, she takes a solo vacation—in fact, she recently trekked to the Arctic alone while six months pregnant. “I didn’t realize how much I needed it until I was there in the middle of nowhere looking at polar bears,” she says. Time alone “starts to give you separation, and you start to look at different things the right way.”
Kelly Krug, a physician assistant at Olympus Family Medicine in Frisco, splits her weekdays between working and staying at home, and like most moms, regularly struggles with maintaining balance. “I know I’m reaching burnout when I lose my patience over stupid stuff, or when I’m dreading going to work, or when I’m not enjoying things I should be enjoying,” she says.
That’s when she makes time for herself to read, take a bath or try a new recipe. “What got me mostly out of mommy burnout was re-recognizing I’m not just a mom, a physician assistant, a wife,” she says. “I lost Kelly somewhere along the way. It’s about identifying what you need, identifying what looks best for you, and then finding small ways to fit that in—even if it’s 10 minutes of decompression on the way home by rolling down the windows and playing music.”
Once you carve out space to re–center, commit to a genuine reprieve. “Focus on your genuine emotional well–being and not just distracting your mind,” Sardone says. “It’s a lifestyle of taking care of yourself. It’s a mental shift.”
Essential to this mental shift: a goal to stop multitasking. “We are constantly running to-do lists in our minds,” writes Ziegler. “We are perpetually distracted by technology. We multitask without even realizing it. We research the best highchair or bicycle until well after midnight when we should be getting much-needed rest.”
In other words, we should forgo those extensive efforts to find the cutest matching holiday pajamas or the best intelligence-building children’s toys. We go on “best quests” looking for the perfect everything, from schools to swim lessons, and then are unsatisfied because we know there is always a better option, Ziegler explains.
When blocking time to make decisions, prioritize what is necessary and monotask. Ziegler suggests limiting your choices by choosing from among just two or three options and “shifting your mindset from ‘the best’ to what works for your family.”
Invest in Relationships
One of the best things you can do with a spare 23 minutes? Call a friend. “If there is one takeaway from the book, it would be to spend time with other people,” Ziegler says. “That’s what the research is clear on. Our loneliness is driving an incredible level of stress in women, and in that sense, men too. Connect, connect, connect.”
Contreras couldn’t agree more. She believes modern-day mothers are far more isolated than moms of the past, especially those who aren’t plugged in to mommy-and-me groups and classes. So lunch dates, early morning coffee chats or even a quick voice text can keep you sane.
Ellis got to know a neighbor with a child close to the age of her own son. The moms became good friends during regular walks. “Having a face-to-face chat with a person in the same life stage helped with burnout,” she reveals. Now, she regularly calls upon a moms group she met through church. “It was interesting meeting strangers whose babies were born within months of each other—and we can talk about everything,” she says.
My own common solution for connection: the Marco Polo app. In-person connection may be ideal according to the experts, but I also have to be realistic. Even if I can’t make time to meet a friend, sending a personal message (and seeing a friend as unkempt as myself) is enough for a mental boost and adult connection.
Drop the Mom Guilt
Commiserating with friends can also help us manage our own expectations. “We are setting ourselves up for this goal that we should be able to do it all, and the word ‘should’ is not healthy,” Krug says. To find better balance, moms have to rise to the challenge of surrendering control and delegating tasks to partners, other family members or friends.
“If we’re going to be in the workforce, we’re definitely going to have to have lower standards for how the towels are folded.”
At my deepest postpartum low, my husband took time off of work to help me catch up on housework and get out of the house. We divide and conquer nighttime duties—or he handles wake-ups—to ensure I’m rested and have more patience for balancing working from home with toddler tantrums.
The key is to be willing to allow someone else to step in, whether or not their process mirrors yours. Not everything will be done as we expect—but that’s the tradeoff. “If we’re going to be in the workforce, we’re definitely going to have to have lower standards for how the towels are folded,” Contreras says.
And, Krug adds, we need to give ourselves grace. “It’s a daily practice of self-compassion,” she explains. “Say, ‘It’s OK that I’m not going to get all of this done’ instead of saying, ‘I can’t believe I didn’t get this done.’”
It’s all about perspective. “We have to accept the reality that everyone has limits,” Sardone says. “Focus on what you are proud of in your parenting instead of focusing on all the things you can’t do.”
Miltenberger tells women frequently that they should only ask of themselves what their resources allow, and turns to the phrase “good enough mother,” coined by British pediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott in 1953. Through observation and research, Winnicott found that children whose parents “failed” them in different ways actually benefited developmentally from the failures.
“You don’t have to do everything to be a good mom,” Miltenberger reiterates. “Really, you just have to be a good enough mom.”
Social Media Detox
Minimize the risks of social-media-driven depression and anxiety with a few proactive measures:
- Set “on” hours. Wait to scroll Instagram until your morning routine is complete, and set a curfew at night. It can be as simple as not scrolling 15 minutes before bedtime.
- Earmark vacation days. Set your phone aside for a full day or—gasp!—a weekend. That means leaving it at home while you’re out and about.
- Be cognizant of whom you choose to follow. Does the unbounded traveler gallivanting across remote beaches get you down? Does the mom with her children in perfectly coordinated, stain-free clothes always doing something creative make you feel like a hermit? Ditch them. You’ll feel better for it.
- Don’t put weight on your followers, numbers, likes, etc. You know your self-worth and value are not determined by someone else’s click.
- Set your phone aside when spending time with loved ones. The most important goal is to connect—therefore, give your full attention.
Identifying How You React to Stress
Determining your stress style and how you should respond can also help prevent a barrage of acute or smaller stressors (such as dealing with a toddler tantrum while running late) from morphing into chronic stress. In her book Mommy Burnout, psychologist Sheryl Ziegler identifies three stress styles: fighting, fleeing and freezing:
The fighter responds with anger, irritability and agitation, and might find solace in activities that calm the nervous system—yoga, deep breathing, soothing imagery or confiding in a friend.
The moms who flees reacts to stress with isolation and depression, tuning out the environment and mentally escaping via TV or phone, or sometimes by taking a drive, Ziegler writes. A massage, walking or jogging outside, or journaling can wake the nervous system and help eliminate stress.
The mom who tends to freeze, or feel paralyzed in a crisis, could benefit from activities that engage the nervous system, such as running, dancing, swimming and mindfulness, Ziegler explains.
A Plan to Treat Mommy Burnout
Try these tips pulled straight from the psychologist Sheryl Ziegler’s book, Mommy Burnout.
–Identify your stress style. Determine whether you are a fighter, fleer or freezer, and how you can help alleviate tension. This will prevent single stressful events from morphing into chronic stress.
–Be proactive in preventing stress. Whether it’s running, meditating or painting, do whatever works for you consistently.
–Compartmentalize your life. Create work–home time boundaries. For example, take an hour while at work to schedule personal appointments and, at home, take an hour before dinner to accomplish some work before spending time with family.
–Manage your time. Rushing only increases tension and children’s stress, so plan proactively. For instance, get your children ready for school 30 minutes early, and use the downtime for yourself.
–Get some perspective. Instead of blaming others for stressful situations or making excuses for unhappiness, strive to find positives in every situation. Studies show optimists better manage stress.
–Take steps to manage aspects of your life that bring you down. Review where you work and live, how much money you make and spend, what you eat, how you parent—and tweak your circumstances to make a difference.
–Add nature into your daily life. Take a walk outside, go for a swim or ride your bike.
–Tend, but don’t over-tend, to your kids. Know when to step away and allow your children to try to work out problems on their own.
–Connect with other women. Females need friendship when stressed, and the more you deny yourself these bonds, the worse your mommy burnout will become. Find women you can talk to, vent to and laugh with.
This article was originally published in December 2019.
Photography by Cindy James; pictured: Reese, Blakely and Ashley of Fort Worth