In the 1970s, psychologist Herbert Freudenberger coined the word “burnout” to mean “a state of mental and physical exhaustion caused by one’s professional life.” According to Freudenberger, burnout isn’t a mental illness; rather, it’s a stress state characterized by symptoms such as fatigue, irritability and insomnia.
And recent research suggests that parents can succumb to burnout. In fact, low to moderate correlations between parental burnout and professional burnout, parental stress and depression suggests that parental burnout is not just burnout, stress or depression: some parents are just exhausted beyond belief. And by “some parents” we mean…a figure that is anywhere between two and 12 percent.
That may not seem like a whole lot, but perhaps it’s because many parents feel guilty admitting to feeling burned out. So we reached out to moms to ask them what “mommy burnout” feels like to them, and how they cope.
1. Feeling desensitized.
“There are times when I deal with mommy burnout,” says Leslie Fischer, mother of four boys. “The way it manifests itself is by feeling desensitized. Kids experience big emotions, and moms are often reacting to a lot of drama. For me, being a good mom means taking their challenges seriously: being mistreated by a sibling, having the right things for school in the morning or feeling sad about setbacks, like having their block tower fall down. When I am desensitized to how upsetting these things are for my sons, I know I need time to recharge.”
2. Feeling like your attention is always diverted.
“Owning and operating my own business is stressful enough but, for me, the stress is augmented by the fact that I’m a mom to a young, very demanding child,” says Lauren Cohen, owner and operater or E-Council. “My attention is constantly diverted, and I often feel challenged in terms of establishing — and maintaining and honoring — boundaries. Time is my most precious commodity and I simply never have enough of it. I experience burnout on a daily basis, and to add insult to injury, am also a single mom with ongoing cash-flow and work-life-balance challenges.
“So how do I work on managing stress? I would not be honest if I said I had my stress under control; the battle continues to fester. However, I have undertaken many activities in an effort to effectively manage my stress, including regular massages, meditation with a personalized mantra, taking advantage of ongoing spiritual growth opportunities, putting my phone away (or at least not having it attached to my hip for at least one day over the weekend), setting up ‘cell phone-free’ zone times both for myself and my son (we have ‘special time’ every night right before bed that helps us both to relax and rejuvenate, hiring an assistant… [delegating work], taking time out for my son, taking time out for myself and [working] with a coach.”
3. Feeling out of touch with yourself.
4. Feeling a loss of patience.
“The old African proverb is ‘it takes a village to raise a child,’ and oh, how true that is,” says Hayley Ellis, a Health and Wellness Expert for Maple Holistics. “But in this day and age, with the parental unit consisting primarily of two parents (sometimes two working parents), it is almost impossible to handle it all properly. Understandably, there are going to be times when you feel like that’s it. You’re done. It’s over. You cannot ‘adult’ anymore today, thank you very much. Consequences be damned. This is a feeling which many experience, but not many choose to talk about. That feeling of extreme fatigue, loneliness, inadequacy and stress.
“I got this feeling a lot. Like I have no patience for my kids, my husband or the house. I need to be alone, I need my bed, I need my TV, I need some ice cream, and I just want to curl up into a ball and never be found again. I was right on the cusp of a kind of depression. It used to hit me really hard, especially when I became a mom for the first time. That was a trip. I got over it with A) therapy, B) talking things out with my partner and C) meditation. This last one has been most effective, and it is one which, once I got into it, I realized just how much it was missing from my life…
“I am a mom, so I have made my peace with the fact that there will probably always be some amount of stress in my life. The secret is not to let it control you or govern you. You are much stronger and more capable than you know.”
5. Feeling physically sick.
“I wasn’t able to sleep properly because I was always wired, I was sick — a lot, and not-small things: my ear was infected and my eardrum burst, I fell and injured my tailbone, I had a digestive infection that impacted me acutely for six months and strongly for two years,” explains Janis Isaman. “I am sure I don’t remember many things from that period of my life. I was literally just getting through.”
Build a social community. Ask others for help, even to clean the kitchen. Say no to things [you] don’t enjoy. Limit the volume of planned activities that [your] child is doing. Take vacation time. Take actual vacation. Use a planner and daytimer.”
6. Feeling overwhelmed.
“I have most definitely felt ‘burnout,'” says Emily Wright. “I’m a single mom of three very busy kids (10, 14 and 16), I work full time and I commute to a different city to do so. To me, burnout feels like complete overwhelm. There are never enough hours in the day to do everything that needs to be done, and there is never enough money to pay for everything that everyone needs and wants. So at times, it is paralyzing. Working all day, coming home to hungry kids/pets, an untidy house, a growing list of items that need to be bought/bills that have to be paid, and activities that the kids need to be driven to… You go, go, go every day until one day you just walk in your house and stare blankly and realize you can’t do any of it anymore.
“I am learning to diagnose the subtle signs of burnout before I hit the wall and feel paralyzed. I notice I bite my nails more when stress is building. I notice I’m more likely to feel the overwhelm the week before my period. I notice that I don’t have as much of an appetite, I want to sleep more, and I have a hard time focusing at work. When I begin to notice these things, I try to make it a point to work in some self-care, but often that feels like a chore, too. So I have to do self-care things that don’t take any time away from my job or kids. Buying flowers to put on my desk at work cheers me up. Treating myself to a little chocolate at lunch break or sipping a glass of wine while I cook dinner relaxes me. Calling a good friend while I scrub dishes is cathartic. Taking a bath at night instead of a rushed shower in the morning is de-stressing and efficient. Those are calming, re-centering things I can do for myself. I also hang post-it notes with little mantras, around my house and office. They say things like, ‘You are raising independent, thoughtful, responsible adults’ and ‘You don’t have to be Supermom; you just have to be Mom,’ and my favorite, ‘The most stable people in your life were raised by single mothers; your kids will be OK.'”
7. Feeling smothered.
8. Feeling slow-moving.
9. Feeling in constant competition with other moms.
“‘Mommy burnout? Nope, being a mom is super easy,’ said no mother ever,” says Carrie Murray, head of BRA, a business and emotional support group for mompreneurs with a focus on growing women-owned businesses. “I think burnout begins when they are babies and you have the same routine over and over, feed, sleep, change, feed sleep, change. Boredom sets in, and you can feel so isolated because you are somewhat relegated to the schedule of the baby. Then the babies turn into toddlers, and you can’t catch a break because now they are mobile and have learned choice phrases like ‘NO’ and ‘MINE.’ You find yourself looking for stimulation that doesn’t include a Disney princess movie.
“I personally have felt the most mom burnout once the kids started going to preschool and elementary school, and at this point you get somewhat of a break from mommyhood; you go to the gym more, and going to Target without a child in tow feels like a vacation, and everything seems to be developing a new routine. The burnout comes when all the other moms are constantly trying to ‘one up’ each other. It’s exhausting. Who has the biggest third birthday parties, the most creative Valentine’s cards, the competitiveness of getting into preschool and elementary school, the comparison of who is the smartest — and don’t get me started on the word ‘gifted.’ You feel like you’re running a comparison marathon and, no matter how hard you keep pushing, someone has either ‘done that months ago’ or ‘wouldn’t dare.’
“I would find my self putting on lipstick to walk the kids into school! You feel nervous, anxious and wonder if anyone notices you are in the same jeans you wore yesterday. The best way I have found to deal with the mommy burnout is to find my tribe of moms who also needed a break from the comparison and competition and just wanted to be moms. No, we aren’t experts, and we are also learning as we go, so can we all just give each other a break and go to a yoga class?”
10. Feeling alone in it all.
“Thankfully, as my children are now in elementary school, I’ve passed the most intense kind of mommy burnout, which happens with young children (and especially babies) when I was often up at night feeding/caring for little ones but still somehow supposed to make it through the day with numerous demands,” says Amanda Ponzar. “I definitely experienced burnout. A few times, I was so tired, I fell asleep on the carpet while playing with my baby; I remember waking up startled (thankfully baby was OK). Or I would yell at the top of my lungs alone in the house as I was just so tired. Sometimes I felt sad or alone. I started drinking a lot more coffee.
“Put the child safely in the crib/exersaucer/play yard, or for slightly older children, insist on ‘quiet time’ in their room napping or playing. Then you need to take a nap. Take a walk with your children in the stroller and get outside in the sunshine and exercise. Get dressed and get out of the house — go to the mall, go shopping, go to the grocery store, visit someone. Drink some coffee. Drink a lot of coffee if needed. Talk to a caring adult: call your mom, friend, sister, neighbor, teen babysitter, elderly relative. Always share how you’re doing with your doctor/pediatrician/OBGYN. Call or text a crisis support line if needed. Get involved in parent groups face-to-face (not just online). Schedule playdates. Ask your partner what they can do to help you. Most importantly, ensure you find someone to take your kids on a regular basis so you can have a break. Every parent needs a break at times, even the most loving, wonderful parents in the world.
“My best friend drove down when I had my baby and washed the dishes and cared for the baby and insisted I take a nap. My mom also was a big support, helping me get more sleep and even a little exercise, as exercise and sleep are critical to dealing with stress. We need to raise awareness and make sure moms, and all parents, know that yes, parenting is tough, but they are not alone, and all of us can take actions to better cope with stress, ensure we don’t hurt those we love, and improve our mental health and wellbeing.”
11. Feeling too in-demand.
“As a busy mom of six, children, I have certainly experienced my fair share of burnout,” says Tyra Lane-Kingsland. “For me, burnout occurs when work and family demands peak and self-care diminishes. Burnout is not an all-at-once phenomenon, but rather a slow, stealthy creeping that sometimes catches me off guard. For me it manifests in both my mind (thoughts) and in my physical body. Burnout in the mind causes me to think thoughts like, ‘I just can’t do this,’ ‘It’s too much to handle,’ ‘Does anybody see me here?’ Then that spills into my interactions with my children, leading me to be less attentive and slightly disengaged as I regress within trying to handle it all without showing my frustration to the children. In my head I’m thinking, ‘Look, little kid, please don’t bug me about who took your toy. I’m dealing with real-life adult problems here.’ When I am burnt out I am more easily annoyed. Normal ‘kid behavior’ that otherwise wouldn’t bother me suddenly becomes magnified, and I can see and hear every little thing in HD.
“When I am burnt out, physically it manifests as tension. I carry my stress in my shoulders, and my trapezius burns like fire. I say, ‘I’m wearing my shoulders for earrings’ because they are hunched up towards my ears. I have dealt with it by practicing deep breathing and drawing my attention to how my body is feeling in the moment. From there, I focus on each body part and bring relaxation to any areas that are tense. From a proactive standpoint, I’ve enlisted support from family and friends to delegate some of my tasks. I have also completely eliminated some things from my family’s schedule to reclaim some of our time, so as to not do so much running around, which contributes to my burnout. Additionally, I’ve had to grant myself permission to be OK: OK if things go undone, OK if I’m not perfect, OK with dinner that isn’t Pinterest-worthy. That’s been the most liberating piece of freeing myself from burnout: accepting that OK is good enough.”
12. Feeling guilty.
“Although I realized I needed a break, I felt extreme guilt that I was desperately seeking some time for myself. I put this enormous amount of pressure on myself to be some kind of superwoman and supermom. But then I hit a brick wall. I burned myself out. I felt like I had snapped — something in my mind switched. I can actually remember when and where; it just seemed to suddenly click. It was a blustery winter day, and I was sitting at my desk in my office, staring out the window in a complete haze. I felt I knew I had to make a change or I wouldn’t survive.
“And so I did. When my second son turned one, I stopped breastfeeding after getting hit with another bout of mastitis. That was the pivotal point. Shortly after, I started a blog as an outlet to share my own motherhood/parenting stories in hopes that other women would realize they weren’t alone. I joined the gym, putting my sons in daycare so I could exercise — I had to prioritize physical and mental health… Once I was able to get my health in check, I feel like I found myself again.”
13. Feeling frustrated.
“When I’m experiencing mommy burnout is when I’m doing too much without managing my stress or sleep and it spills over into my life with my child,” says Rebecca Cafiero. “It’s when I feel like turning on the TV instead of playing with him, or when I feel he is stressing me out, instead of realizing he’s being exactly as he should be, that it is me that needs to change an expectation. Or worse, that he’s mirroring my poor energy state.
“I do feel burnt out, especially when my husband is gone (he works 80+ hours as week as a founder of a start-up and often gets home after our little one is asleep). I start my day at 5 a.m. (to attempt to have an hour to myself before my little guy wakes up), work 8 to 4, then take him to a class or play activity.
“Burnout means I’m frustrated with him and less playful. Or that I really want a glass of wine and to veg. Or that I’m not firm in the parenting decisions I know work and am lax because I don’t want to do the work it takes to be consistent (which I pay for later!).
“I deal with it by meditating (and if that 10 minutes means putting him in front of Curious George, it’s well worth it for the reset to my sanity). Then I practice gratitude about why I am so grateful for my child, my husband, my life and my occupation. I reset and I do some high-touch time with him, like reading/cuddle time. Or anything where he laughs — that’s an instant stress reliever! I also journal nightly a few things that could have made the day better. It’s usually related to me being tired from staying up too late, or not feeling 100 percent because of that glass of wine, or letting my work day bleed into my time with my son (which makes me feel like I’m doing neither well).”
14. Feeling irritable.
“A year into motherhood, the number-one reason I know when I’m burnt out is when I can’t respond to simple questions,” explains Jody Scheldt. “My husband will ask me something as mundane as ‘What do you want for dinner?’ and the brain power required to process and answer is too much for me, so I just don’t respond. He gets confused and I pretend he didn’t ask anything. There are other signs that pop up as well, like forgetfulness and increased anxiety. With the latter, I worry about terrible things happening when it’s totally unnecessary. Example: What if my baby runs out into the street and gets hit by a car?! (He can’t walk yet).
“So now when I’m burnt out, I focus on two things to help me feel better (yes, I’d love to go spend the day at a spa, but that requires coordination). First, I let everything go — mainly the worry that I’m not doing a good job at something. No judgement on myself or others. Everything can wait, and I just focus on making it to bedtime. Which leads to the second element — a solid eight to nine hours of sleep. I need that rest for my brain and body to recover. Squeezing in a nap is a bonus. Luckily, simply letting my body rest does wonders for my energy level and alleviates that burnt-out feeling.”
15. Feeling like when it rains, it pours.
“I believe burnout starts slowly and comes to a head during the most stressful times in my life,” says Mpho Perras, a licensed marriage and family therapist and mother of two. “For me, I know I am suffering from burnout when I am easily irritated. Every little thing bothers me. My kids asking for a snack, or someone driving too slow in traffic. Another sign I am dealing with burnout is mindless eating. I don’t pay attention to what I am putting in my body. All I know is that I am need something sweet ASAP, all times of the day, breakfast, lunch and dinner! The last sign I have reached burnout is I begin to procrastinate. I put off important tasks and distract myself with surfing the internet, watching T.V. or anything to avoid the task at hand.
“When I reach the point of burnout, I deal with the stress by reversing my symptoms. Instead of becoming easily irritated, I begin to practice patience, I take deep breaths before reacting. I start to slow down. Next, I start to practice mindful eating. I am aware of what goes into my mouth and how it makes me feel. I sit down at a table and eat instead of eating standing up, eating in my car, etc. Lastly, I stop procrastinating. I begin my tasks immediately and complete them in a reasonable time period. I begin with the hardest task and break it down into smaller tasks, so I am not so overwhelmed.”
This article originally appeared on Fairygodboss. As the largest career community for women, Fairygodboss provides millions of women with career connections, community advice and hard-to-find intel about how companies treat women.