It’s five o’clock in the afternoon. I’m standing in my kitchen staring at my oven, willing it to make lasagna for me. And then my small blond son sidles up and asks the dreaded question, “Mom. What’s for dinner?”
It doesn’t really matter how I respond. The menu could be filet mignon or fish sticks, and still I will be met with a grimace or, worse, gagging noises. Meal planning is tedious when your customer is a child who has declared buttered toast “too buttery.”
Such are the joys of parenting.
But lately my five o’clock tedium has crept backwards into the afternoon and even morning. I wander into the kitchen and stare disconsolately at the dirty floor, while email snaps its fingers at me from my phone. The repetition and “daily-ness” of motherhood has me waking up, exhausted, and wondering: Do I really have to do this all over again?
Yes I do. There are no sabbaticals in motherhood.
Mom burnout is a feeling of overwhelm about even the simplest of tasks. It’s glancing at a pile of laundry and wanting to burst into tears. My sons quarreling makes me want to walk upstairs into my bedroom, shut the door, and take a nap for four days.
Burnout blows up feelings, but then begs to numb them. This type of pendulum behavior cries out for help, because the feelings of burnout are tethered to shame. A Good Mom would be able to handle it, right? Kamini Wood, certified wellness coach, defines this as “striving to live to external expectations that outsource our worth.” Leaning on these outer “false centers” where endless comparison to the mythical Good Mom is disastrous.
Listen, parenting is the hardest gig out there. Burnout is totally normal.
So what to do when you are experiencing burnout? Here are some ways to tackle it so your days aren’t spent in survival mode:
- Check in. I am a mom in recovery, sober since 2014. In recovery language, H.A.L.T is a simple check-in tool. Are you feeling Hungry, Angry, Lonely, or Tired? It seems simplistic, but that moment of stopping, checking in and taking a breath, allows for processing feelings in an objective way. Annika O’Melia, licensed clinical social worker and psychotherapist, describes burnout as “a valid and real emotion and like all human emotions it’s cueing something evolutionary within us. Call up the feeling of overwhelm in you and see if you also have the instinct to look around.” By taking a moment to H. A. L. T. you can “look around” without getting sidetracked.
- Dig deeper. Big feelings can lead to numbing out, so use H. A. L. T. as a lead-in for helpful introspection. Take time to write about the last time you truly felt angry, or felt a deep soul-hunger for something. Is there a way to deal with your loneliness even though you might be surrounded by others all day? And how about world-weariness? Is your fatigue really fear? Wood suggests that we ask “What are our old stories that might be playing out and we might be projecting?” Yes, this takes reflection. Having that nightly glass or three of wine won’t take the edge off forever. Your burnout is trying to talk with you.
- Say hello. Don’t label these feelings as good or bad. That is about as helpful as judging a road sign. Take the time to say the feelings out loud, to the air around you, or to a trusted friend. Speak them.
- Breathe first. Then ask for help. Every preflight movie tells you to strap that oxygen mask on before you attend to your child. It’s a priority. With burnout, the key is figuring out what your specific oxygen might be. We usually file it under “self care,” but so often this is regarded as just relaxation. Or, since healing often starts with asking for help, we moms avoid it. But burnout says it’s time. As O’Meila puts it: “Overwhelm is a biological message that we can’t do this alone — we won’t survive,” says O’Melia.
- Pursue whimsy. If you’re like me, learn to play “Dancing Queen” on the ukulele. Whimsy is a great flame-retardant for burnout.
There is good news here. Burnout can signal of better things to come because the laws of nature designed regrowth after a wildfire.
But be advised. The dreaded, “What’s for dinner?” will never go away. It too is a law of nature.
Dana Bowman is an award-winning speaker and author of Bottled: A Mom’s Guide to Early Recovery and How to Be Perfect Like Me. She lives in a sweet little town in the Midwest with her family and too many cats. Visit her at danabowmancreative.com and over at her podcast, Pie and Coffee.