I’m running away to join the circus, I text my best friend.
Another friend listens as I confess a secret fantasy: I drive to a hotel with an ocean view, where I swim, read, eat amazing food and sleep (!) for two full nights all by myself.
“You should do that,” she says. “Why don’t you?”
Because I will feel selfish. Because I will feel weak. Because I will miss my husband and my boy.
“Yes,” I agree out loud, “I should.”
I never have.
It doesn’t happen every day, but when mom burnout comes on, it is fierce. But how do other moms experience burnout? And how do we tackle it? I turned to a totally unscientific, yet utterly representative sample of smart, accomplished, caring mamas (read: my friends) to see.
The expectations on moms are brutal
In a world where the mental load of running a household can feel crushing and working women come home to the so-called “second shift,” moms still carry a good deal of the family work on their shoulders. Indeed, according to the 2017 Women in the Workplace study “working women with a partner and children are 5.5 times more likely to do most or all” of the housework as compared to their male colleagues.
No wonder burnout’s a real problem.
“We’re a lot more forward-thinking now about roles in the home,” says Erin Howland, a communications consultant and mom of two. “But we still expect women to bounce back from giving birth in a matter of weeks, mentally, emotionally and physically. We’re asked to be 100 percent in all areas. It’s just not realistic.”
“Parent burnout is a real thing,” Traci Scarpinato, a Florida-based project manager and mom of three girls observes. “But the threshold for men and women is probably different because women still handle much of the home responsibility.”
“I work and my husband travels for his job two weeks out of every month,” says Scarpinato. “During the weeks I’m a single parent, I’m the only problem-solver. Having all of the responsibility and nowhere else to place it contributes to that feeling of burnout.”
Burnout can feel different to everyone
Though burnout takes a slightly different form for every mom, they all agree it feels pretty bad. It takes a toll on our mental health, and stirs up a range of difficult emotions.
Crystal Braswell works in Silicon Valley and has two little ones, ages 6 and 2.
“When burnout hits, I have an increased sensitivity to noise and such high irritability that it takes next to nothing to push me over the edge with my kids,” she says. “On a normal day, my son launching his Beyblades across the tile floor won’t faze me. When I’m feeling burned out, it’s the equivalent of a sports stadium filled with 20,000 hardcore fans screaming at once. OK, that’s a slight exaggeration, but you get it.”
Rachael Gass, executive consultant at Kaiser and mom to a 4-year-old girl, says burnout comes quickly when she’s not taking care of her own needs.
“It’s the ‘oxygen mask on yourself first’ thing,” she says. “When I don’t take care of myself, I feel anxiety, the fears surface and I deeply judge myself. When I have trouble finding joy or sleeping, I know it’s time to step away for a reboot.”
Mom-vetted ways to manage burnout
When it comes to burnout, you have to know what works for you — and it might look different for everyone, these moms say. This is what worked for them.
1. Get moving
Both Gass and Braswell love exercise to clear their minds.
“A quick workout where I can limit external stimuli, get my body moving and give my mind time to wander is the only surefire way to help me recenter and reconnect with myself,” says Braswell.
It doesn’t need to be a barre class, CrossFit, or something equally involved to count. Gass says even a walk is helpful to get perspective.
Lindsey Wagnon, a Bay Area-based pharmacist and mom of one, also prioritizes physical activity, heading to the gym every morning at 5 a.m.
“It took a long time to learn I had to schedule in that time for myself to feel balanced,” she says. “Running around after a toddler isn’t actually cardio.”
2. Embrace organization
Howland makes regular planning a part of her routine — and it helps her feel calmer.
“We sit down every Sunday and look at our calendars — who’s doing what and when,” she says. “You can’t control everything, of course, but you can influence it — and this seven-day outlook makes it feel digestible.”
For me, it’s ruthless prioritization — not everything has to be done at that exact moment. Sometimes (OK, most of the time) I choose Netflix and popcorn with my husband over folding laundry or a book and bath instead of the dishes.
3. Reach out
The hardest part of the mom gig might be leaning on others, but according to moms who’ve been there, it helps.
Wagnon says that friends are even more important because her family lives on the other side of the country.
“Cultivating your circle is easy, but using it is hard,” she says. “There’s another mom who’s offered to watch my daughter so the kids can play, and I haven’t taken her up on it yet. Why am I hesitating?”
“I’m an introvert and I need time by myself to recharge,” says Scarpinato. “I like having my husband take the kids out of the house for a bit so I can do that.”
Braswell also says moms need to find friends who empathize.
“You need that person you can speak within a judgement-free zone,” she says. “You know, the friend that would confess to hiding in the garden shed the night before with a pint of Ben and Jerry’s just so she can get her ice cream fix without a choir of voices asking for some, as well.”
Even a quick text back and forth between like-minded friends can work.
4. Be gentle with yourself
We’re all only human, with all the strengths and weaknesses the phrase implies. With that said, the biggest thing we can do to manage overload and burnout is give ourselves a break and forgive ourselves for not being perfect.
“I wish I’d known earlier in mom life that it’s OK to walk away for a minute,” says Scarpinato. “Put the baby in the crib and take that few minutes to catch your breath so you can come back with a clearer head. That kind of self-care is a necessity, and it should be part of your to-do list, not what you do after the chore list is done.”
“When I don’t show up in a great way, I forgive myself,” Gass says. “Show yourself compassion. The next day will be different.”