Burnout is officially a recognized by the World Health Organization as a health issue and mothers around the world released a collective ‘DUH!”. Working as a youth counsellor and lecturer, I was quite familiar with the phenomenon of burn out. It is a relatively new term, appearing just around the mid-70s which Urban Dictionary defines as “a state of emotional and physical exhaustion caused by prolonged periods of stress and frustration” and really this is as good a definition as any. It is emotional because burnout can make you feel like you aren’t doing anything right. It is physical because burnout can create health challenges associated with stress such as frequent colds and flues, aches and pains all the way to elevated blood pressure and heart disease. Really nasty stuff if left unchecked.
In my job, I sometimes feel as if there is nothing I can do to truly help my clients. I toss and turn between wanting to do more but feeling like I have reached the end of my rope and there are no further avenues to help. It is widely accepted that people working in helping professions such as doctors, teachers, counsellors, social workers and police officers to name a few, are more prone to experiencing burnout.
But guess what, so are mothers. No job falls more squarely in the helping profession than being a mother. You are helping bring life into the world, helping to raise that life, helping to instill values and morals all the while helping to put on shoes, helping with homework, helping them be brave and giving them experiences that will help shape their world view. Mothers are constantly tasked with caring for the lives entrusted to them and that thought alone is exhausting.
In my job burnout looks like apathy, being so tired you can no longer care, cynicism- expecting all efforts to fail and reduced professionalism. All these are somewhat easy to recognize and address within the professional setting. Stress management and time management exercises, redefining job analyses and rotation of job duties can all help in the work setting. But what happens when burnout occurs between mother and child?
When my kids were younger and just learning to speak ‘mama’ and ‘mommy’ were the sweetest sounds I have ever heard. After miscarriages and pregnancy after loss, my heart would soar each time they called for me. Now a few years in those words (when being screamed over and over) can sometimes sound like a woman dragging her nails on a chalkboard while screaming and using an electric drill as she rides a bike with squeaky breaks.
Okay I’m not gonna lie to you, I may have googled the 10 most annoying sounds in the world then squished four of them into that last description. But you get the idea. By the 80,000th “Mawwwmmmmyyyyyyyy” it can get a bit old.
Frustration sets in and I have to resist the urge to scream (which is the 6th most annoying sound according to science or WebMD). So frustration is real, but unlike at my job, I can’t take a vacation from it. I mean one of those vacation deals where I put down all responsibilities, don’t have to answer when called and distance myself from my children. No I can’t do that, not yet, my babies are too young. Plus wherever I go, I am still their mother. I am still making decisions that could affect them, I am still bound by my love and devotion to them and I will still be thinking about them constantly.
So I keep going. I take deep breaths, I pray for strength and I ride out the storm.
And that’s the thing about motherhood, burnout rarely means the end of the job, it usually just means that you have a few minutes, maybe a few hours to regroup then jump back in.
So what can you do with a few minutes? For me it usually means tagging my husband in. Not that he isn’t involved and helpful, but because I tend to spend more contact hours with the kids we do get tired of each other. You may not know this, but me being able to say the words ‘we get tired of each other’ represents a huge step in my journey to a more realistic and truthful motherhood. They get tired of me and I get tired of them and we still love and cherish each other.
Anyway I tag my husband in, I tag him all the way in. As in, come, take all the way over and give me some away time. During these precious away times, I stare into the empty void, I message friends, or more recently, I get my hair and nails done (do not get me started on the epic guilt trip I had to take before becoming comfortable with getting my hair and nails done. Seriously do not get me started). My return from these ‘away times’, are usually met with shouts of adoration and affirmations of how beautiful I look. Because here is the thing, as young as my children are, they understand and appreciate the fact that I am a better mommy when I return. Not just aesthetically, although my daughter does appreciate a well done manicure, but mentally and emotionally.
Unfortunately, it’s not very often that I can make it to the salon like those T.V, moms and their weekly salon appointments. And truthfully self-care alone isn’t enough to make it all go away. Plus most times all I have are mere minutes to get it together and fight my burnout. In these tight moments, I think about something my husband said to me when my daughter was younger. She was probably just shy of a year old and my husband walked in to find me frustrated and on the verge of tears. My daughter and I were having an argument about something I wanted her to do that she flat out refused to do. She had only just started talking but she was really making her feelings known. Plus I was having terrible nausea because I was already pregnant with my 2nd rainbow baby. So he walks in and I give him the death stare, you know the ‘come-get-your-baby’ stare and he laughs and asks me a simple questions “do you want to give them back?”
I remember feeling my stomach turn partly from nausea but mostly from the question. No, dear God no! I definitely didn’t want to give my babies back. Even if we hadn’t endured miscarriage and that emotional turmoil, I was their mother now and I could not go back. Instantly any frustration I felt subsided and I prayed and promised God that I would endure any number of days like this just to have my babies with me.
In the years since, I have made good on that promise. I have been through the sick days, the jealousy days, the sibling fights, the crying, the nagging and the talking till I was blue in the face only to have them do exactly what I said not to do days. And I have been burnt out. But every time I feel burnout or like I am trapped in never ending cycle I remember that God has given me a unique perspective on motherhood.
You see one lesson my miscarriages have taught me is that the children I have now are exactly the children God meant for me to have and whatever I am facing at the moment is exactly what God needed me to face so that I can learn and grow to be who He wants me to be.
So there it is. On the days that hair and nails won’t make burnout go away, and I have to resort to closing my eyes and chanting like a Buddhist monk, I remember my husband’s question and I stop and hug my children and remind myself that I could have been living a very different life. One where no one grabs my face and kisses my cheeks over and over, or exclaims “Mommy you look so beautiful” every time I come down stairs dressed to go out. A life where no one demands that I be more patient, more loving, more gentle and understanding. Does it make it easier, hell no! Motherhood, however you come it, is hard. It is demanding and burnout is very real. But it is also a privilege that I have been blessed to enjoy. And I promise you, there is nothing more energizing than that.
Regardless of my experiences with burnout, this is a very real problem that should not be taken lightly. If you feel that you are dealing with burnout, please reach out and speak to someone. Help is available! Check out this group for more!
Natasha Carlow is an Itinerant Counsellor who resides in Trinidad and Tobago with her husband and two rainbow babies. She is the author of Happy Tears and Rainbow Babies. You can read more at her blog or follow her on Facebook and Instagram.