Sasha Barrett was stressed. As the full-time Denver mom struggled to dress her three young children for a photo session, she focused on the prize: a Christmas card featuring a perfect vision of her family. During the session, her two-year-old son howled. Barrett wondered if the salty juice from the olives he was snacking on was stinging a cut on his finger. Then she saw the puddle forming in his chair and dripping onto the floor. In her haste to tie every shoe and smooth each hair into place, she’d forgotten his diaper.
Such is the messy truth of parenthood, with its commingled joys and blemishes. Often, the holiday-card portrait moms choose to show the world conceals their struggles, leaving them isolated and ashamed.
In the quest to have it all and be everything to everyone, today’s hyper-speed yet seemingly unfazed moms face enormous stress, which over time can harm not only their physical, mental, and emotional health but also relationships with spouses or partners, colleagues, and, most acutely, their children. Stress can lead to forgetfulness, such as Barrett’s diaper space-out, or to severe conditions including physical illness, anxiety, depression, and—as one nationally renowned parenting expert puts it—“mommy burnout.”
What is Mommy Burnout?
During the last decade, child psychotherapist and mother of three Dr. Sheryl Ziegler noticed a pattern among the families she sees in her Denver office. Parents made appointments for their children, and upon meeting the family, the conversation turned to the mothers’ “sense of complete and total overwhelm,” describes Ziegler. “I experienced this myself when I had my second child. I felt like I was underwater all the time, like I wasn’t doing a good job either at work or home.”
Her need to understand this phenomenon led her to study 1970s research on caregiver fatigue among emergency room workers. “This sounds like motherhood to me,” she thought as she reviewed the criteria defining employee burnout.
Dr. Ziegler has translated these criteria into mom language in her book, Mommy Burnout: How to Reclaim Your Life and Raise Healthier Children in the Process (Dey St., 2018). She believes millions of women are living an unsustainable life. She gives mommy burnout a name and treats it seriously—not as a punch line or a set of burdens to simply accept—citing recent research on how stress affects mental health. She pairs relatable, sometimes heartrending, case studies from her clients with prescriptive programs to manage stress and burnout.
One message especially resonated with Barrett, a friend of Ziegler’s who invited the psychotherapist to speak to parents at her children’s school. A former teacher and passionate advocate for children, Barrett had overcommitted herself to volunteering for various charities. She’d habitually return emails until 3 a.m. and wake at 6:30 to ready her kids for school. Barrett’s harried routine took its toll. She had migraines. She snapped at her family. She loved helping children but missed downtime with her own kids.
“In Sheryl’s talk, the aha moment for me was about being busy,” Barrett recalls. “She said if a friend asks, ‘How are you?’ and you say, ‘I’m so busy,’ that shuts down your relationships and your communication. I thought, ‘I’m so guilty of this. I need to quit it.’ I wasn’t doing it consciously. I thought I could do all these things, but I was missing out on other parts of my life.”
Do You Have Mommy Burnout?
While not a formal diagnosis, mommy burnout is real, Ziegler says. She helps readers pinpoint whether they’re stressed or depressed, experiencing worry or anxiety disorder, or undergoing mommy burnout, whose symptoms can include:
Physical: Headaches, muscle tension, or high blood pressure; sleep disturbances, chronic fatigue, or fantasizing about sleep; being overweight or dissatisfied with your weight; overindulging in junk foods, alcohol, or social media; lacking physical intimacy with your spouse or partner.
Mental: Feeling overwhelmed, sad, lonely, cranky, or anxious; reduced sense of personal accomplishment; difficulty collaborating with others; constantly multitasking or unable to make choices; “overtending” your kids until there’s no energy left for you or your partner; repeating common phrases such as, “I’m so tired, I can’t wait to go to sleep,” “I’m so over these kids,” or “When is it wine time?”
In children: Headaches, stomachaches, prolonged sadness, irritability, acting out, perfectionism, oversensitivity, or anxiety; poor eating, sleeping, or study habits; problems with friends; negative self-talk; physical self-harm.
“Moms have been burned out for generations,” Ziegler writes. However, mounting research on exhaustion and stress and rising mental health diagnoses demand action now. Laughing about burnout helps us bond, but “it doesn’t give moms the tools they need to stop and learn how to feel better. And it is important to stop mommy burnout—for ourselves, our children, our whole families, and families in the future.”
How Can You Prevent Burnout?
Ziegler’s prevention methods include building a strong support network, monitoring your screen time (not just your kids’), and, as Barrett did, banishing the word “busy” from your vocabulary. Counteract loneliness by connecting with your community. “Whether it’s a religious organization or a rock-climbing group, it has to be something bigger than you,” Ziegler recommends. Barrett meets monthly with a supportive group of professional moms with whom she can speak and listen freely, without judgment.
The widely studied effects of technology use on children and adolescents also apply to adults, Ziegler says, noting that conservatively, adults spend 19 hours a week on social media or other screens.
“Social media bombards us with messages of what you should look like, how your house should be, what you should cook. It has the same negative effects on adults as on teens, including lower self-esteem,” she observes. “We have to watch our passive-aggressive tendencies—tagging some friends and excluding others—and perpetuating this image of life as perfect.”
Ziegler entreats all moms to ban “busy” as a badge of honor or self-validation; it fosters isolation because nobody wants to bother you. “The more we unite women and mothers to commit not to say things like that, we’ll find ‘true perfect’ in our lives, not ‘busy perfect.’”
Barrett made changes before reaching burnout. “For me, step one of coping is to recognize when I’m under stress, when it’s not fun anymore, when I feel irritable, overwhelmed, and unable to do things. Step two is to affirm this is real. Step three is to scale back and say no to things for a while,” she shares. “I do things I enjoy that counter that feeling of stress and put downtime with my kids and date nights with my husband on the calendar.”
Barrett volunteers for select causes and coaches a team that allows her to use her teaching skills and interact with her kids. She employs a hands-off leadership style and delegates tasks to other volunteers and chores to her kids, now eight, 10, and 12.
“I heard a career mom say to delegate everything that doesn’t have to do with love,” she says. “That’s great advice that applies to every mom.”
You’re Burned Out. Now What?
“The analogy that you place your oxygen mask on first and your child’s on second applies to motherhood,” says Ziegler, who calls self-care the key to mental health. Acknowledge your burnout. Grant yourself permission for self-care. Ziegler fills her book with therapeutic strategies. Pick one and remain patient as you determine what works.
Ziegler emphasizes the healing power of connecting with other women. “We live in the most connected world, but we’re experiencing the most disconnected feelings we’ve had. Social media doesn’t replace face-to-face interaction. We need to get back to basics in a high-paced, technological world. It’s as simple as taking a walk with someone”—her go-to recommendation. “When we’re in stress, we’re supposed to be with other women and share stories,” she explains.
Several times a week, walk with another woman for 30 to 45 minutes. Brisk walking benefits physical and mental health. Talking in person with a woman you care about pumps oxytocin, the “love hormone,” through your body, lifting your mood.
“The cure, in the most basic sense, is us,” writes Ziegler. “We moms must come together….we are all also suffering. And mostly in silence. So, let’s change this picture.”
Forty million U.S. adults (18.1 percent) have anxiety disorders, the nation’s most common mental illness, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America; many also experience depression, which the World Health Organization this year named the world’s leading cause of disability. If your mommy burnout stretches into anxiety or depression, seek professional help. Contact your insurance provider or your county’s community mental health agency, investigate university-based public counseling services, or get a referral to a therapist from your doctor or a friend in therapy.
Maintaining the Balance
How does Ziegler juggle three kids, her practice, and public engagements? “Some days are better than others,” she laughs. “Researching for this book was life-changing for me. I still get into stress mode, but now I say, ‘Oh, I’m doing that!’ and dial it back.”
Regular exercise provides accomplishment and care for her body and mind. She prioritizes relationships, whether it’s a neighbor or long-lost friend: “It has opened my eyes to connection on different levels. I say yes [to an invitation], make time for it, and never regret it.”
To other moms experiencing stress or burnout, Barrett says, “You’re not alone. It’s OK to say no to things at school, playdates, and activities your kids want to do. Say yes to what you love about being a parent, remembering the fun family stuff is different from activities. Be fully present with your family. Tell them when you think ‘crazy mom’ is about to show up so they can learn to reel it in. Most importantly, carve out enjoyable ‘me time’ to recharge yourself. As my husband says, ‘If mommy ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy!’”
And Barrett’s Christmas card from years ago? She embraced the chaos and inscribed it, “From olive us to all of you.”
What About Daddy Burnout?
“Men do experience burnout, but not to the same degree as moms do,” says Ziegler. “Men experience what women do with no downtime: They work all day, come home, and are expected to be a 50/50 partner. But women continue to be the emotional gatekeepers. Even at work, moms worry about whether their child will get a date to the dance or be picked up from school. Men tend not to worry about those things.” Nevertheless, European studies revealed a burnout rate of 12.5 percent among men and 13 percent among women, she reports; a similar percentage of Americans function at high stress levels.