In the 1970s, psychologist Herbert Freudenberger coined the word burnout, "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 also succumb to burnout, too. 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. The sheer prevalence of parental burnout suggests that some parents are so exhausted that the term "burnout" is appropriate. And by some parents, the figure 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 burnt out. So we reached out to moms to ask them what "mommy burnout" feels like to them, and how they cope with it.
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 re-charge."
2. Feeling Like One's Attention Is Always Diverted
"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."
"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."
"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. And I lost the pregnancy weight. Once I was able to get my health in check, I feel like I found myself again.
AnnaMarie Houlis is a multimedia journalist and an adventure aficionado with a keen cultural curiosity and an affinity for solo travel. She's an editor by day and a travel blogger at HerReport.org by night.