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How To Know If Your "Mom Burnout" Is Normal Exhaustion Or Something More Serious

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Exhaustion and stress are totally normal symptoms of being a mom. Between the errands and chores, the meals and snacks, the school schedules, and the fact that most of us are woken up at least twice a night by a crying baby or a toddler who can only sleep literally on top of us, we don’t have a lot of time for self-care. It’s easy for a mom to go weeks without a good night’s sleep or being able to squeeze in a work out. The way we live when our kids are young isn’t always healthy, but personal health kind of takes a back seat to the 20 million other things moms have to do. It can be scarily easy for a mom to overlook her own wellbeing when something is wrong. Run-down often becomes the norm as a mom, but, it’s important for us to be able to recognize when our normal mom exhaustion is actually something more serious.

Among the conditions that can result in feelings of being run-down are depression, anxiety, thyroid issues, anemia, and even some serious diseases like cancer and diabetes (do not panic, internet moms!).

“Depression is the most common mood disorder and is twice as common in women than in men. It most commonly arises in women during their childbearing years," Dr. Kelly Trader, of Boston University/Boston Medical Center, tells Romper, and any time those feelings arise, it is important to bring them up with your doctor.

For women who’ve recently had a baby, it’s easy to mistake symptoms of depression as typical new mom stuff. But if sadness, crying, irritability, anxiety, insomnia, exhaustion, and decreased concentration last for more than about two weeks, it’s not just “baby blues” and it’s not normal.

Thirteen percent of moms and 12 percent of dads had parental burnout similar to the burnout we experience when we’re overworked at a job.

Anxiety and not sleeping are actually two of the most common signs of a mood disorder, says Dr. Rachel Cannon at Boston University/Boston Medical Center. “Some women start to have intrusive thoughts (frightening thoughts that pop into your head in middle of your day) or are unable to sleep even when their baby is sleeping — these are signs to see a doctor sooner rather than later,” Dr. Cannon says by phone to Romper.

Whether you’re a new mom or not, symptoms like anxiety, insomnia, constant fatigue, lethargy and difficulty handling your emotions are all signs that you’re more than just tired or stressed. Parental burnout is a real thing.

In 2017, the journal Frontiers In Psychology published the results of a massive study of 2,000 Belgian parents that showed that about 13 percent of moms and 12 percent of dads had parental burnout similar to the burnout we experience when we’re overworked at a job. They were experiencing exhaustion, feeling less competent and productive, and reported feeling emotionally withdrawn from their kids and families.

It can be helpful to note whether or not your fatigue could be considered “chronic.” I know, I know — we all feel like we have chronic fatigue when we have kids. But according to Psychology Today, chronic fatigue is actually characterized by more than just occasionally craving a nap. “You may feel a lack [of] energy and feel tired most days. In the later stages, you feel physically and emotionally exhausted, drained, and depleted, and you may feel a sense of dread for what lies ahead on any given day,” wrote Dr. Sherrie Bourg Carter, psychologist and author of High Octane Women.

If you are chronically fatigued, another thing thing to watch out for is a lack of interest in food or any major unexplained change in your weight. According to the Mayo Clinic, a sudden (within six months or less) loss or gain of 10 or more pounds could be a sign of hyperthyroidism, diabetes, liver disease, cancer, or other serious disorders that interfere with how your body absorbs nutrients. If you’re already feeling lethargic and start noticing that suddenly your clothes fit differently without any real changes to your lifestyle or eating habits, it’s time to talk to a doctor.

Dizziness can also be related to a more serious issue when it’s paired with exhaustion. We’ve all gotten busy doing mom things and gone too long without a snack, which can make you feel woozy or nauseated. But if you’ve been feeling run down and then you go to search for your kid’s missing sock and suddenly the room is spinning, that’s not something to write off. Dizziness paired with exhaustion can be associated with something as easily treatable as mild anemia, but it can also be a sign of serious circulation problems and neurological disorders. Don’t dismiss it as just another symptom of your usual mom exhaustion.

Burnout is 'highly correlated with depression and other health problems,' and parents who experience that kind of stress for prolonged periods of time are at risk of more serious health problems.

Most importantly, pay attention to how you’re feeling mentally and emotionally, not just physically. If chronic feelings of stress and exhaustion are paired with things like not sleeping, feeling sad and/or irritable all the time, or feeling like you’re not able to control your emotions, you could be dealing with a mood disorder, like depression or anxiety.

Burnout happens when we’re feeling ultra-stressed for long periods of time, as we might during the newborn phase or when our kids start school and we’re trying to juggle an entirely new schedule with the demands of full-time jobs and everything we need to take care of at home. And, as the authors of the Belgian study note, burnout is “highly correlated with depression and other health problems,” and parents who experience that kind of stress for prolonged periods of time are at risk of more serious health problems.

As moms, it’s easy to put our kids first and ignore whatever aches and pains we’re going through. That’s what being a parent is sometimes. But we also have to remember that feeling crappy all the time is no way to live, and it’s certainly not a part of the recipe for healthy, functional motherhood. If you’ve been in a funk for longer than a couple of weeks or you have other symptoms that just aren’t going away, use your stellar maternal instincts on yourself for a minute and go get checked out.