It’s no secret moms are burned out. They joke about it, they post memes about it, they lock themselves in the bathroom and cry about it. Many mothers are balancing more stressors than they ever have before in their parenting journeys. If you’re a parent feeling more overwhelmed than usual, knowing how to recognize the signs of mom burnout and having the tools to cope with it, including when to know it’s time to seek professional treatment, can help you address mom burnout in a healthy manner.
Signs and symptoms of mom burnout
Mother.ly’s 2021 survey on the state of motherhood found that 93% of moms (of a pool of 11,000 participants) report feeling burned out. Honestly? It’s shocking that it wasn’t 100%. According to mental health experts — who are also moms — this feeling is common, and manageable. “The most obvious symptoms are often exhaustion, irritability, and anxiety. We might find ourselves pulling away from family and friends, and losing interest in the things we usually enjoy. We might feel like we have brain fog, and feel overwhelmed with our usual workload or tasks,” says Kristen Howerton, a licensed psychotherapist in private practice in southern California. She is the author of Rage Against the Minivan, and is familiar with feeling burned out as a single working mom of four kids. She notes that moms might also feel physical symptoms like headaches, a clenched jaw, or gastrointestinal issues.
Some people have a more primal response to mom burnout. “Our brains go into this automatic survival mode,” says Dr. Patrice Berry, a Virginia-based clinical psychologist and author of Turning Crisis into Clarity: How to Survive or Thrive in the Midst of Uncertainty. “The amygdala… part of the brain takes over when it senses danger and the first thing we have to do is say, ‘Am I actually in danger?’” That fight-flight-or-freeze instinct is the body’s stress response. When your amygdala is activated, you might experience cold hands and feet, a racing heart, dilated pupils, or rapid breathing.
Can you avoid mom burnout
While it is nearly impossible to avoid burnout forever, you can try to manage and mitigate the effect of stressors in your life so that you’re less likely to burn out so frequently.
Berry is mom to a 4-year-old and is familiar with the feeling of impending burnout. “A lot falls on moms even in nontraditional households. Helpers need help too. There’s this lie that you have to do it all. You can't do it all.” Berry advises moms to think about what they can let go, and then do it guilt-free. “Let go of some of the ‘shoulds,’ recognize ‘this is what I have the capacity to do’ and that's ok.” Thoughtfully examining the responsibilities you place on yourself will help you know what to say yes to and where your limits are.
Howerton wholly agrees. Too much pressure is placed on moms, and rewriting the narrative that we have to be on top of everything is the key to avoiding or lessening burnout. “Sometimes the pursuit of ‘having it all’ leaves us exhausted, and we need to change our narrative to prioritize our own sanity and self-care over trying to do it all.”
It’s important to build support into your life before you are burned out. Whether that is a spouse or partner, extended family, friends, or services such as daycare or housekeeping, there has to be a way for moms to lessen the load. It could be as small as finding a supportive online community, for those moms who don’t have a partner or extended network of support. Berry adds a caveat, though. “With social media you have to be careful as you are scrolling. There are people who appear to be managing well with perfect houses. They aren’t being authentic. If it’s making you feel worse, get off of it.”
What to do if you are experiencing mom burnout
Once you’re actually in the thick of burnout, it's too late to thoughtfully critique how much is on your plate. This is triage, and things will have to go. Howerton has been there herself as she balances four kids and a busy career. “Do we need to lower our expectations of ourselves? Are we doing too much? What can we let go of?” For those that are co-parenting or have a partner, says Howerton, this is the time to find more equity in how tasks are divided up. If only mom is burned out, something is off-balance and it needs to be corrected.
Berry urges moms to find time where they are “off,” even if it's brief and simple. For her, this means sitting on the floor of her closet scrolling TikTok for 30 minutes while her husband feeds their son dinner. “In that quiet space, I'm not responsible for anything. I need that to reset before that evening routine.” Yes, she says, she could scroll her phone around her son. But it does something different for her mentally to be alone and freed from her role for a brief moment.
She also encourages moms to practice mindfulness, taking a few quiet minutes to focus on the present. “I am not going to ruin Tuesday with what's coming on Friday.” Quieting the noise in your head to focus on the next several steps you need to take can help you get through this episode of burnout.
Most importantly, if your episode of burnout becomes prolonged or is accompanied by signs of a more serious mental health concern, it is time to talk to your primary care doctor and seek out a mental health professional. Signs that you might need outside help include insomnia, loss of interest in activities, and feelings of worthlessness.
“Focus on what you can control,” says Berry, “Actively letting go of what you can’t.”
If you or someone you know is seeking help for mental health concerns, visit the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) website, or call 1-800-950-NAMI(6264). For confidential treatment referrals, visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) website, or call the National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP(4357). In an emergency, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK(8255) or call 911.
Kristen Howerton, Marriage and Family Therapist
Dr. Patrice Berry, Licensed Clinical Psychologist, Four Rivers Psychological Services