You may believe society expects moms to be strong and do it all on their own, but this will only lead to you feeling depleted. There are different stages of mommy burnout and it’s not always easy to identify where you rank on the scale. In the book Parenting Isn’t for Cowards, marriage, family, and child counsellor Dr James Dobson explains there are five progressive stages of parental burnout.
Knowing the signs of mommy burnout will help you identify which stage you’re experiencing so you can unplug and treat the symptoms before they escalate.
The ‘gung-ho’ stage
You believe being a mom is about doing everything yourself so you never ask for help. You immerse yourself in motherhood and block everything out, unaware that this will take a toll on you. This can start as early as pregnancy and continue well into toddlerhood.
Food for thought: It’s a good idea to revisit your priorities and consider how you can achieve a balance that will allow for some “me time”. You might think taking care of your needs is selfish, but the opposite is true. It will help you feel refreshed and rejuvenated so you can step back into your reality with ease.
The ‘doubt’ stage
If you haven’t taken a break to replenish, you’ll experience the second stage of burnout, which presents as exhaustion. The move from stage one to stage two is quite subtle, so it’s important to note this stage is characterised by persistent doubts. You’ll find you second-guess yourself and may become more irritable, even yelling at your children. Physical symptoms include back and neck aches, upset stomach, headaches and hypertension.
Food for thought: Consider how you can fit more sleep into your routine. Ask yourself if there are things you can scratch off your priority list as you may be overexerting yourself.
The ‘transition’ stage
Your exhaustion may be accompanied by anger and resentment at this stage. Your idea of motherhood is not your reality as you have spread yourself too thin and you might be blaming your kids for your discontentment. This is called the transition stage, because this is when you would usually make decisions that will determine your family’s wellbeing going forward.
Food for thought: Ask yourself what changes you can make to preserve your sanity and make a positive change. Reach out to friends or seek professional help so you can put things in perspective.
The ‘pulling away’ stage
If you haven’t made any positive changes to ensure you have enough energy to fulfil your responsibilities, you will start to pull away from the perceived source of your frustration. You’ll start to distance yourself emotionally from your family and even become deaf to your children’s cries and demands. You may even look for a coping mechanism and resort to drugs or alcohol. And when aggravated, you may overreact and resort to extreme measures when disciplining your kids. Your exhaustion has escalated to an unmanageable level at this stage.
Food for thought: Consider how you react to situations when you’re angry. When your kids don’t listen, do you feel like screaming or inflicting pain on them? Do you find yourself reaching for a bottle of wine or drugs to cope with the situation? Or do you prefer distancing yourself emotionally and shutting down, so you don’t have to deal with all the overwhelming emotions?
The final stage of mommy burnout
You are burnt-out to a point of feeling hopeless. Joseph Procaccini and Mark and Kiefaber refer to this as the “chronic disenchantment” stage in their book Parental Burnout. You feel you have no purpose and the stage is characterised by confusion and apathy. Everything is a big blur and you’re merely going through the motions. You may even have recurring suicidal thoughts or fantasise about running away.
Food for thought: If you haven’t reached out to anyone yet, now is the time. You need to get professional help and take practical steps to get your life in order. It’s clear you can’t do it on your own anymore, nor should you be expected to. Prioritise self-care so you can find meaning in your life again.
When you’re exhausted and agitated, it’s only natural to take it out on your kids, but taking care of yourself first will ensure they experience the best version of you and everybody wins. It may not be possible to achieve a perfect balance, but you can at least strive for one that works for you. Also remember that asking for help is not a sign of weakness, but rather points to self-awareness.
Parenting coach Celeste Rushby offers the following advice to prevent mommy burnout:
- Not having a routine in place means trying to do everything and achieving nothing at all.
- Prioritise your kids’ needs over their wants, and what they need is a happy, present mom who enjoys spending time with them.
- Make sure you and your spouse prioritise each other so you can show your kids what a healthy relationship looks like.
- Schedule date night and reconnect with your partner, even if it’s at home when the kids are tucked in.
- Be kinder to yourself and acknowledge you’re doing the best you can.
- Make an effort with regards to your appearance and look after yourself.
- Introduce “chill time”, which is about teaching your kids to play on their own for an age-appropriate amount of time in an allocated area.
- Find what makes you feel alive and do it every week.
- Start your mornings on a positive note, because you set the atmosphere in your home.
- Find a form of exercise that inspires you and boosts your endorphins.
- Eat a healthy diet to feel good and energetic.
- Identify the time-wasters in your life, like WhatsApp groups that are noisy but unhelpful.
- Ask for help.
Thobeka Phanyeko is mom to Oratile, 4. She is a journalist with a BA in Media studies from the University of Cape Town and has extensive experience as a journalist and content producer which she gained from Reuters, eNCA and Caxton Magazines. She is also a life coach and NLP Practitioner and is passionate about motherhood and women empowerment.