The Different Flavors of Mama Burnout And How To Handle Them

See that picture above? That was me on one of my lowest, saddest days as a new mom. No sleep for days, both of us ill, crying baby, crying mom…I felt intensely lonely and overwhelmed, convinced that my spirit and life were ruined and I would never recover. Both of us had had a rough morning; it was one of those where I felt like I was just not cut out to be a parent and was overwhelmed with the guilt of ruining my beautiful innocent child with my shit parenting.

I’m not sure why I decided to take a selfie with my baby at that moment. Maybe to distract him from fretting and crying? Or maybe to remind myself that somehow, through it all, there was love at the center — even if at that moment it couldn’t quite reach me.

I don’t know any mother who doesn’t experience some level of tiredness, stress or worry. Hippie mamas, professional working mamas, stay-at-home moms, artsy mamas, INTJ mamas — whatever their take on lifestyle and parenting, they all feel some level of their spirit being stretched here, there and all over the place. And then comes the frazzle: you drop an errand because you’re out of time, then realize you’re missing some crucial ingredient for dinner or going to rack up some Redbox late fee because you forgot to return a movie or, dang it, you forgot to buy your sister’s birthday card for the family dinner in an hour and your toddler can sense he’s not getting your full attention and focus and starts to throw a tantrum into the mix. (And then comes the yelling, the crying, the muttered “God, please get me a glass of wine!” under your breath.)

Stress, of course, is an everyday feature of life. And actually, a small dose of it is good for us — it keeps us active, alert and creative. But most of us — parents and non-parents alike — just have too much. And when we have too much, we can just shut down, feeling empty, devoid and joyless.

One of the problems I’ve encountered, though, is that ‘stress’ has become a catch-all phrase, at least for me. It’s too easy to just say “I’m stressed!” and have it be some signpost that we all understand. (And then the idea of “managing” stress becomes yet another thing on your to-do list…which, ironically, can sometimes lead to more catch-all stress!)

But this can be really unprecise: not all stress is the same. As a Buddhist-inclined human and someone who’s fought post-partum depression, I learned quickly that different flavors of “stress” and burnout mean and need different things. Sometimes it’s just the result of having a challenging day or week — that’s like Level-1 stress or just a bad day. But sometimes it’s deeper, and maybe a harbinger of a depressive/anxious episode — and likely requires a different way of handling it.

So I’ve gotten a little analytical and curious about my own emotional state — whether that’s through journaling, meditating, talking it out with someone close or just being still enough to experience emotions without reacting or judging. As a DIY “emotional scientist,” I’m learning to be more precise in identifying what I’m feeling — and more precise in dealing. I’ve discovered that often different emotions feel different in the body — I feel anger like a hardness in my face, for instance, but sadness feels like a tightness in my chest. (Super professional types call this “somatic wisdom” because bodies don’t lie — and are often great sources of information about what’s really going on with us, if we only learn how to listen.)

And different stresses are healed best with different solutions. Sometimes all I need is a little more exercise or sleep; other times I might need connection, community or creativity. Sometimes some levels of stress are gateways to more turbulent emotions, if left unchecked. This kind of knowledge helps me act skillfully without being too reactive — you know, realizing that maybe I need to get a good cardio workout in instead of flailing blindly for chips or a drink! (“God, please get me a glass of wine!”)

I generally begin by asking myself if I’m missing a basic need — like nutritious food, water, sleep or movement — and then try to get some of those in if they’re lacking. (It doesn’t always get to happen, sadly — especially on the sleep end — but at least I know.) Sometimes a healthy meal, a great workout or a good night’s sleep is enough — and yeah, it’s amazing how we can skimp on those and really deplete ourselves! But sometimes there’s something more at work, so I begin the “emotional scientist” routine, take time to figure out what I’m really feeling and work it out.

I’m not saying this will cure mental illness or anything — and I will say this again and again in this post. (If you have a serious mental illness, please, take care of yourself and get help.) But this kind of fine-grained approach does help me, in that it teaches you to know yourself and be honest and precise. Below, I’ve broken down the various “stress states” I’ve observed within myself. This is me, of course, but maybe some of you will find it helpful in recognizing our patterns and behaviors — and acting skillfully to heal yourself as best you can.

Overstimulated/Overloaded

I FEEL: jittery, anxious, scattered, restless, agitated
I LACK: focus, calm, centeredness
I NEED: to make a moment for myself and just be (and maybe put down my iPhone or iPad)

In this state, you feel like you’re simply BOMBARDED by everything: your child, your obligations, noise, information, deadlines, bills, blah blah blah. For me, this physically feels like “bees buzzing” in my head sometimes, particularly behind my eyes or in my throat — or it feels like a heavy weight on my shoulders. I’ve found that when I feel like this — and a lot of the mamas I know feel this, simply because there is SO MUCH TO DO FOR OTHER PEOPLE! — I really need just to slow down and let myself “catch up” to myself. Sometimes it’s a meditation, taking 5 deep breaths at a red traffic light or spending 5 minutes in the car doing absolutely nothing until I head inside my house — these are like the triage solution that might get me through an afternoon or evening. But usually this is a sign that I’m cramming too much into my head and heart, and I need to carve out an oasis of time for myself that isn’t devoted to a child or family. For me, it helps to be out in nature or just in fresh air, taking a walk. For others, it means taking time to cook a meal without being distracted, or doing some restorative yoga. Basically, whatever creates a sense of “white space” in your life is needed.

Down/Lethargic

I FEEL: heavy, slow, foggy-brained
I LACK: stimulation, energy, excitement, joie de vivre
I NEED: to remind myself of “me” and my passions

This kind of stress is sneaky, because it doesn’t feel like the sped-up stress we associate with the term. But if stress is a fight-or-flight response to “threat,” then this is like the “curl up in a ball and play dead” response. For me, physically, this feels like a heaviness or lump in my chest or a tightness in my throat — and it often comes out when I’ve neglected the parts of my life that were my passions before I became a mama. Sometimes a good workout helps with this feeling, but if it’s genuinely emotionally based, then I’ve found that I need to do something to bring back some joy and spark in my life.

For me, this means doing something creative — writing, perhaps, but also drawing or dance. Sometimes this means doing something new and challenging, even if it’s as simple as taking a new class at the gym or striking up a conversation with a random stranger. (Hey, I’m a shy introvert, despite my sometimes overexuberant prose — that’s new and challenging for me!) Others might need some “friend time.” Whatever it is, you need to do the things that make me feel fully human outside your family, that make you remember the joy of being alive. You hear that cliche of remembering what you loved doing when you were 8 or 9, but it’s really true!

Auto-Pilot/”Checked Out”

I FEEL: like your days are a blur, or a sense of blanking out — like how you can drive somewhere and go “wait, how did I get here?” when you arrive
I LACK: mindfulness
I NEED: a way to ground yourself in the present

This is another thing that doesn’t generally register as stress, but if it goes unchecked, it can really affect your spirit (and sometimes your safety!) This is just a sense of life passing you by, either because your mind has often gone elsewhere or you’ve got so much on your plate you can’t really just savor it and enjoy it. If I go too long feeling like this, it’s often a sign that I need some mindfulness in my life. I know, I know: mindfulness is super-trendy now. But it’s an ancient concept still hugely applicable to modern lives.

While most people think “meditation,” you can create mindfulness in other ways. Breathwork, simply sitting and staring at a wall, slow restorative yoga, a long solo walk in nature — it’s all forms of slowing your mind down and detaching from thoughts. I also think immersing yourself fully in your senses helps this feeling: cooking a good leisurely meal, taking photographs, drawing or calligraphy, trying on perfumes, even trying on beautiful clothes. (Heck, even sex can qualify!) I find that “bystander to my own life” feeling is often a precursor to a more serious sadness for me, so I really try to get back into my own life in some way if I feel it creeping in.

This next set of feelings are sort of next-level negative in my book — and if chronic or unabated, can lead to serious depression. So that’s my general note for this next group: if you feel these next ones for longer than two weeks — that’s the general mental health guideline — or feel like you want to harm yourself or another person acutely, reach out and get help!

Irritable/Angry “For No Reason”/Anxious

I FEEL: pinched, irritated, like you’re crawling under your skin — and like you want to YELL ALL THE TIME and somehow can’t help yourself
I LACK: efficacy, personal agency
I NEED: to declutter your emotional landscape

Sometimes that scattered-mind, can’t-focus feeling can really escalate for me into irritability and unreasonable anger. (Anger was actually the sign for me that I was dealing with something much more than “baby blues,” but that’s a post for another day.) This is the feeling I have the hardest time working with, personally — but maybe that shouldn’t surprise me, because as a society women’s anger is belittled, shamed and minimized, both personally and culturally. I still get that weird tightness in my chest, head or throat, but it’s almost as if those “bees buzzing” have spread into my skin. Everything just feels too much, and more importantly, I can’t quite regulate my reactions to it. My mind starts to dwell on the negative and the rumination just makes me angrier and angrier. It often starts to affect my sleep, which of course, affects everything else.

This is a deeper-level stressor, and for me, I find it’s because I don’t feel effectual and in control of my own life. You feel the bombardment of life, but you feel like you increasingly can’t manage it — and you kind of start hating yourself and everything around you for it. It’s very easy at this point to grasp for control, but that’s a straw man of a solution in some ways — control is really different from sovereignty or personal agency. Sometimes, when I start to feel this, I start to realize I’ve taken on too much. (Oh so easy as a mama!) And therefore, I need to ask for help. But the roots of this feeling is also a building resentment about something, and so I have to really look at my life and figure out where to “clear the air.” Sometimes that’s a frank conversation with a partner, or a real restructuring of your time and routine. That’s a different kind of “white space” in your life — and it can be really hard to implement at times. But it’s just as necessary as peace and quiet.

Note: if your mind just cannot shut off — and especially if it starts to affect sleep — you may need to get outside help, too, because you might be delving into serious anxiety!

Isolated/Alone

I NEED: isolated, alienated, lonely despite being around people all the time
I LACK: intimacy, understanding and connection
I NEED: to connect with love

Most people don’t see isolation and loneliness as a type of stressor, but hey, in my book it’s definitely something that sucks up energy that could better be used in your life — so it’s stress! I think of isolation as a more severe version of the sadness, heaviness and apathy above — and for me, it’s definitely a precursor to a more serious depression if allowed to go on too long. I think of this as a “black hole” kind of emotion: it sucks in all the good in life into its gaping dark maw, cramming everything into an incredibly tight space, and gives off a searing cold air. Physically, for me it’s almost like the heaviness of my heart pulls me in and everything gets tight, tight, tight. And yet somehow you’re emotionally numb.

There is something so cold yet primal about loneliness and isolation. And it needs real healing. Often this feeling, for me, comes from a lack of intimacy and authenticity in life — you somehow don’t feel seen, heard or understood in your life. Sometimes this manifests as niggling feelings of being taken for granted, or feeling unappreciated. If left uncheck, you can feel really hellishly lonely.

The fixes — intimacy and authenticity — aren’t quick, either. If you’re lucky, sometimes it’s having a real conversation with someone you love and reconnecting that way. Or it’s having freedom in our lives to reconfigure your schedule to better reflect your priorities in life, aligning your time with your values.

But sometimes deeper issues are at work — sometimes it’s hard to create intimacy in our lives because we’ve pushed away or buried our real feelings, or sometimes our upbringings have somehow made us minimize or judge our feelings to the point where we’re even unaware we have feelings. Sometimes fissures in our relationships have become unsustainable. Sometimes we’re not getting what we need anymore — and we’re not even sure what we need.

I have no real easy-peasy bullet points when it comes to healing a lack of intimacy in your life. Except to say: for most people, it begins with becoming genuinely and gently honest and accepting of ourselves, our desires, our hopes and dreams and hurts. Sometimes we don’t have the intimacy in our lives and relationships because we’ve failed to be open, honest and accepting of ourselves — and so we hide from the ones we love, too. Sometimes — from professional therapy, journaling, meditating, or just open-hearted conversations with people we love — we come to a warm understanding with ourselves, but other areas in our life don’t feel safe for that self. And then we’re faced with the hard work of creating or asking for that safety and understanding elsewhere, or sometimes leaving it behind for a freedom that gives your self space to breathe.

There’s no easy way, really, especially one that can be healed from just a blog post on the Internet. I say begin somewhere: find one space in your life, whether it’s a journal, a friend, a therapist or even a beautiful space or practice you can retreat to, where you can be open, honest and genuine. Cherish that space, carry it inside of you and let it give you courage to create gentle openness, honesty and acceptance in other areas of your life.

Deeply Apathetic/Pervasive Sense of Meaningless and Hopelessness

I FEEL: like nothing matters — or that everything, everyone or you are absolutely disgusting and repulsive
I LACK: meaning and genuine hope that life is worth it
I NEED: professional help if this is chronic

(I almost didn’t put this on here, because I think it’s beyond stress and burnout if it’s pervasive. But I think it’s worth mentioning anyway.)

I think everyone experiences existential malaise and questions “What does this all mean?” at some point in life. But when a sense of meaninglessness or self-loathing becomes chronic, acute and/or persistent — and gets in the way of relationships, fulfilling activities, connection and your general ability to pursue life — it’s often a sign of serious depression and way beyond “stress” territory. To me, this is the hallmark of serious depression and needs serious, usually professional, help.

So many people mistake sadness or crying jags as depression — and certainly, feeling sad or irritable all the time can be an expression of it. But many, many seriously depressed people deftly mask their despair with masks of competency, cheerfulness and pleasantries. The problem is that their functionality and pleasant demeanor are fundamentally detached from their sense of self or meaning. And “going through the motions” becomes an increasing pile of evidence that life is meaningless.

Depression has at its core a lack of joy, happiness or meaning — it is almost like all the good of your life somehow can’t ever reach your heart. It is, really, a lack of hope that your life can better and you will feel better. “Why bother?” starts to take on a menacing tone — because when you feel this, it’s very, very easy to just give up. When anyone gets to this point, you need to reach out and get help, even though it’s the last thing you want to do. To propose stuff like “meditation!” or “go for a walk!” feels really trivial when dealing with this pervasive meaningless, numbness and loathing — and honestly, I really have come to feel that offering a blithe bullet point of suggestions for what is often a serious depression feels irresponsible. If you’re a parent who feels like life is meaningless and everything is disgusting, wrong and awful about yourself and your life — and feels this intensely, acutely or chronically — please, reach out and get help. And if you ever feel like you’re close to harming yourself or others, of course, get help immediately.

+++++

I don’t want to propose Band-Aid solutions, play Dr. Internet and make it seem like “Get a massage!” or “Reach out to friends!” is the key to making it all go away. What I have found is that mental health is a mosaic: it’s affected by a whole network of interconnected influences, like personal passions, physical health, family, sexuality, romantic relationships, job, friends and communities. They all feed and bleed into one another, which is both their strength and weakness. Weakness, because stress and trauma in one area can pull down the others. Strength, because sometimes just tackling one area and restoring a feeling of goodness there can give you a boost in another area, and another area, and so on.

I think of this, then, as a mosaic-like approach to healing: we all need a patchwork of tips, techniques and practices to raise it up and keep it there. I’m no mental health professional, but it helps to begin with one or two small things — which ideally gives you more energy and spark to tackle a few other things. My hope in laying out this lexicon of my findings as my own “DIY emotional scientist” is helping others to choose those small changes wisely and precisely — because wise, precise small things do add up.

By the way, I’m well aware that stress and burnout are experienced by everyone, not just moms. But I write here a lot for other mothers, who often deal with a lot of psychological and cultural baggage in the role that intersects with their emotions. Still, if you’re not a mom, I hope the above is still helpful in some way!

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