How to Deal with Burnout as a Mom (Guest: Dr. Ashurina Ream)

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I told my husband I felt like an old sponge the other day.

And then I talked to my good friend Dr. Ashurina Ream, licensed clinical psychologist (who specializes in perinatal mental health) and I was like OOOHHH. This is BURNOUT.

Since it's Maternal Mental Health Awareness Month, I brought Dr. Ream onto the blog to help with three strategies to help pull yourself out of the burnout.

Dr. Ream is an amazing psychologist and so relatable as a mom who has gone through her own mental health struggles.

She has a course called Keeping Mommy in Mind that I highly recommend if any part of motherhood is making you feel lost, alone, or like something is broken.

I wish I had something like this when I had my first baby. I really struggled with grieving my previous life even though I was so happy to be a mom. And I just put so much pressure on myself as a mom, when I really just needed to be more gentle to myself.

Get 10% off on her course here.

Introducing Dr. Ashurina Ream

Parental Burnout Dr. Ream

Dr. Ashurina Ream, PMH-C is a licensed clinical psychologist with advanced training in perinatal mental health.

Her passion for working with moms arose after becoming a mother herself. She recognized the limited support and education in the community regarding the care for women. This resulted in her pursuing additional education as well as creating resources for those impacted by perinatal mood and anxiety disorders.

Now I'll let Dr. Ream take it away!

Parental Burnout

Burnout.  I used to think that burnout was a term only used in the workplace.  Perhaps for people that worked in business or traveled often for work.  I never imagined that the term burnout would go hand-in-hand with motherhood. 

I guess it wasn’t until I became a mother myself that I realized how demanding this new “job” was. 

Oftentimes it feels like the demands far outweigh my resources and I question, “how am I going to do this?” and once again I do it... I surprise myself sometimes. 

It’s crazy to think how much we continue to do despite feeling like we’re running on fumes.  Add a global pandemic to the already mounting responsibilities of motherhood, and we are on the fast track to emotional collapse.

I don’t want to overgeneralize parental burnout so I’ll provide a bit more information. 

In a recent study parental burnout was defined as: “a specific syndrome resulting from enduring exposure to chronic parenting stress.”

The researchers identified three domains of parental burnout:

  1. Overwhelming exhaustion (related to parenting)
  2. Emotional distancing from the child
  3. A sense of ineffectiveness in one’s parenting role. 

This experience can negatively impact the parent’s well-being, parenting practices, and parent-child interactions (and ultimately the child’s development). (Mikolajczak, Raes, Avalosse, & Roskam, 2017).

Are you feeling burnt out?

When we think about the current state of parenting during a pandemic, it seems as though most parents would endorse each of these items. 

  • Have you been feeling extreme exhaustion due to your role?
    • Yes. 
  • Have you been feeling emotionally distant from your child (or in need of some separation/space)?
    • Yes. 
  • Do you feel like you are being ineffective?
    • Yes. 

We are being asked to juggle far too many responsibilities with limited to no support.  We are in close quarters with our families without breaks.  We are expected to be on our “A” game in these circumstances non-stop.  This isn’t realistic and it’s definitely not recommended.

Predictors of Parental Burnout

The previously noted researchers studied five predictors of parental burnout and what they found is that the following most influenced burnout: 

  1. Stable traits of the parent: a tendency to exhibit depression, anxiety, self-doubt, etc.
  2. Parenting factors: feeling restricted in your role as a parent, having inconsistent discipline
  3. Family functioning: marital dissatisfaction, lack of cohesiveness as a couple/disagreeing on parenting decisions, or having a chaotic home environment

How to Reduce Parental Burnout

So what can be done if you are spread thin and feeling like you are the poster child for parental stress?  Another study (Mikolajczak & Roskam, 2018) outlined factors to decrease parental stress and here’s what they suggest parents do to improve this.

1. Have Self Compassion

What’s self-compassion?

In a nutshell it’s about treating yourself like you treat others.  When those we love fall short, we often make allowances, show grace, and offer support.  As moms, we don’t offer ourselves the same kindness. 

We tend to magnify our shortcomings.  We beat ourselves up, set the expectations far too high, and get caught in the spiral of negative thinking. 

Self-compassion encompasses three components:

  1. Self-kindness
  2. Common humanity (knowing that you are not alone)
  3. Mindfulness (being present in the moment without judgment). 

Dr. Kristen Neff wrote the book Self-Compassion and I frequently recommend it to patients I see in therapy.

2. Increase Time for Leisure

Leisure? Are you crazy?  I barely have time to go to the restroom alone.  Is that what came to mind for you? 

I want to emphasize the importance of taking breaks. 

In a study that monitored a large engineering company over three years, they found that regular breaks were related to decreased risk of accidents (Tucker, Folkard, & Macdonald, 2003).  Not to diminish the role of engineers, but don’t you think that our role as mothers is more demanding? And frankly, more important?  We are caring for the needs of human beings around the clock.

We need breaks.  Know that this may look differently during a pandemic and may require creativity. I often say that technology is a tool we can use, particularly when outside supports are unavailable. Don’t beat yourself up if your current routine isn’t ideal.  We’ve never lived through anything quite like this and it’s okay to adjust our expectations.  

Let’s talk about leisure.  I know that #selfcare is a trending topic on social media.  We see people showcasing candlelit bubble baths, spa days, and girls weekends.  Don’t get me wrong, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with any of these activities, but if I’m being honest, this is not the reality for most moms.  I encourage moms to get creative. 

Self-care might look like:

  • Sitting outside for 10 minutes
  • Saying “yes” to things that interest you
  • Saying “no” when you really want to,
  • Eating nourishing food
  • Calling a friend
  • Listening to music
  • Going to bed early
  • Stretching
  • Watching something funny

And the list goes on.  Also know that self-care is not just an act of doing.  Sometimes self-care is setting boundaries with people or our time.  It can mean that we are no longer putting emphasis on what others think about us. 

3. Identifying External Supports

This was a hard one for me.  I moved across the country away from family and friends.  How do we find support in these cases? 

In her book Mommy Burnout, Dr. Sheryl Ziegler (2018) outlines the importance of connection, particularly in women.  She discusses the concern regarding social poverty, meaning that although we are connected, we are lacking authentic connection.  We live in a society where we can have hundreds of friends, but no one we can truly rely on or feel like we can be transparent with.  

We can change this. 

First, we need to nurture our friendships. We need to catch up, connect, and invite.  We need to be the friend we hope to gain. Here are some ideas:

  • I encourage you to get to know the parents of your children(s) friends. 
  • Find a new interest. 
  • Join a mom group (find one that suits you, this may take a few attempts). 
  • Get to know your neighbors. 
  • I challenge you to step outside your comfort zone to find authentic connection.

A Challenge to You

I recognize that this short list of tips will not in and of itself “cure” burnout, but it’s a place to start.  These days it can be both exciting and overwhelming to be a woman.  We have increasing opportunities, but that also comes with a sense of overwhelming pressure. 

We are being challenged to be the best at motherhood, our careers, as partners, friends, philanthropists, models of health—and all while maintaining a picture perfect home. 

I have a different challenge—I challenge you to shutdown unrealistic expectations.  I challenge you to make your mental health a priority.  I challenge you to model appropriate boundary setting and self-care to your children, their development depends on it. 

There is no greater declaration of self-love quite like engaging in self-care.  Little eyes are watching—they need to learn this.

References

Mikolajczak, Moïra & Raes, Marie-Emilie & Avalosse, Hervé & Roskam, Isabelle. (2017). Exhausted Parents: Sociodemographic, Child-Related, Parent-Related, Parenting and Family-Functioning Correlates of Parental Burnout. Journal of Child and Family Studies. 10.1007/s10826-017-0892-4. 

Mikolajczak, Moïra, and Isabelle Roskam. “A Theoretical and Clinical Framework for Parental Burnout: The Balance Between Risks and Resources (BR2).” Frontiers in Psychology, vol. 9, 2018, doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2018.00886.

Neff, K. (2013). Self compassion. London: Hodder & Stoughton.

Tucker, P., Folkard, S., & Macdonald, I. (2003). Rest breaks and accident risk. The Lancet, 361(9358), 680. doi: 10.1016/s0140-6736(03)12566-4Ziegler, S. (2018). Mommy burnout: how to reclaim your life and raise healthier children in the process. New York: Dey Street Books.


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