In January of this year, I asked you to hold on to hope. At that time, I had no idea just how big a request I was making of you. And now with the most confusing year more than halfway through, I think it is only fair that I check in with you.
This year has been unlike any that I have ever personally experienced and I have felt my resources depleting. I won’t rehash all that we have been through. There doesn’t seem to be any point to that. And I won’t point out all that I think is still right with the world, although mama Orca Tahlequah is pregnant again, and I can’t stop smiling. Instead, I hope to share something that has worked for me.
Sometime last year, before Covid-19, the World Health Organization recognized burnout as a health issue.
Working as a counselor and lecturer, I was quite familiar with the phenomenon of burnout. Urban Dictionary defines burnout as “a state of emotional and physical exhaustion caused by prolonged periods of stress and frustration,” and really this is as good a definition as any. It is emotional because burnout can make you feel like you aren’t doing anything right. It can make you doubt your ability to make even the smallest of decisions like what to cook for dinner even.
It is physical because, well, mom tired is a real thing.
It is widely accepted that people working in helping professions such as doctors, teachers, counselors, social workers, and police officers to name a few, are more prone to experiencing burnout.
But guess what, so are mothers.
No job falls more squarely in the helping profession than being a mother. You are helping bring life into the world, helping to raise that life, helping to instill values and morals all the while helping to put on shoes, helping with homework, helping them be brave, and giving them experiences that will help shape their world view. Mothers are constantly tasked with caring for the lives entrusted to them.
And we are currently doing this while facing a global health and economic crisis.
In my job burnout looks like apathy, being so tired you can no longer care, or cynicism, expecting all efforts to fail and reduced professionalism. All these are somewhat easy to recognize and address within the professional setting.
But what happens when burnout occurs between mother and child?
When my kids were younger and just learning to speak, “mama” and “mommy” were the sweetest sounds I had ever heard. After miscarriages and pregnancy after loss, my heart would soar each time they called for me. Now, those words being screamed over and over while I try to pay attention in a work meeting, or figure out homeschooling instructions, can really add to my experience of burnout. By the 80,000th “Mawwwmmmmyyyyyyyy” it can get a bit old.
Feelings of burnout set in from having to manage all the new demands, and I have to resist the urge to scream. The burnout is real, but unlike at my job, I can’t take a vacation from it. No, I can’t do that, not yet. My babies are too young. Plus, wherever I go, I am still their mother. I am still making decisions that could affect them. I am still bound by my love and devotion to them. And, I will still be thinking about them constantly. Covid-19 has changed a lot for me but it hasn’t changed that.
So, I keep going. I take deep breaths, I pray for strength, and I ride out the storm.
That’s the thing about motherhood. Burnout rarely means the end of the job. It usually just means that you have a few minutes, maybe a few hours to regroup then jump back in.
So, what can you do with a few minutes? For me, it usually means tagging my husband in. Because I tend to spend more contact hours with the kids, we do get tired of each other. You may not know this, but me being able to say the words, “We get tired of each other,” represents a huge step in my journey to a more realistic and truthful motherhood. They get tired of me and I get tired of them, and we still love and cherish each other.
Anyway, I tag my husband in. I tag him all the way in. As in, come, take all the way over and give me some away time. During these away times, I stare into the empty void, I message friends, I write, watch television or I use my grocery shopping time to regroup. Because Covid-19 has changed the way we access self-care, for many of us, spa days and salon appointments are not possible right now. My return from these “away times” are usually met with shouts of adoration and affirmations of how much I was missed. Because, here is the thing, as young as my children are, they understand and appreciate the fact that I am a better mommy when I return.
Unfortunately, it’s not very often that I can get alone time. And truthfully self-care alone, even when we can access it, isn’t enough to make burnout go away. Especially when most times all I have are a few minutes of showering or their afternoon nap to get it together and fight my burnout.
In these tight moments, I think about something my husband said to me when my daughter was younger. She was probably just a year old, and my husband walked in to find me frustrated and on the verge of tears. My daughter and I were not seeing eye-to-eye about something I wanted her to do that she flat out refused to do. She had only just started talking, but she was really making her feelings known. I was having terrible nausea because I was already pregnant with my second rainbow baby. He walked in, and I give him the death stare–you know, the come-get-your-baby stare–and he laughs and asks me a simple question: “Do you want to give them back?”
He was joking of course, but I remember feeling my stomach turn, partly from nausea, but mostly from the question. No, dear God no! I definitely didn’t want to give my babies back. Even if we hadn’t endured miscarriage and that emotional turmoil, I was their mother now and I could not go back. Instantly, any frustration I felt subsided, and I prayed and promised God that I would endure any number of days like this just to have my babies with me.
In the years since I have made good on that promise. I have been through the sick days, the jealousy days, the sibling fights, the crying, the nagging, and the talking till I was blue in the face only to have them do exactly what I said not to do days. And I have been burnt out.
But, every time I feel burnout or like I am trapped in a never-ending cycle I remember that God has given me a unique perspective on motherhood.
You see one lesson my miscarriages have taught me is that the children I have now are exactly the children God meant for me to have. And, whatever I am facing at the moment is exactly what He needed me to face so that I can learn and grow to be who He wants me to be.
So, there it is. On the days that getting hair and nails done won’t make burnout go away, on the days when the online debates over masks get to be too much and I have to resort to closing my eyes and blocking everything out, I remember my husband’s question, and I stop and hug my children and remind myself that I could have been living a very different life. One where no one grabs my face and kisses my cheeks over and over, or exclaims, “Mommy you look so beautiful,” every time I enter a room. A life where no one demands that I be more patient, more loving, gentler, and more understanding.
I remember that I cannot afford to forget to wash my hands or wear my mask, because I am a mother to littles who depend on me. Does it make it easier? Hell, no! Motherhood, however you come it, is hard. It is demanding, and burnout is very real, especially in 2020. But it is also a privilege that I have been blessed to enjoy. And I promise you, there is nothing more energizing than that.
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An important note: Regardless of my experiences with burnout, this is a very real problem that should not be taken lightly. If you feel that you are dealing with burnout, especially during this very isolating time, please seek support from your local health care provider or helpline.