Maternal exhaustion is still a somewhat taboo subject. Parents struggling with exhaustion, fear, shame, stress, anxiety and low energy levels rarely express themselves for fear of being judged as incapable, incompetent or “not good enough” parents. Yet more and more parents, and especially mothers, are suffering from maternal exhaustion.
When parents are exhausted, everyone suffers. Maternal exhaustion has consequences for parents, couples, and kids. It is characterized by extreme exhaustion, emotional detachment, behavioral changes, and the perception that parenthood is both painful and joyless.
In a recent study researchers found that maternal exhaustion can also lead to “negligent and violent behavior toward one’s children”.
They observed that parents facing parental exhaustion were more likely to be verbally, psychologically and even physically aggressive when communicating with their children, and that they fantasized more than other parents about giving up their parenting responsibilities.
Parental burnout, a book written by Joseph Procaccini and Mark Kiefaver, was one of the first books to address this issue in the 1980s. Previously, only those who were employed were “allowed to talk” about exhaustion, and since parenting was not viewed as a job, mothers facing maternal exhaustion chose to remain silent.
Even today, raising children is not viewed as a “real job” despite the countless hours that parents spend caring for kids.
Many parents continue to feel guilty when they complain about the difficulty of fulfilling their parenting responsibilities. Mothers are the most affected, but the good news is that more and more women are daring to talk about their experience of physical and emotional – almost chronic – fatigue.
There is also more information than ever about maternal exhaustion, and more and more women are asking for help. Although many parents cannot be diagnosed as suffering from burnout, there are more cases of overwhelm and despair today.
We now know that this phenomenon occurs long after one begins to experience feelings such as fatigue, stress and guilt.
The good news is that we have more information today about the factors that increase the risks of maternal exhaustion and how parents can better avoid it.
Five things that increase the chances of maternal exhaustion (and tips for dealing with it!)
1) Being an “ever-present parent” increases the risk of maternal exhaustion
Always being there for your kids, being an omnipresent parent, is bad for you and its bad for your kids.
When you are too available, not only do you get easily overwhelmed, but you also prevent your kids from learning important skills such as autonomy, critical thinking, creativity, problem-solving, and decision-making.
The more your children know that they can rely on you for everything, the less they will try to accomplish things on their own. Believing that you must always be present increases the chances of maternal exhaustion for the simple reason that it increases your workload.
Instead of being constantly available, let go. Children are not as helpless as we believe them to be. We are the ones who transform them into helpless beings.
Identify household chores that they can do on their own and encourage them to participate in age-appropriate tasks, again by themselves. Show them that you believe that they are capable of success.
2) Believing harmful myths will only make you unhappy
Everyone says that parenthood is the best thing ever. It is supposed to be an awesome experience for parents who are lucky enough to care for an adorable child.
But there’s a huge difference between theory and practice for many parents, between the image of parenting before one has kids, and the one when one actually has to deal with their own kids.
Yes, being a parent is wonderful, but it’s also tiring, and there are many moments when it can become a physical and psychological ordeal.
Parents, especially mothers, have long been taught to believe that they must be EVERYTHING for their children. The problem is that when they fail to be this “perfect parent”, they blame themselves for “not being good enough.”
In the study cited above, most of the parents interviewed spoke of feelings of guilt. They felt guilty about taking time for themselves, about how they felt others perceived them, and they also had feelings of guilt because they felt that they were not the ideal parents that they thought that they would be.
You do not have to perfect – perfection is a terrible myth – and accepting that is the first step to avoiding maternal exhaustion.
Focusing only on the “fabulous” side of parenting often leads to disappointment, frustration and even shame, because being a parent has its ups and its downs. Instead of striving to be a “perfect parent” who never gets tired and is always happy and joyful, define your own idea of parenting.
Letting go of harmful myths will allow you to realize that you do not have to follow a predefined pattern of what it means to be a parent, that you can choose to be the type of parent that you want to be.
3) Forgetting yourself increases the risk of maternal exhaustion.
I do not have to tell you that you are more irritable when you’re tired, stressed, or preoccupied with the challenging events in your life – we all are.
And I do not have to tell you that it’s more difficult to deal with your kids when you are in such a state, or that you are more likely to yell or react inappropriately. But to take care of others, you have to take care of yourself first.
Stop putting yourself last, and you will see that it will make a huge difference in your life. Start by setting aside a specific time each day, even ten minutes, and do something just for you.
If ten minutes a day seems impossible, then start by doing at least one thing a week for yourself.
4) Lack of support
Parenting is hard work, and it’s even harder when you have to do it alone or when you’re dealing with a child with special needs. Lack of support is one of the main reasons behind maternal exhaustion. Being a parent without support means having to take care of everything, always alone.
If you have a partner, tell them you need help. Remember that this support can take the form of a babysitter because sometimes, having even a few hours to breath can do us a world of good. If you are a single parent, can your family babysit your children from time to time or even on a more regular basis? You will only know if you ask.
A professional can also provide the support you need. If you need help, talk about it.
5) The quest for perfection will make you miserable
Maternal exhaustion is usually a sign that you are doing way too much. “How can I lighten my workload” is therefore an important question that every parent feeling overwhelmed needs to ask themselves.
If, in addition to everything you do, you volunteer with a local association and are active in your child’s school activities, there are high chances that you will experience maternal exhaustion.
- What does a typical day/week look like for you?
- What can you do away with?
- What can you do less of?
6) Schedule time to spend with your kids to reduce maternal exhaustion
The easiest way to ensure that you get to spend time with your kids and reduce your feelings of guilt is to schedule specific “hang out time”.
Putting aside even 15 minutes of your time everyday can help strengthen your parent/child bond and reduce the risk of maternal exhaustion. Below is a FREE 30-day CHALLENGE with simple activities you’ll both love.
If you are experiencing maternal exhaustion and feeling overwhelmed with parenting, remember that you are not alone, then do whatever it takes to get better.