What does maternal exhaustion mean? Well, I knew that I needed to face this topic for the last six months. Instead of writing, maternal exhaustion has been where I’ve lived.
I follow a rule when it comes to my writing topics. If the idea keeps coming up in my life three times or more, it becomes a calling and to ignore it is a level of denial that I won’t allow myself to have. Yet each month I found myself, well, too exhausted to even be able to flesh out what there was to say.
The clinical definition of maternal exhaustion is a state of dehydration and exhaustion during prolonged labor. And maybe that is the best way to describe it. Since my babies were born, I’ve never stopped laboring.
It felt like it got really bad back in August 2020. When we were all still trying to figure out life in a pandemic and every decision felt wrong, off, unsure. Especially my Kindergartner attending a new online school at home. A home with a three-year-old and a new baby and a husband working from home along with myself.
This was a new way of living and yet it wasn’t. I became a stay at home mom October 2016 when I was pregnant with our second child due in the summer of 2017. We had moved cross country for my husband’s career opportunity and the likelihood of me finding a job, that would pay for childcare and also offer maternity leave in the nearing months, just felt impossible. Soon after this transition for me, we also became a single-vehicle household. Living in isolation with small children was my life well before lock down. And maternal exhaustion was familiar too.
I thought I was doing great after my third child was born summer of 2020. I asked for help with meals and accepted whatever contactless assistance was possible. Then when school started I became very bitter, resentful and seriously fatigued. I felt like I never had a free moment. From remembering to refill the soap dispensers in the bathroom, to completing the weekly grocery order for pickup, to keeping the house clean with all these people in it 24/7, to keeping three children alive and growing gracefully, to my husband’s needs. Let’s not forget postpartum healing, work emails and deadlines. I started to break when assisting my kindergartner with online school was added into the mix.
I renewed my hope in being able to remain standing after listening to an episode on burnout on the Brené Brown Unlocking Us Podcast discussing the book Burnout with the authors, Emily and Amelia Nagoski. This one hour of time gave me space to acknowledge that I was in burnout. It also gifted me with tactical steps to take to help manage such a state.
So I pushed through. My daughter and I found a flow with online school. Our new baby started sleeping more at night. My three-year-old found her own flow with winging-it-at-home preschool. And I was pursuing my dream in the nonprofit sector. But, for some reason, the upcoming holidays became a burden. Instead of a magical time of year, it felt like yet another impossible task that was all on me to create the magic. It was hard, and I knew that I wasn’t alone. And guess what article showed up in my feed next?
9.8 million working mothers in the U.S. are suffering from burnout
Just by being a working mother, women are 28% more likely to experience burnout than fathers, according to the analysis. That means in the U.S., there are 2.35 million additional cases of burnout due to the unequal demands of home and work that are placed on working mothers. And cases of burnout are higher among Black, Asian and Latino mothers compared to their White counterparts.Megan Leonhardt
I felt validated and guilty at the same time. See my parents had moved to be near us summer of 2020, so I had daily assistance with childcare. And I chose a partner that shared the domestic responsibilities around the house since day one of our committed relationship. I also chose a freelance and entrepreneurial career so, although I have the added stress of being responsible for all business aspects, I could dictate and flex my own working schedule. And let’s not forget my white privilege. So, why was I so exhausted?
Is it Betrayal?
The next nudge from the universe came from this article: How Society Has Turned Its Back on Mothers.
”Betrayal” describes what my patients are feeling exactly. While burnout places the blame (and thus the responsibility) on the individual and tells working moms they aren’t resilient enough, betrayal points directly to the broken structures around them.Pooja Lakshmin
What Is The Cost?
The word betrayal felt so right. I was starting to understand why I felt like I could never do enough, be enough. When I left my position working in the corporate sector to be a stay at home mom I had a huge identity crisis. And I didn’t let myself sit there for long. I quickly took up trying to launch a business, desperate to get back into the workforce, but still be the main caregiver for my family.
There really aren’t jobs available in our country with flexibility for you to raise a family too. I realized that I had internalized capitalism so deeply into who I am that I cannot image my worthiness without the pursuit of profit at all costs. Yes, there was societal betrayal at play, but I also recognized my own conditioning. Conditioning that helped me advance in my career in my 20’s, but was leading me to decay in my 30’s as a mother who desired to continue to work.
Or Maybe Fear?
This recent realization of systematic betrayal inspired me to dig deeper. All of these feelings and fatigue existed before 2020. It’s just that the global crisis compressed all the layers so thinly and kept adding more layers to the composite of the problem, I felt like I couldn’t peel a single cause of my exhaustion up without picking at my own skin. How was I to heal when all I was doing was reopening wounds?
I found an extremely eye-opening and relatable research article published in 2018: Parental Burnout: When Exhausted Mothers Open Up.
Our analysis revealed a superordinate theme of fear, which was central in every aspect of the mothers’ accounts of their experience of becoming and being exhausted.Sarah Hubert and Isabelle Aujoulat
Reading these other mothers’ accounts I felt seen and also so vulnerable. I hadn’t been aware that I was doing too much. Even though my own mother has been saying exactly that to me since my third child was born. My fear of not being worthy, of not being enough to my family, to my friends, to my community, to society had lead me to be so self-demanding that there was no room for rest. Or least no room for rest without an immense bout of guilt and shame.
Value is not measured by money. Love is not given with effort.
Sure there are plenty of tips and tricks, strategies and recommendations to try to prevent or manage burnout or maternal exhaustion once you are there. And I do try. Everything I tried was just another item on my to-do list, until I gave myself this voice. Until I could say, “I am afraid, but I am also courageous,” could I really start to peel back the layers.
After each layer I pull, I have to take a break. I have to stop and stare at it and hold it in my palm and learn how to let it go. Being a mother may forever be this process. At times it can feel exhausting, but I no longer live there.