safe motherhood

Mothering Burnout: What it is. What you Can Do

For Karen, life is no longer fun. Each day feels like an endless treadmill of too much to do in too little time. She loves her family deeply. But in her heart of hearts, she wonders if what she is working so hard to achieve makes any difference at all.

There comes a point when you can’t give anymore. If you are at that point, you may be suffering from mothering burnout. Burnout can be defined as a loss of enthusiasm, energy, idealism, perspective, and purpose. It is a state of total exhaustion—physical, mental, and spiritual—brought on by unrelenting stress. To admit that you are burned out doesn’t mean you’ve failed. On the contrary, it’s often the mothers who care the most who are the most prone to burnout.

What Causes Burnout?

There are a variety of factors that can put you at risk for burnout. I’ve listed some of the most common below.

Unrealistic Expectations

Mothers often have ideas about motherhood that are not based in reality. Unrealistic expectations often take the form of “should” statements, and involve internalized beliefs about what mothers should be and do. Often, these beliefs are unrealistic and even harmful. Here are some examples.

“Mothers should anticipate all her family’s needs.”
“Mothers should be able to take care of everything.”
“Mothers who take time off are lazy.”
“Mothers should never get angry.”


A subtype of unrealistic expectations is perfectionism. If you feel that you have to do all things well, or that your best is never good enough, you are in danger of becoming burned out. I find that mothers who are survivors of childhood abuse are especially prone to perfectionism, particularly in regard to parenting. They try so hard to be good mothers, that they feel they can’t make any mistakes; that even their thoughts must always be loving and nurturing.

Cultural Messages

Unrealistic expectations also come via the media. Women are bombarded daily with hundreds of messages. To sell products, advertisers try to make women feel bad about themselves as women and mothers. These messages are so pervasive that even when there is abundant evidence to the contrary, women believe the lies. Think about it. How many women do you know who have the flawless bodies you see in advertisements? How many families do you know who live is perfectly clean, impeccably decorated homes? Are they the majority?

What You Can Do

To counter unrealistic expectations, you need to become aware of them. Next time you are feeling bad about yourself or your life, write down what you are thinking. Now examine it and ask yourself whether it is true. Talking with other mothers is also helpful. You’ll begin to see that you are not the only one.

An Impossible Job

Unrealistic expectations are only part of the problem. Another part is that the job of mothering itself—if you do all that our culture implies is necessary—is truly impossible. Sometimes mothers burn out simply because they are physically exhausted. Remember the old expression: “A man works from sun to sun, but a woman’s work is never done.”

The futility of trying to do work that is “never done” puts mothers at risk. Let me show you what I mean by listing all the activities implied in the role of mother. The activities I list are above and beyond the big responsibilities such as child care and employment.

Meal Planner. As mothers, one of your functions is to plan for the sustenance of your families. Even if you don’t do the actual cooking, quite frequently you are the ones who make the lists, buy the food, and coordinate the whole operation.

Home Decorator and Supplier of Hospitality. It frequently falls upon mothers to make their homes nice places to be. Your surroundings do influence your families, and you are typically responsible for them. You are also responsible for opening your home to others.

School Liaison. Mothers are frequently the ones who meet with teachers, chase after homework, make sure permission slips are signed, and bring cupcakes for birthdays. Mothers make sure that school clothes and supplies are purchased, and that children bring their lunch, their band instrument, and something for “sharing.”

Activity Coordinator. Mothers also coordinate their children’s activities. There is scouting, soccer and T-ball. There are lessons and church activities. No wonder many moms feel like they are always in the car.

Health and Safety. Mothers make the doctor and dentist appointments, know where the vaccination records are, and take the kids for check-ups. Mothers are often the ones who take care of the animals, house plants, and garden. They typically keep the family supplied with toothpaste, toilet paper, cold remedies, and prescription medicines. Mothers make sure fruits and vegetables get eaten. In short, the health and safety of their families is in their hands.

Family Entertainment and Holidays. Mothers typically make the plans for social engagements and vacations. Mothers are also responsible for holiday preparations including Halloween costumes and decorations. And let’s talk Christmas! There are gifts, and cards, and family pictures. Jewish friends tell me that Hanukkah is getting similarly out of hand. And some families celebrate both!

Relational Work. When there is an occasion to celebrate, mothers typically buy the gift, wrap and send it. Mothers remember the birthdays and send the thank you notes. Mothers handle the family photo albums by buying film, taking pictures, getting themdeveloped, and putting them in albums. Mothers are also the ones expected to keep the family address book up to date.

What You Can Do

As you can see, the role of mother covers a very wide range of activities. And many of these tasks are never done. When you are faced with too much work, your goal is do less. That is not as impossible as it sounds. Begin by paying attention to how you spend your days. This can help you identify work that can be eliminated or delegated. Some of the activities I list may be ones you enjoy. This listing doesn’t mean you should cut activities you like. But I would encourage you to consider whether you need to do them all, or do them all now. For jobs that you decide must be done, start delegating as muchas you can. For most types of work, you are not the only one who can do it.

Caregiving Overload
Like it or not, fair or not, in most families caregiving becomes the woman’s responsibility. Caregiving can take many forms. Mothers care for children, aging parents, and sick partners and friends. While caregiving can enrich you, it can also deplete you if you don’t have support and take time for self care.

Child Care
Even when employed outside the home, women do the bulk of the childcare. In some families, childcare is equitably divided, or the mother may do most of these activities by choice. In others, it is simply assumed that these are the mother’s responsibilities, even if she is employed full time.

Children with Special Needs
Not all children are born equal. Some children have high-needs temperaments, and have an especially strong need to be with you. Children may also have learning disabilities or ADHD. Children with chronic illnesses can dramatically increase caregiving responsibilities. All of these can isolate you from others, as this mother describes. On a bad day, I feel like Sisyphus of the Greek myth….Just when things seem to even out, a new set of daunting challenges presents itself….At these times, I enter a state beyond fatigue that is akin to despair (Greenspan 1998 p. 42).

Closely-spaced Children and Multiples
Children closely spaced in age can also lead to caregiving overload since the caregiving aspects are unrelenting. The caregiving responsibilities may be so intense in the early
days, everything else goes on hold: the house, the job, friends. It’s easy to lose yourself in this routine, as Suzanne, a mother of twin infants, describes. I'm TOTALLY overwhelmed by these two tiny creatures. Are you people all superhuman, or wealthy enough to afford armies of help? How, oh how, do you take care of infant twins by yourself?

Single Parenting

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there are 10 million single mothers in the United States, and they comprise approximately 27% of all parent-child situations (Census Bureau 1998). Single parents report having no downtime, and relentless child care activities. Loneliness and isolation can also be particular challenges for the single mothers. And mother-headed households have a higher likelihood of poverty. These issues are somewhat easier to face if you are a single parent by choice. On the other hand, if you are single against your will either through death or divorce, single parenting is more challenging. You may also be a de facto single parent because your husband or partner travels, works long hours, or is in the military. Anger, depression and burnout are common feelings. Anne describes her feelings about being a single mother of teens, one of whom has special needs.

I have virtually no social life. I have very little time alone. I am facing the challenges of raising two teenagers at this point. Through all the grieving and loss of dreams, I have learned that we are indeed spiritual beings having a human experience. Each day I need to rediscover this or I simply cannot cope. In the end I want to know that I have, in good conscience, done the best I knew how at the time.

Aging Parents

Women of our generation are often called the “sandwich generation,” in that they must often provide care for both children and parents. Approximately 41% of women caring for elderly relatives are also caring for children under age 18. The difficulty of caring for an aging relative is compounded when you don’t feel you had a choice in the matter. Anger and
resentment are common. If your parent was abusive or neglectful while you were growing up, you might be very angry at having to care for this parent now. The phenomenon of elder abuse and neglect demonstrates that caregivers can get overwhelmed and react in destructiveways.


Codependency is a word that has been so overused, it is almost a cliché. Nevertheless, it’s often the women who take on everyone else’s troubles who are at highest risk for burning out. Carrying the problems of others may overwhelm us. Mothers need wisdom when trying to determine how to spend their limited time. They also need to put some limits on how involved they get in problems that are not their own.

What You Can Do

When you are burned out, one of the first things to do is to connect with others who can give back to you. This can include your partner, children or friends. You might also find it helpful to connect with others facing similar challenges. And don’t forget the Internet. If you are feeling isolated, online support can be a lifeline. Another important task is to set some boundaries. Acknowledge that there is a limit to how much you can do. Do other people always come to with their problems? Do you have trouble saying “no” to others? Most women do. You must learn to set somereasonable limits, even with your children. You are, after all, only human. Stop trying to meet everyone’s needs. This doesn’t mean that you should stop caring about others. But you can put some reasonable limits on their requests, and make sure that at least some of your relationships also give back to you.

A Few More Suggestions

There are also a few more things that can help. Burnout is a signal that something is wrong. It is foolhardy to ignore that signal. Some people go through their lives in a state of misery. The good news is that you don’t have to.

Stop Denying

When you are burned out, you often don’t recognize it. If you are dragging yourself through each day, admit it and resolve to take some positive action.

Get Treatment for Depression

Depression can be a significant part of your burnout. If you think that you might be depressed, look into your treatment options and take care of it.

Take Care of Your Body

Women who are the most vulnerable to burnout are often the same women who don’t take care of themselves. Start making it a priority to get enough sleep (even if you have to nap during the day), eat well, and exercise.

Stop Mentally Rehearsing Your Daily Difficulties

Negative self-talk is also something to pay attention to. Often when you are feeling burned out, you can make matters worse by going through the day thinking “my life stinks.” It may, at the moment. But constantly thinking this does not help you at all. Instead of these automatic thoughts, try to think creatively about how you can change the situation.

Some Final Thoughts

Burnout may feel hopeless to you. Fortunately, it is not. There are things you can do, and there is a light at the end of this tunnel.