INVISIBLE WORK AND BURNOUT
The science around burnout has traditionally focused on high-pressure professional settings. That’s starting to change—researchers are increasingly interested in the all-too-common experience of burnout among moms. Burnout is exhaustion caused by chronic stress.
The concept of “invisible work” has also received increased scrutiny in recent years. Invisible work is the hidden cognitive and emotional labor—the mental load—required to keep a household running smoothly and to make life rich and full—think organizing play dates, scheduling doctors’ appointments, communicating with teachers, and servicing home appliances.
As you can imagine, we’re very interested in the connection between invisible work and burnout. Research tells us that in heterosexual relationships, women shoulder the majority of the invisible work of the household. Even for couples who aim to make decisions together, women do more research and planning in advance. The Covid-19 pandemic has only enhanced the burden on moms. We know that navigating school, childcare, and working from home impacted moms more than anyone else. All that to say, the fallout of invisible work is especially salient right now—it’s a critical time to talk about burnout and how to deal with it on a personal level.
SIGNS OF BURNOUT
There are many signs of burnout, and it’s important to note that signs vary in strength and duration. Here are a few of the most common signs:
· Feeling exhausted and/or low energy
· Sleep problems
· Inability to control worry and anxiety
· Difficulty feeling hopeful
· Resentment towards kids, partner, and others
· Waking up not wanting to face the day
· Short temper
Many of these signs can also be indicators of anxiety and depression. If you think you may be struggling with depression or anxiety, talk to your doctor or a mental health professional.
HOW TO COPE
There’s a pervasive cultural idea that burnout is an inevitable part of motherhood, which fuels the expectation that moms should just push through it. This line of reasoning is flawed for so many reasons. Burnout should not be ignored. Beyond degrading your physical and emotional health, unresolved burnout can lead to anxiety disorders and clinical depression. Burnout will also impact your relationships: your capacity to parent with compassion and to connect with your partner and friends.
If you’re suffering from burnout, be proactive about addressing it. Here are a few starting points:
Make a Load List. Write down all you juggle each week—focus on the invisible work, the mundane tasks you do for your family and children. Seeing it all on paper will help you grasp the enormity of the load you carry and take steps to deal with the ensuing burnout.
Engage your partner. If you’re parenting with a partner, engage him or her about how you’re feeling. Before you initiate the conversation, be honest with your partner about what you’re looking for—do you want only a listening ear? Or are you seeking advice or ideas? Do you want to develop a plan together? Establish your goals and expectations around the conversation before jumping in.
Evaluate your relationships. Relationships play a big role in the experience of motherhood. Oklahoma State University researcher Luca Ciciolla identified four factors with a particularly robust impact on mothers: feeling unconditionally loved, feeling comforted in distress, authenticity in relationships, and satisfaction with friendships. What’s the state of your relationships? Connecting with others in meaningful ways will make you a better parent and happier person.
Focus on your well-being. Recognize what fuels you. Start with daily movement or exercise, nutritious meals, and healthy sleep habits. Know this: no one else will reorder your life around your well-being—you must take ownership over your wellness and learn how to prioritize it. What adjustments do you need to make to your schedule? Are there old habits you should leave behind?
Identify the support you need. What kind of support do you need to prioritize your well-being and climb out of burn out? Do you need childcare help from relatives or a paid sitter or nanny? Would verbal processing with a therapist offer relief or clarity? How can you maximize your partner’s strengths and contributions?
If you’re experiencing persistent burnout, seek help from your doctor or a mental health professional. For more information, visit the Bene Resources page for a list of mental health organizations. Postpartum Support International is also a wonderful resource for moms.