with Licensed Therapist Erin Spahr
WHAT YOU’LL LEARN
- The Difference Between Motherhood Burnout and Depression
- Why Modern Moms Experience Burnout
- The Relationship Between Burnout and the Invisible Load
- How to Prioritize Tasks and Let The Rest Go
- How to Address Burnout and the Invisible Load With Your Partner
Moms everywhere are finding themselves exhausted, buckling under the invisible load, and struggling with unrealistic expectations. All of that pressure can lead to motherhood burnout—chronic exhaustion due to the demands of being a mom.
Today, I’m joined by maternal mental health therapist Erin Spahr to discuss motherhood burnout—from what causes it to how to recover from it.
Parenting in a Pandemic: A Foundation for Burnout
The pandemic has taken a toll on moms. Modern motherhood, fueled by unrealistic expectations, social pressures, comparison, and guilt, was already hard enough. When we added in extra labour (most of which fell to moms) and even less opportunity for breaks, moms started struggling more than ever before.
The good news is that we have finally started to have crucial conversations about motherhood. And the more that we talk about it, the more we can dig deeper, analyze our beliefs, and find a new path in motherhood.
That’s why I was excited to chat with Erin. She is contributing to these conversations, questioning the system that makes mothers feel like they have to be all the things all the time—leading to motherhood burnout.
The Difference Between Motherhood Burnout and Depression
Erin said that the research done around motherhood burnout stems from workplace burnout. It’s characterized by three things:
- Emotional exhaustion
- Disconnection from children or family
- And a loss of pleasure as a parent
In many ways, the signs of burnout overlap with symptoms of depression. That is because the two are closely linked—if left unaddressed, burnout can lead to depression.
But there is a distinct difference between them. Burnout is an imbalance of resources, capacity, and stress. If you find a way to increase capacity or decrease stress, the symptoms of burnout might go away.
Depression is more long-lasting and has several factors at play, including burnout.
Why Modern Moms Experience Burnout
In many ways, modern motherhood primes us for burnout. We are pressured to adhere to intensive mothering philosophies—believing that we must sacrifice our own needs and devote every bit of our time, energy, and resources to our children.
Modern motherhood does not promote boundaries, space, or taking care of yourself.
We have access to more information than ever, which comes with added pressure to be perfect, make every decision the “right” way, and function at an unattainable high level as moms.
Many of us come into motherhood as perfectionists, and we might have been able to function at that level before. But once we become mothers, that is no longer sustainable. None of us can be perfect mothers, and the pressure to try to be can impact our mental health.
Modern mothers often feel that their children’s behaviour or actions are a reflection of their success as parents. (If your child likes broccoli or sleeps through the night, that makes you a “good mom.”) This creates added pressures to do everything perfectly.
Finally, the rise of social media has contributed to unrealistic expectations and motherhood burnout. Social media gives us distorted windows into other people’s parenting. What we see isn’t necessarily real—it’s curated. But it can make us feel like we aren’t measuring up.
All of these factors add extra pressure on moms, leading them to compare themselves to others, experience guilt, and question themselves. But Erin believes we should be questioning the culture that has made us feel this way.
The Relationship Between Burnout and the Invisible Load
One of the biggest contributors to motherhood burnout is the overwhelming invisible load that mothers carry.
Erin described it as a backpack of hidden tasks—things we’re constantly worrying about, wondering, and planning for. We carry it with us everywhere, but because it’s invisible it is easy to minimize.
This leads moms to beat themselves up for not accomplishing anything. They look around and see floors that didn’t get vacuumed, laundry that didn’t get folded, or dishes that didn’t get washed. It makes them feel like they aren’t getting anything done.
But in reality, they are accomplishing hundreds of those invisible tasks every single day. Erin used the example of just getting your children out of the door in the morning.
Think about every step you have to take to get there. Brushing teeth, changing diapers, monitoring pottying, making breakfast, picking up, packing bags, navigating behaviour, getting dressed, finding shoes, avoiding tantrums. Each task comes with so much hidden mental energy and requires a great deal of capacity.
I loved Erin’s analogy of the backpack. If you would have asked me before I became a mom what motherhood would look like, I would have talked about feeding the baby, dressing the baby, going to the park—the tangible, physical motherhood tasks that I anticipated.
But what I didn’t anticipate was the invisible weight—a weight that has expanded exponentially with each child. Nobody acknowledges that we’re lugging around an extra three times our body weight in the invisible backpack. We don’t think about who put these tasks in the bag, and we don’t talk about why moms are the ones carrying them.
Erin also pointed out that as our children age, some of the physical labour might fade out—diaper changes, breastfeeding or bottlefeeding, getting up in the middle of the night. But those tasks get replaced with more emotional labour—talking our kids through big feelings, and then later helping them understand what’s going on in the world.
It’s highly skilled, intellectual work. We talk about “mother’s intuition” as though motherhood should come to us naturally, as though we should be able to work through the load with ease. In reality, it’s like being a project manager and a CEO and a high-level thinker, every moment of every day.
How to Prioritize Tasks and Let The Rest Go
When we’re experiencing burnout, it can feel impossible to change the labour dynamic even in our own homes. It’s like having dozens of open tabs on a computer—but every tab feels important.
Erin said that there are ways we can evaluate and prioritize tasks to relieve some of the stressors of motherhood. Remember that we are people—not computers. We have core values. Stick to the tasks that align with yours, and let go of the idea of being 100%.
This can also look like setting boundaries with your children. It’s okay to not try to be everything all the time. In fact, kids can benefit by seeing us prioritize our own wellbeing and communicating our boundaries.
Sometimes prioritizing tasks requires flexibility. There might be days where you’re sleep deprived, extra stressed, and feeling burnout more strongly. Perhaps those days are about survival. In those times, frozen pizza for dinner can suffice.
Other days we might be able to accomplish different tasks. Maybe a home cooked meal comes when we’re feeling well-rested and supported.
We can also get into the practice of asking ourselves where the expectations and pressures are coming from—who opened this tab, and is it actually important, or is it just junk mail? Maybe you don’t care about extracurricular activities or making Pinterest-worthy Valentines. Pay attention to what feels right to you.
Acknowledge that you can’t do everything. You can’t be everything for your children. And you can’t create happiness for them. Your goal is to build relationships, security, and trust with your children—not to facilitate their happiness.
Ultimately, remember that the “good enough” mother is enough. Sometimes we have to make choices, and all we can do is balance the needs of the family as best we can. Our children’s childhoods won’t be broken because they didn’t get to play piano or because they had a store-bought cake for their birthday.
How to Address Burnout and the Invisible Load With Your Partner
Carrying the load by yourself can lead to resentment. We were socialized into these roles—dads aren’t incapable of taking on that labour. They, like moms, have been given messages about their expectations as a parent.
It can feel like more of a mental burden to communicate the invisible load to your partner, and that can be frustrating. Many moms feel like they have to “parent” their partners.
But these conversations are worth having. If we don’t address it, the resentment will continue to grow. The first step is to put it all out there with our partners—have conversations about the invisible load, how it’s impacting us, and how to shift it fairly.
These conversations take a lot of unlearning. The invisible load is hidden, which means it might take some time for everyone to see it. Even in households where partners value equality, moms are doing the bulk of the work once kids come along. But often, dads don’t even realize that. They might believe they are carrying their fair share, or that they are doing better than their fathers did.
That’s why ongoing conversations need to happen.
Erin also pointed out that when we start to share tasks with our partners, we need to hand them over in their entirety. If your partner plans to take the kids to the park so you get time to yourself, don’t pack the bag for them or give them instructions. Let them figure things out on their own and troubleshoot whatever happens along the way.
If that’s difficult for you, start with low-stakes tasks. Maybe planning a birthday party feels too big to let go of at first, but handing off dinner a few times a week might be easier. The load doesn’t get shifted overnight, so take the time to work through the discomfort of letting go.
Sometimes maternal gatekeeping can arise when we feel like we can’t trust our partners to do tasks the “right” way. To avoid this issue, come together and discuss the standards of the task in a way that feels good for everyone. Remember that your partner will have their own way of doing things, and that’s okay. Trust is earned, but we also have to learn how to give trust.
If you’re struggling with resentment toward your partner and don’t know how to open the lines of communication, our Unpacking Resentment Workshop can help! Register now to learn why you’re resentful, what your needs are, and how to talk about them in a productive way.
Erin is a licensed therapist in private practice located in Raleigh, North Carolina. She specializes in helping mothers navigate the complex transition to motherhood.
Erin uses a feminist lens in her work with mothers and strives to help mothers free themselves from oppressive societal expectations and find more self-compassion.
She is married and is a mother of 2 boys, ages 9 and 4.
- Book: All The Rage: Mothers, Fathers, and the Myth of Equal Partnership
- Podcast Episode: Carrying the Mental Load
- Unpacking Resentment Workshop