Wake up. Get dressed. Wake the children. Get them dressed. Make breakfast. Make lunches for school. Go to work. Clean the house. Do the laundry. Get the children off the school bus. Monitor their homework. Drive to and from activities. Make dinner. Put the children to bed. Pay attention to your significant other. Repeat every day in some form for at least 18 years.
Just reading that list is exhausting. What happens when you can't bring yourself to make one more PB&J sandwich? Or read Good Night Moon without screaming? Or walk the supermarket aisles and want to pull out your hair?
While you might imagine you're the only woman feeling this way, in fact, these feelings of exhaustion and mild depression are real -- and you're not alone. It's called burnout, a psychological state of physical and emotional exhaustion that can occur as a result of job stress and/or full-time mothering and, in this case, a full-time job outside the home and mothering combined.
The good news is that solutions exist. We talked to some experts about ways to prevent burnout, recover from it, and what signs to look for so burnout doesn't turn into full-blown depression.
"Women who take on multiple roles are in the highest risk group to be burnt out," says Dr. Barbara Greenberg, a Weston-based clinical psychologist and expert on parenting teens.
An e-mail that circulates regularly listing the "job requirements" of a mother only reiterates the challenges of this particular job: chef, chauffeur, mediator, tutor, maid, to name a few. It's a job with no pay, and one that can never be quit. That doesn't mean you don't want to quit every now and then, of course, nor that you're a bad mother or wife for feeling that way. While not every mother will admit to the feeling, most women have it at some point in their lives.
The key to preventing burnout or ameliorating the feeling when it happens, experts say, is taking a step back and putting yourself first for a change. Take a tip from the airlines: When the oxygen masks come down, you're told to place one on yourself before taking care of your child. The same holds true for burnout.
"You start feeling undernourished, and guilty," says Greenberg. "Guilt is one of the most unnecessary emotions. Maybe the way to take the guilt out is to know you're giving your kids a happy, healthy mother." Part of good parenting is good modeling. Your children will be OK if you leave them at home with a baby sitter while you go out with your husband or friends, or go shopping. It's better for them to see you balanced than see you depressed.
"The thing is, make it more interesting," says Ridgefield psychologist and therapist Yvonne B. Bregman. "Connect with other moms. Spice it up a little bit -- don't make peanut-butter sandwiches. Kids can participate; engage them."
If you're too short-tempered to do that, and you have no motivation or joy in life, you may need to get more help. "When a mom is having difficulties doing activities of daily living," says Bregman, "problems showering regularly, problems with eating or sleeping -- too much or too little -- and this pattern is continuing a couple of weeks and not abating, she needs to seek some help. If she's not taking care of herself regularly, if she's not having patience at all with her children, if her friends, support group, husband and family notice that she's not doing well, she needs to pay attention and seek assistance."
These are signs you've tipped over into a dangerous zone (see sidebar) and may not have the ability to get yourself out of it. Full-fledged depression doesn't pass on its own, and the longer depression is left untreated, the harder it is to treat.
It's important for women to reach out for help. "People are much less likely to live closer to relatives who can take the kids for an hour or two," Greenberg says. Reaching out doesn't mean you're weak or a bad parent; it means you're human, and it can help prevent burnout as well as help recover from it.
Michele, a Newtown mother who works from home and did not want her last name used for privacy reasons, admits she's burned out. In addition to her job, two of her three children have food allergies, and not the same ones. Michele says she "cannot keep up with how frequently I need to clean the house. It's medically related for me (because of allergies)," and admits that "everything is more intense than necessary."
What Michele has going for her, though, is her girlfriends, whom she calls and sees whenever she can. "If I did not have these women in my life, I don't think I'd be here," Michele says.
"If you're giving, all day, at work, at home, to your partner, and you're not getting it in return, you get grouchy," Greenberg says. "Just the same way you monitor your kids for happiness, monitor yourself. Do a monthly self-check of how you're doing."
Connect with someone who makes you laugh. Sing, dance, be silly. Do yoga, meditate. "Disengage," Greenberg sums up. "Sometimes you just have to let things settle, and five minutes later you may come back much calmer and won't say things you may regret."
Signs you may have a larger problem
A certain amount of burnout is expected no matter what job we're doing. Who feels enthusiastic every single day?
But if not treated, burnout can tip over into depression, which requires more than simple recovery methods. If you have the symptoms below and they've been going on for more than two weeks, experts say you should speak with a therapist.
You're being short, more irritable than usual.
You have trouble sleeping, or sleep too much.
You're not eating enough, or eating too much.
You feel anxious, worried about tomorrow instead of living in the present.
You feel hopeless, and helpless.
People close to you comment that you seem different, or they start avoiding you.
You have difficulty doing the normal activities of daily living.
You feel depleted.
You feel you have no one to talk to.