Working mothers have had a rough time of it since the start of the Pandemic, back in March 2020. In addition to the responsibilities of running a home, working mothers have also had to contend with a re-work of work itself. It was difficult enough dealing with the housecleaning, cooking, the daily commute, and running errands when it was required. And don't forget getting the kids to soccer or band or whatever practice back "in the good ole' days."
Now, the intrusion of remote work in response to stay-at-home requirements for many office workers has thrown all of us off the treadmill and into a swamp of exhaustion and a sense of futility —what is commonly called nowadays "burnout." Digital technologies like social media and remote work have significantly amplified the feeling of being overwhelmed.
I certainly feel this way as a self-employed, full-time single parent.
However, the tendency to blame yourself for feeling burned out is misplaced. The simple fact is that modern U.S. society is not family-friendly.
So don't despair. Instead, get angry.
A lot of people point to burnout when they are feeling chronically rotten. You just feel bad all the time: without energy, more a sense of futility than of purpose, and without meaningful personal connections. That pretty much fits the clinical definition of burnout.
Unfortunately, modern daily life seems to reinforce the feeling that we are drained of all energy and good will. Working mothers have to decide what the kids are going to eat that day, whether there is enough food in the house, and, if not, when and where they will buy it — on-breaks at work, or after work, or not at all — and if not at all, the question of what to eat arises again. And that's just one aspect of a mother's hectic, overburdened lifestyles.
The body and the mind can simply break down after a sustained onslaught of obligations and responsibilities and self-flagellations. Working mothers feel that there's no one and no system to help out at those crisis moments. So they tell the kids it's OK for them to play a few more hours of video games, because they just need a little down-time.
However, it may not be burnout you're suffering from.
Wendy Dean says in a New York Times article entitled, "How Society Has Turned Its Back on Mothers," that “our society’s decision to pursue profit at all cost… This isn’t burnout — this is societal choice,” she said. “It’s driving mothers to make decisions that nobody should ever have to make for their kids.” Dean is a psychiatrist.
Dr. Pooja Lakshmin, the author of the article, calls society's choice to hang working mothers out to dry "Betrayal." She writes, “'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." Lakshmin is the founder of Gemma, a digital education platform dedicated to women’s mental health.
"You can’t remedy a lack of national pandemic policy or the failure of employers to effectively support families. Nine times out of 10, the solution is a family friendly socio-economic policy that has yet to materialize in the United States."
Dr. Lakshmin suggests several things mothers, at home and working, can do to ameliorate the sense of quiet desperation overwhelming many of them.
Dr. Lakshmin suggests watching your mind's thoughts while you are going about your daily activities. She says that when you find yourself anxious or worrying, say to yourself something like, “There goes my mind again, telling me there is a perfect answer.”
She writes that "Drawing overt attention to your mind cultivates psychological flexibility, which gives you the emotional space to question whether this line of thinking is productive, or even realistic." The question itself provides the space you need to change your train of thought to something more self-supporting.
Essentially, Dr. Lakshmin means here to not take on any more duties or obligations that will add to your mental "cognitive" load. Each thing you accept onto your to-do list — even "self-care" activities — is like adding another stone onto an already-stressed beam of wood. At some time it — and you — are going to snap.
Start to learn to say "No" to what Professor Cal Newport calls "urgent chaos". He writes in his New Yorker article "It’s Time to Embrace Slow Productivity" that urgent chaos encompasses those tasks, activities, and requests that seem boundless and endless. Create and fortify your boundaries with your family, your coworkers, and your bosses.
Women in particular can be hard on themselves. Dr. Lakshmin says, "It is not uncommon for my patients to say things like, 'I should be doing more.' It’s one way that women have internalized a culture that demands they bear the brunt of caregiving while simultaneously devaluing that job," she writes.
So when you begin lashing yourself for ordering out for food three months in a row, for instance, accept that things are crazy and you are not a bad person for looking for outsourcing dinner.
It is far easier to isolate yourself from your friends and family than to reconnect with them when you most need emotional support. This isn't the sort of "lean on me" kind of relationship, but instead the simple kindnesses and level of authenticity that can heal and re-energize you.
Despair is a sense of sadness and isolation so deep you feel there is no hope. The condition cuts you off from your desire to reconnect with others and the opportunities that will present themselves to improve your situation.
Instead of despairing, get angry.
Get angry at the obstacles and structures placed in your way that are keeping you from well-being. Be hard on the problems, though, soft (but firm) on the people, though.
Direct that anger in an assertive, constructive way. Use that energy to help you rebuild your personal boundaries and firmly push back against additional demands for your time, energy, and attention — the only real features in your life you can truly control.
William R. Dodson is a contributing editor at EmployDiversityNetwork.com. His latest book is Virtually International: How Remote Teams Can Harness the Energy, Talent, and Insights of Diverse Cultures (Emerald Publishing Group, September 2021). You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.