Podcast 111: 3 Simple Strategies to Avoid Mom-Burnout
Listen to the episode and see full show notes here.
Rachel Nielson: My son, Noah, is eight years old, and I’m assuming that if any of you moms out there have little boys who are around the same age, you are probably very familiar with the Disney movie Cars.
Noah went through a stage when he was about three or four years old when he was obsessed with this movie and watched it on repeat. And honestly, I didn’t really mind because I love the moral and the message of this movie, and I love that there’s no scary villain in it. It’s all about the race car Lightning McQueen. He starts with this massive ego. He thinks that he doesn’t need anybody to help him. He is so talented that he’s going to be the best racecar in the world without anybody’s support or help.
And then, over the course of the movie, he comes up against his weaknesses and realizes that he really does need help. He makes some new friends that teach him all sorts of life lessons. I don’t know about you, but that last scene in the movie where he gives up the Piston Cup in order to help the car cross the finish line who was going to retire, it brings a tear to my eye. Anybody else? I’m like, “Wow, I am crying over an animated Disney movie right now,” but it really is such a great movie with so many good lessons and morals for children. And I also think that there’s some great lessons in there for moms as well.
I am thinking in particular of a scene towards the beginning of the movie where Lightning McQueen is in a really important big race and he was winning by a long shot. But he didn’t want to just win; he wanted to win by a full lap or multiple laps.So he was refusing to take a pit stop to have his crew fix him up so that he could finish the race strong. He thought he didn’t need that because he was just the coolest and the best. And so as he kept skipping these pit stops, and at first the commentators were like, “Oh, he’s going to pay for this.” But then as he kept skipping them and still still winning the race, they’re like, “Well, maybe he really is invincible. Maybe he doesn’t need these pit stops!”
Then during the last lap of the race, what happens to Lightning McQueen? We probably all remember: his tires burst—and not just one tire, but two tires burst because he didn’t take the time to have the pit stop and have his crew help him and tune him up. He didn’t take any sort of self-care…you see where I’m going with this?…to maintain his ability to race. And so he loses his big lead in the race because he wasn’t willing to rest for a moment.
Now how many of us as mothers are doing this as well? We are going full speed in motherhood, and we’re not taking pit stops to tune up and take care of ourselves. And though we may not have tires that pop and burst, we too can burn out and kind of have these breakdowns and hit these walls where we are just so unhappy, and we are making our families unhappy, and we want to run away from our lives. We just are living day to day without very much joy.
So I want to give us all three strategies of what we can do to tune up as mothers, to have some intentional rest within our motherhood, so that we don’t burn out and we can continue doing our best in the races that we are a part of within motherhood.
So my first takeaway for how to avoid mom burnout is to spend meaningful time with your kids. And I know that may seem kind of contradictory. You’re with your kids all the time. That’s the problem, right? They are leading to the burnout. What do I mean that spending meaningful time with them is going to help me avoid burnout?
I think that a lot of times when we’re really overwhelmed in motherhood, it’s our instinct to run away from motherhood, to withdraw. But what we really need to do, and what would be the best thing for our souls, is to lean in to motherhood. I don’t mean the trite like “enjoy every moment” lean in. What I mean is to intentionally pick things that make you feel like a good mom and lean into those things. Are there certain activities that you actually do enjoy doing with your kids? Can you do those things more often?
I know for me, I really love reading to my kids and I feel like a good mom when I do it. So in time periods when I’m feeling really low or I’m struggling with some depression, I just default back to that. We just read tons of books, and I just lean in to that one piece of motherhood instead of trying to escape motherhood by surfing on my phone. I just have a pile of books at the ready, and when I feel like I can’t deal, I pull my kids in close, and we read books. That deep, meaningful time with them actually rejuvenates me and helps me to get past the mom-burnout.
Investing in your relationships with your kids and connection with them makes this job feel worth doing. It’s the only part of this job that really matters, right? So really building on that time with them. I also think prioritizing one-on-one dates with your kids when you’re feeling burned out on motherhood can be really helpful. Because I don’t know about you, but I enjoy my kids so much more one-on-one a lot of the time–when there’s no fighting, and when I can really enjoy their personalities and get to know them better and connect with them.
You can do a daily special time for 15 minutes per kid and really invest that way. Or pull one of your kids out of school for an hour or two to take them out for lunch to really fill your cup by spending that time with them.
One thing that I have done at times is to notice and write down one perfect moment from the day with my kids. Even if there was just one second that was a perfect moment, notice it when it happens, absorb it, and write it down at the end of the day to sort of relive it. This will serve as a reminder that “I have beautiful moments with my kids every single day.” Even if it’s just one moment, it still happened and that counts for something. When you focus on that, it can really infuse life back into your motherhood. It can infuse meaning so that it doesn’t all feel so useless.
I remember one time when I was in the midst of a really hard stage with my littles, I was tempted to just put them both to bed super early–which heaven knows is okay to do on occasion when you really need to–but instead, I left Sally with my husband, and I took Noah on a walk. It was a really unseasonably warm night in December, and there was snow on the ground, but it was warm enough for us to be out walking. I had Noah in the stroller, and I remember we went on a walk down the path to a horse corral that was near our house. I remember Noah standing on the fence and looking at the horses, and the moon was high in the sky, and the stars were out, and I just felt my soul relax. I thought, “Okay, this is worth doing.” I leaned into that moment, that experience, and that connection time with Noah. It anchored me through the hard moments that came the next day and throughout the week. So spending meaningful time with your kids, with your phone away, doing things that make you feel like a good mom can really help to rejuvenate you and keep you away from burnout.
My second takeaway, though, is the complete opposite of that, and I think it’s equally important: Spend meaningful time without your kids. This has been an absolute key for my mental health as a mother. I have to have meaningful alone time away from my children every single day, and when I do that, then I am a better, happier mom for them when I am with them.
So how do you get time away from your kids every single day, particularly if you’re a stay-at-home mom? For the first six years of my motherhood, I was primarily home all day taking care of them, and yet I still figured out ways to have meaningful alone time every day in order to maintain my sanity.
One way to do this is by having a daily “quiet time.” Your kids have an hour or two when they’re either napping or they’re playing quietly in their room, and this is non-negotiable alone time for mom. I know it sounds too good to be true–some of you listening are thinking, “My kids would never do that. There’s no way.” I am telling you, if I can get my super strong willed kids to do this, you can too. And I have an entire episode on how to get your kids to take quiet time every day. It’s episode 33, and I will put it in the show notes. You can go back and listen to that and slowly teach them to stay in their bedrooms and to give you that time and space that you need, as well as I really believe that they need. They need that time to be creative, to reset, to be alone, to learn independence. It’s so good for them. And I talk about it all in that episode. Daily “quiet time” has absolutely helped me to avoid mom burnout. So that is one way that you can get time without your kids.
Another way is to actually leave your home and to go and do something just for you. And in order to do that, you might need a babysitter. You might need to figure out a friend swap where you have her kids once a week and then she has yours, so you each have a couple of hours to yourselves. You can absolutely prioritize this as an important need regardless of where you are in your life, regardless of where you are with finances.
When my husband was in residency, and we really didn’t have any extra money to pay for childcare for me to have a little break during the day, I worked out a swap with my friend who was in a similar position as me, so we could each have some alone time during the week. A few years ago, I was in a really hard place mentally with motherhood. I was really struggling, and I wondered if I should start counseling again. I’ve done counseling on and off over the past eight years or so, and that is a big investment to do counseling. 100% worth it, I might add, but it is a big financial investment that we had prioritized because we recognized that I needed mental health support.
We started talking about whether I should go back to counseling, and I realized that I didn’t need counseling at that moment as much as I just needed hands-on help. There are times when I needed counseling more, but at that moment in time, what I really needed was just someone to help with the kids.
So I approached Ryan and said, “Hey, what if we took the amount that we would pay per month for me to go to counseling? And instead we used that money towards a babysitter to come for a few hours every week so that I can get the alone time I need for my mental health?” He agreed, and that was a sacrifice that we made, but it was absolutely worth it. And I remember us having a discussion about how we could save this money to go on a big family trip at the end of the year, but what is the good of having a really awesome week where you escape your life once a year? Wouldn’t we rather build a daily life that is joyful rather than using that money to escape our life once a year? (And not that that’s what vacation is, but you understand what I’m saying.)
We decided to invest some of that money that we would’ve used for like a big trip into me having some help so that I could be happier in my daily life. And when I’m happier, Ryan’s happier. You may have noticed that in your own marriage. I truly think that as I have taken care of myself and my mental health and gotten myself to a good place emotionally, every area of my life has improved. My marriage has improved, and my parenting has improved because I am so much happier. And that is 100% worth the investment.
I recently heard a really great idea on the Mom Force podcast. They were talking about babysitters, and she said that in the summer she has a “mommy’s helper” come. So that’s somebody who’s a 10 year old girl, and you wouldn’t necessarily leave your kids home alone with her, but she can come over and play with your kids while you get some other things done. But what they said on the Mom Force podcast that I thought was super interesting was that she would hire a mommy’s helper to come with her to run errands. So she could leave her kids in the car and run into multiple stores, and her kids would be safe because the “mommy’s helper” was with them and helping them. And it was legal for her to run multiple errands and she could get a ton done, but she was with her kids. Isn’t that kind of brilliant? I really believe that thinking outside the box of how you can get meaningful time every day without your kids can be a game changer for your happiness as a mom.
I want to encourage you not to accept the lie that there’s no option out there to help you. I don’t believe that. I think that so often we decide that there’s no one that could help me. I’m in a unique circumstance where I live far away from family or my kids have special needs or we don’t have any extra money for a babysitter, and so there’s just no one to help me. I don’t believe that. I want to challenge you to push back against that and think of some solutions. Even if they’re outside the box. You could go to the gym for childcare and have your kids spend two hours or an hour in their childcare while you exercise. You can even sit and read a book while they’re in the gym childcare! And some gyms are really expensive, but some are affordable and some have financial aid. Like I know a lot of YMCAs have financial aid. If you are in a position where you couldn’t pay for a gym membership, think outside the box.
If your kids have special needs, I promise you there is somebody that can help you. There are grants that you can get for help with home care for your kids with special needs. Ask your pediatrician for resources. Look on care.com for options for babysitters and caretakers in your area. Talk to your friends and see if they would be willing to arrange some sort of a swap. Talk to your partner and ask for a night off every week. Whatever it might be to get the alone time that you need to thrive.
When you have that alone time, what are you going to do with it? The key here is meaningful time without your kids. Don’t just squander that time away. I suggest thinking about something that you loved doing as a child or that you loved doing before you had kids, and do that. Invest in a hobby, a passion project, connecting with a friend that you really love, going out for coffee or hot chocolate with them once a week, doing something that will fill you up when you are away from your kids.
And the third takeaway, which I actually think builds really well on the second, is to say aloud what you need. So many of us moms are running on empty. We’re about to burn out because we’re just not willing to ask for help. We’re not willing to tell the people around us that we need and want help. And although we may not think of that as, you know, egotistical Lightning McQueens who won’t stop for help, it kind of is. I know it’s not because we think we’re the best ever and we’re going to win the race of motherhood and we don’t need anybody. But it’s similarly prideful to never acknowledge that you need help.
It’s okay to need a pit stop. It’s okay to need a crew team to spell you and to spruce up your tires and to give you some support. So let’s not be martyrs, and let’s not just wait around hoping that the people around us will read our minds and know what we need and give it to us. That is such a recipe for resentment. Instead just say aloud what you need, ask for it, and ask for support in figuring out how to make it happen.
I’ve thought about this on Sundays. Sundays are a day that we largely spend at home with our family. We really want it to be a rest and rejuvenation day, but I sometimes find that it isn’t rejuvenating and it isn’t restful because the kids are going, so it’s the opposite.
So I’ve started saying to Ryan, my husband, “I would like some quiet time today to write in my journal” or “I would like some quiet time today to take a nap. I’m sure you would like some quiet time too, how can we make this happen?”
I’m saying out loud what I need and want. I’m acknowledging that he probably wants that too. So let’s make a plan! Maybe he will be in charge of the kids for a couple of hours while I do what I want to do on Sunday afternoon, and then we’ll swap and I will manage kids, and then we’ll come together for a great family dinner, play some games, and put the kids to bed. So it’s a matter of saying out loud what you want and need and then making a plan for it to happen.
One thing that I learned from the podcast, Shameless Mom Academy—I heard the host Sara Dean say this once and it’s stayed with me ever since—is to “ask for support, not permission.” I think that is so important as you are thinking about your own self-care as a mother, instead of going to your partner and saying, “Can I take a nap?” “Can I have some alone time today?” like, “Will you give me permission?” It’s a simple tweak and a reframe, but you’re saying the same thing, just a different way. “I would like to take a nap today (or I am going to take a nap today) and how can we make that happen? Where does it fit, and how can I then in return support you in getting your needs met?” So you’re asking for support, not permission to get the things that you need so that you won’t burn out as a mom.
Okay, friends. So those are my three strategies. And I know that you probably already know these strategies. You’ve heard them before. My question is, have you actually applied them? Have you actually done it?
Don’t just listen to this podcast. I want you to take a few minutes this week, maybe right now when the podcast ends, to sit down and brainstorm the three strategies and one action step that you can take within each strategy to have better mental self-care so that you won’t burn out as a mom–and so that you can be more joyful, present, and happy in this role that is so important in our lives and in the lives of our family.
So those three takeaways are:
1) Spend meaningful time with your kids.
Brainstorm things that make you feel really alive and full as a mom and prioritize doing those things, especially in periods where you have really low energy. Just do the things that make you feel like a good mom and lean into connection.
2) Spend meaningful time without your kids.
Figure out a way to make that happen with the help of a babysitter or a friend swap or a daily quiet time. And don’t forget to check out episode 33 about quiet time.
3) Say out loud what you need for your self-care.
Don’t expect your partner or anyone else to read your mind. Ask for support, not permission. Say what you need, and believe that you can find a solution to get it.
I feel so passionately that we should not just be surviving as mothers; we should be thriving. It is possible with some simple tweaks to our self-care routine. We can build in daily rest and rejuvenation and meaningful time with and without our kids so that we feel full every day.
I am rooting for you, I know you can do this, and I hope that you have a restful week with your family.