I sat in bed, haphazardly staring at my phone, my thumb robotically scrolling through Instagram posts of moms clearly doing it better than I was. My back ached from my hunched posture, but adjusting my body felt like too much work. From down the hall, a little voice called out, “Mom, I can’t sleep,” and all I could muster were the words, “Okay, babe.” No solutions offered, no words of consolation. Because I had run out of solutions, run out of words.
Cautiously, my sweet husband asked, “Babe? You doing okay?”
I considered the question. I ran through the mental load quietly yet oppressively pressing in on me—the ever-present worry, guilt, stress.
I thought of the ways so many women I know answer that question. Not the “So great! How are you?!” we say a little too loudly to make it sound more believable. The real answers that we share when we feel like it’s okay to be vulnerable:
I am running on fumes.
I am depleted.
I don’t even know.
But I shouldn’t complain. I am lucky in so many ways. I love being a mother. I love my life.
So instead of laying it all out there, instead of addressing the vulnerable parts, I simply replied, “I’m fine, babe. Today was just… hard.”
“Okay, well let’s find some time this weekend for you to do something by yourself for a few hours.” He’s embraced my “self-care is important for moms” soapbox, and tries as hard as he can to help me live it.
But the truth is that self-care is not enough. And it’s time that we stop telling moms that a simple act of self-care will undo the years of culture-induced overwhelm that is causing us all to burn out.
There is no bubble bath that will hush the constant underlying buzz of anxiety.
There is no girls-weekend-away that will undo the isolation of a fourth trimester spent without a village.
There is no nap that will revive the energy poured into balancing a career with motherhood.
There is no glass of wine that will ease the accumulating effect of all the ailments we “haven’t had time to see a doctor about.”
Moms are burnt out, and our society needs to start caring.
Motherly’s 2022 State of Motherhood Survey found that 38% of Gen Z and millennial moms feel completely burned out, with stay-at-home moms reporting higher levels of burnout (55% reported they “always” or “frequently” feel burnt out).
Society is asking you to nurture in an environment that does not nurture you back.
So, darling mama, please hear me: You are not imagining your burnout. And your burnout is not your fault.
You are burnt out because from the moment you announced your pregnancy or plan to adopt, you were bombarded with unsolicited advice and stories about how awful your upcoming experience would be.
You are burnt out because you had to return to work before you were ready, and then shamed for not breastfeeding your baby for long enough.
You are burnt out because you feel like you have to continually justify your decision to leave the paid workforce.
You are burnt out because you eat leftover goldfish and sandwich crusts for lunch.
You are burnt out because you are constantly juggling the pressure to spend ample time being truly present with your child with the pressure to have a clean and decluttered home.
You are burnt out because you after a day of constant toddler-touching, you feel like you should be fresh, sexy, and available for your partner.
You are burnt out because the news is exhausting and defeating.
You are burnt out because not a day goes by without something reminding you of the baby weight you still haven’t lost. Of that “perfect body” lost.
You are burnt out because you are constantly reading and hearing new advice about the “best” way to raise your child—and balancing that with the contradictory ways your family and in-laws are telling you to do it.
You are burnt out because no matter how many coupons you cut, how many vacations you don’t take, you still can’t find a way to dig yourself out of debt.
You are burnt out because you know your child shouldn’t watch another show on TV, but you just don’t know how to make dinner happen without it.
You are burnt out because your third babysitter in two months just gave their two-week notice, and the waitlist for daycare is impossibly long.
You are burnt out because you miss your friends.
You are burnt out because you’ve poured from your cup for so long that you’ve forgotten how to tilt the cup upright and save some for yourself.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Mama, you are not doing it wrong. It’s just that hard.
And your burnout is not your fault.
Now some of the answers to these problems are obvious, but most are not. Because these are not problems you have created. These are manifestations of cultural shortcomings that leave moms hurting. Though it’s not right or fair, it is up to us to fix them, because it doesn’t seem like anyone else is going to.
It’s not taking a bubble bath, and it’s definitely not having an extra glass of wine at night.
It’s about being vulnerable.
By saying that you refuse to buy into the notion of the perfect mother or the perfect wife.
By being authentic, even when you are authentically burnt out.
By being honest.
If you haven’t had a chance to watch Brene Brown’s Netflix special, I cannot recommend it enough. In it, she talks about how courageous it is to be vulnerable. In a 2013 interview with Forbes, Brown said:
“Vulnerability is about showing up and being seen. It’s tough to do that when we’re terrified about what people might see or think. When we’re fueled by the fear of what other people think or that gremlin that’s constantly whispering ‘You’re not good enough’ in our ear, it’s tough to show up. We end up hustling for our worthiness rather than standing in it.”
But mama, what if you did stand in your worthiness? Even if your house is messy. Even when your toddler is melting down in the grocery store. Even when everything feels like it’s falling apart.
What if you stood among the mess and declared your worthiness?
By saying no.
By stating what you need, without apology.
And by holding space for other mothers to do the same.
You might get ignored at first. You might get some side eyes. But by being vulnerable—by putting it all out there, owning your story, and supporting other mothers as they claim their worthiness, we start to make it better.
Being vulnerable is incredibly uncomfortable. The good news is that no one on this planet is braver than a mother.
Let down your guard, mama. It won’t be easy, not one bit. But your bravery will inspire another mama and before you know it, we’ll have a culture shift on our hands. And then, we can really enjoy that bubble bath.
This story was originally posted on August 9, 2021. It has been updated.