When mothers are burnt out—and proud of it—society gets away with how awfully it treats them.
In a society that prioritizes work over rest, productivity over peace, and output over joy, burnout has become a badge of honor—and mothers suffer the most.
I can't remember the first time I wore my exhaustion with pride—maybe it was in high school when we all bragged about how late we had stayed up studying. Or maybe it was in my early twenties when whoever was still in the bar when the lights came on was the coolest.
I can't remember when it started, but I can remember when it started to really hurt: When I became a mother.
I wanted desperately to be a "good mother," and like my peers, I absorbed the message that good mothers are burnt out. After all, good mothers prioritize others. Good mothers are selfless. Good mothers make choices based on the needs of others, not themselves.
If you are burnt out, it means that you have given everything you have to others—your children, your partner, your job—and left nothing for yourself. You've been selfless to the point of depletion. Caring to the point of deficiency.
"Well done," they tell us. "You're exhausted. You've not done anything for yourself in weeks. You gave up so much. You have arrived—you are now a good mother."
This sentiment is rooted in the antiquated archetype of the mother, yes. But this sentiment prevails because it lets society off the hook. When mothers are burnt out—and proud of it—society gets away with how awfully it treats them. Perpetuating the notion that good mothers are burnt out means that they don't actually have to address any of the fundamental issues that are burning them out.
"Oh, you're exhausted from working until 1 am every night? You're such a good mother" is a lot easier to say than, Yeah, we probably should have done a better job supporting parents during the pandemic.
"Wow, you continued trying to breastfeed even though you kept running into all those problems, and now you have postpartum anxiety? You're such a good mother" is a lot easier to say than Yeah, we probably should have made it easier to get lactation support. (And, "It's a shame that you didn't breastfeed for longer" is a lot easier to say than Yeah, we should have done a better job of knocking down the roadblocks that make it nearly impossible for women to work and meet their breastfeeding goals.)
"You had to move out of the city you love so you could afford to send your child to daycare? You're such a good mother" is a lot easier to say than, Yeah, we probably should have done a better job supporting affordable childcare solutions.
"Oh my gosh, you prioritized your child's doctor appointments over your own, and now you're sick? You're such a good mother" is a lot easier to say than Yeah, we probably should have paid more attention to increasing access to medical care for women in this country.
The glorification of the burnt-out good mother has become the country's scapegoat for not actually taking care of mothers. And we've had just about enough.
There is a now-viral tweet from Katy Leeson that reads:
We NEED to stop glamourising overworking. Please.
The absence of sleep, good diet, exercise, relaxation, and time with friends and family isn't something to be applauded.
Too many people wear their burnout as a badge of honour.
And it needs to change.
— Katy Leeson (@KatyLeeson) November 14, 2020
"We NEED to stop [glamourizing] overworking. Please. The absence of sleep, good diet, exercise, relaxation and time with friends and family isn't something to be applauded. Too many people wear their burnout as a badge of [honor.] And it needs to change."
The notion that we are more valuable, productive and worthy members of society when we are exhausted is harmful. And the notion that we are more valuable, productive and worthy mothers when we are burnt out is killing us—not figuratively, literally. Burnout has very real and significant health consequences, and if we don't fix this now, we are going to lose a lot of really "good mothers."
Stop making mothers feel like in order to be classified as a good mother, they must work themselves to the core.
Stop telling mothers that they must be selfless pitchers of giving, constantly pouring of themselves into others' cups.
Stop telling mothers that they are not enough unless they are a shell of themselves.
We, as mothers, need to reject this narrative collectively. Please, let's take the badges off.
Yes, we can all likely do a better job of making small choices that will decrease our burnout and improve our well-being. But sleeping in a few mornings a week or saying no to joining the PTA isn't going to cut it—not by a long shot.
We have to hold our society, government, partners and families accountable even when it's uncomfortable—especially then.
We cannot sit idly by as they try to convince us that our burnout is something to be proud of.
We cannot stay quiet when they blame women for their own demise.
We can be good mothers and not be burnt out.
We can be good mothers and also take care of ourselves.
We can be good mothers and demand that our society work harder to support us.
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