Please don’t talk to me about burnout. Because I flamed out some time last year. I can’t quite recall the exact moment it happened.
In between the continuous wailing of “Mommy.” In between the intense demands of working in the field of diversity, equity and inclusion after the killing of George Floyd. In between building our small bunker of Cheez-Its, construction paper, and glitter glue sticks. In between clicking from one Zoom meeting to another, with no virtual background showcasing a beautifully curated bookcase (because truth be told, the last book I read was Curious George). In between teaching our children and ourselves to mask up and wash our hands, reassuring them that everything would be okay. And all the while hoping it would just be a few more weeks of this madness.
Along with countless other working parents and caregivers, we are living in a perpetual state of burnout. According to Motherly’s 2021 State of Motherhood survey, we are a majority: 93% of mothers reported feeling burned out, up 7 points from last year’s survey, and 16% say they feel burned out all the time.
There are the moments when the flame is lit again, and then dims, and then completely, the flame is gone. This is what happens when our entire villages, our communities, are ripped out from under us. The grandparents, the teachers, the neighbors, that helped us raise all of our children. We are on our own. And we have been on our own as we are coming up on one year of this pandemic.
The perpetual state of burnout for us working parents is clear. I don’t need any expert diagnosis because I can tell you exactly what the symptoms are:
We have shorter tempers. I screamed at my children while I attempted to type this and my daughter just tackled my son. I snapped because we opened the new peanut jar without finishing the other jar of peanut butter. I raged because I could not find my laptop charger, which was somehow nestled inside Peppa Pig’s house.
We don’t sleep as well. I wake up every day confused if it’s Wednesday or Saturday, and then decide it doesn’t matter. Like toddlers, my husband and I take nap shifts on the weekend. The lack of sound sleep reminds me of my days of sleep training babies, except my kids are now five and eight years old.
We are constantly exhausted. The exhaustion clings to me like lint balls on a sweater; no matter how many hacks I Google, I can’t seem to defuzz it. “You look so tired,” is a frequent remark on Zoom calls. Even a good eye cream won’t solve these dark circles.
We have withdrawn from others. I don’t have many friends anymore. I am not sure where they all went. Actually, many of them are doing exactly what I am doing. And they are simply too tired to do another video call at the end of another long day. Even a regular phone call won’t do because my voice is hoarse from screaming throughout the day at my kids.
We feel that any new task will put us over the edge. I flipped out when I discovered we were out of string cheese and had to place another order. When I realized the washed laundry had been sitting in the washer for two days, I had a mini meltdown. I shed a tear when a fellow mom reminded me that we had a school arts and crafts activity which required marshmallows and toothpicks. I had tossed the last of the mini marshmallows in my mouth the night before.
We want a break, and more than just one. When people asked me what I did on my holiday break, I must bite my lip to stop myself from laughing hysterically. I did what I do every day on repeat. With a few breaks here and there. An incredible moment to wash my hair with both shampoo, conditioner and a treatment mask. A walk outside. A new Netflix series. None of these seem to be enough. Yet it’s all I have.
We feel resentful. I scroll Instagram and suddenly find myself angry that we don’t live in a compound with a finished basement that includes an indoor trampoline and a mini ball pit. I stare out the window and have a hard time remembering why we chose to live in a city. The once busy yellow ferry which we took to go into Manhattan almost every weekend sits silently across from our building.
We feel guilty. I miss my children when they are asleep. I wake up the next morning and then watch the clock for when it will be bedtime again. I wonder in five years how emotionally and psychologically damaged they will be from this pandemic. And what I could have done differently.
And on some days, we just have less hope. Some days I feel a down pouring of hope. Other days it’s a drought. There’s no reason not to be hopeful. I live a life of privilege. My husband and I get to work from home. We have food, shelter, and our health. In one of my many mindless evening social scrolls, I was happy to stumble across this quote on Pinterest: Small seeds of gratitude will produce a harvest of hope. So I am on a daily journey to find gratitude this year.
Even with this all of this burnout, we march on. There is no time for self pity. Because I have an exactly 30 minute break between work calls to send that follow-up email, get lunch ready, throw in that load of laundry, prepare for my next meeting, and use the bathroom. So I have accepted it. I have in fact, embraced it. Because at the moment, I cannot change the root case of the burnout; none of us can. Fighting it only uses up the little energy I have left.
And so we march on. We are not superheroes, we are not mythical creatures, we do not have magic wands, potions or spells. We are, as Representative Andy Kim said, ordinary people living in extraordinary times. If something is broken, we fix it. We working parents are holding it together with an excessive amount of scotch tape, glue, and some string we found under the couch next to a very old chocolate chip cookie.
In our daily battles from our kitchen tables, our corner seat on the couch, our spot cross legged on the hardwood floor. We toggle back and forth between surviving and thriving, sprinkled with daily moments of joy. A visit from the tooth fairy. A good meeting with the boss. A meal that the entire family at last enjoyed. A virtual gathering with fellow moms. A game of Guess Who and rediscovering other games from my childhood. A childhood that now seems very different from how our kids are growing up.
I may be on my own in my perpetual state of burnout. But I know I am not alone. That funny meme, that hilarious text, and that emotional email from another mom provides me some solace and comfort as I crawl into bed waiting for the same day to arrive again.
So please don’t talk to me about burnout. When our communities and villages are all back, and up and running, then maybe we can discuss. I can then download that meditation app you so kindly suggested. I can then log in for a free virtual therapy session. I can then read that life-changing book you recommended. And until then, this referee has another wrestling match she needs to break up before she hops on another Zoom call and tries to figure out what’s for dinner.