For the past two years, I’ve struggled to answer the common and well-intentioned question of “how are you?” Before I answer, I often do some quick mental gymnastics to assess how I should answer.
Should I admit that I’ve been struggling physically and emotionally, that the past few years have shaken me to my core, that decision fatigue has gotten the best of me, that sometimes I cry for no reason at all?
Or should I take a more optimistic approach and acknowledge that, all things considered, things are pretty good (or at least not that bad)? That I’m fortunate to earn an income working from home, that I'm lucky my husband manages most of the household responsibilities, that I’m so grateful for all the things we do have (happy and healthy kids, a loving family, safety) that I could kiss the ground some days?
Or should I get really honest and say that most of the time I feel such wild and conflicting emotions, a mix of loneliness-frustration-gratitude-fear-exhaustion, that I don’t know how to make sense of it?
The mental gymnastics become too difficult, the risk of getting a little “too real” become too great, that usually I respond with some variation of “I’m okay.”
Except, am I really okay? Are any of us?
Everywhere I look these days, it seems someone is talking about burnout, especially the burnout that moms are feeling. There’s no doubt about it, the pandemic has not been kind to mothers. I mean, it hasn’t been kind to anyone, but moms seem to be struggling more than others (aside from health care workers and teachers, of course).
But for some reason, when I read these articles or hear people label this feeling as burnout, all I can think is, maybe. But something about that characterization of what I’m feeling—what I suspect many of us are feeling—doesn’t seem quite right. It sounds like a bite-sized buzzword for a really complex and layered issue.
The "burnout" label seems like one more way to over-simplify what are complicated and deep-seated problems.
As Dr. Lotte Dyrbye, a physician scientist who studies burnout at the Mayo Clinic, explains to the New York Times, burnout is a manifestation of chronic unmitigated stress. Symptoms of burnout can include physical exhaustion, insomnia and headaches, as well as feelings of helplessness, lack of motivation and a general meh feeling.
There’s no doubt that the past two years have been filled with chronic unmitigated stress, and I don’t know about you, but exhaustion, insomnia and headaches are pretty much standard for me these days. Same thing with the helplessness, lack of motivation, and meh-ness (as evidence by my inability to answer the “how are you?” question with any depth beyond “okay” or “fine.”)
So yes, I’m burned out. We’re all burned out. But is that it? These feelings seem so much bigger and more lasting than burnout.
Because it isn’t just burnout that’s plaguing us. It’s so much more than that.
It’s the deep loneliness and unsteadiness that we're feeling.
It’s the chronic decision fatigue that comes not only from the 35,000 decisions we make each day, but from the sheer enormity of everyday decisions like managing childcare when the day care closes early or planning a weekend road trip or deciding whether to let our tween have a sleepover.
It’s the languishing we’ve been contending with for months, maybe even years.
It’s the helplessness that comes when we feel like we’re shouting from the rooftops about being overwhelmed and our employers respond by offering a reduced price gym membership.
What we really need is to be seen and heard and understood. We need judgment-free places to share these confusing and conflicting emotions we’re feeling.
What I think we’re missing the most when we label these struggles as burnout is a lack of connection, a lack of acknowledgement, a lack of feeling seen and heard.
Most attempts at dealing with burnout are quick fixes. When we admit that we’re struggling, we are often met with advice to get help or have better boundaries or learn to say “no” more. None of this is actually helpful. It’s like we’re drowning and someone tells us that we should have worn a life jacket or learned to swim. Gee thanks.
There are no quick fixes to what we’re struggling with, and prescriptions for more self-care certainly won’t cut it. Sure, a pedicure would be great, but it’s like slapping a Band-Aid on a gushing wound.
What we really need is to be seen and heard and understood.
We need judgment-free places to share these confusing and conflicting emotions we’re feeling.
We need flexible work schedules and workplaces that don’t just talk about prioritizing employees’ wellbeing but actually support it by making it okay to talk about things like going to therapy.
We don’t just need a moms’ night out (though that would be great); we need friends who know we aren’t actually “okay” or “fine,” who will say “me too” when we vent and cry, who love us even when we go quiet.
We need people who hear us when we say, “I’m struggling.”
And we need to feel safe enough to say, “I’m struggling” in the first place.
We aren’t just burned out; the world is burning around us and we’re tired—so very tired—of pouring water on it, holding it all together and caring so much.
The world loves to pat mothers on the back and say, “I don’t know how you do it all.” But we don’t need more pats on the back. We don’t need admiration. We need to be seen and heard, with all of our complexities and messiness.
Because we aren’t just burned out, we’re downright desperate. Desperate to be seen for who we really are, for how we’re struggling and also how we’re flourishing. Desperate to be understood, without buzz words and quick fixes, but in a way that really gets to the heart of the matter.
Mamas, we are strong and we are capable, but we are still human. We cannot and should not be expected to do it all or be it all. We do not need to “grin and bear it” or slap a smile on our face in the face for the comfort of others. Let’s reclaim our time and our space in the world as complex, big-feeling people who can be both grateful and frustrated, lonely and exhausted, hopeful and terrified all at the same time.
We aren’t burned out; the world is burning around us and we’re tired—so very tired—of pouring water on it, holding it all together and caring so much.
Mamas, let’s put down our shields and admit our struggles so that we might actually create some meaningful change. Let’s show up and be seen and heard and understood. Let’s stand together in our worth and power and say, “I’m not okay.” Maybe you’re not either.
But, together, we will be. We'll be better than okay.