Recently a friend with toddlers asked me, “Does motherhood get easier or does it just get… different?” I’ve got two kids, ages 10 and 16, and some days I think I might be in the early days of empty nesting. I’ve not wiped a nose or a behind since the Obama administration, the baby gear is long gone, and some weekend mornings I’m the one pestering them out of bed. I can’t lie. In so many ways, this season of motherhood is pretty fantastic. The physical exhaustion of those early years is real. And once it’s over, it’s kind of easy to forget. (Much like childbirth, which I have to say, is a pretty smart design. Otherwise, we’d all stop at one, right?)
But here’s what I know about those early days. It’s easy to go days, weeks, months without doing anything more than the bare minimum for yourself and just accept that as the sacrifice moms are supposed to make. It can be lonely and isolating. It can feel like losing yourself. And it’s a one-way ticket to burnout city.
Somewhere along the line we’ve been sold a narrative that motherhood is synonymous with burnout and martyrdom is a badge of honor. While I’m not debating that the deck is stacked against us—after all, we live in a country with no parental leave, no universal childcare and a privatized healthcare system that can bankrupt even those that have insurance—I do think it’s possible to change it.
According to Motherly’s 2022 State of Motherhood data, 38% of Gen Z and millennial moms said they’ve felt completely burned out in the past month—down from 43% last year. While that’s not a monumental decrease, it’s a trend in the right direction.
What has changed? Policies surely haven’t. Maybe it took a global pandemic to learn that you can’t pour from an empty cup. You can’t help anyone if you don’t put your own oxygen mask on first. (Insert some other banal aphorism here.) Perhaps having our foundation rocked means we’re learning to ask for help and take time for ourselves a bit more. (Not surprisingly, 40% of moms said more support would help.)
That said, I know from experience that asking for help isn’t easy. Some of us don’t have a support system in place to tap when things get hard. And since we’ve been conditioned to believe that we can and should be able to do it all, asking for help often just feels like defeat. But maybe that’s a narrative we can change, too.
When my oldest was a toddler, his dad and I were barely scraping by. We both worked hard at hourly wage jobs (between us, three to four at any given time) while he also stayed up late working on his bachelor’s degree. Juggling childcare was a constant source of stress. We couldn’t exactly pay for a babysitter. The nearest family was a half hour away and hard at work themselves. Desperate for help, I put feelers out on Facebook asking if anyone local might be interested in trading off. As someone who’d generally rather chew rocks than raise the white flag, this wasn’t my first choice.
But to my surprise, a woman I’d only met a few times reached out. It was so long ago I can’t recall exactly what she said, but she wanted to help. She didn’t need to swap childcare. Instead, she was simply offering to take my little guy for the few hours a week we needed. No strings attached. Her daughter was older and already in school, but as a single mom she knew the struggle all too well. Friends had helped her and she wanted to do the same for me. She was a dream. A couple days a week she showed up like Mary Poppins to whisk my son off for an afternoon of adventures and we were able to work without worrying about how we’d pay rent.
As mothers, we feel it’s our duty to carry all the weight. But as humans, it’s impossible. If I’d not gotten to the breaking point of asking for help, I’d be worse than burned out. I’d have struggled to keep my family fed and housed. And the truth is, it shouldn’t have to be that dire for us to speak up. Maybe you just need an hour to take a stroller-free walk with a bangin’ playlist. Or a date night with your partner at a joint that doesn’t offer a kid’s menu.
Yes, the government should do more. There should be better systems in place. But we can never underestimate the power of helping one another. Moms supporting other moms is magical stuff. Normalizing asking and offering help may just create that village we’ve all been missing and pour some much needed water on those glowing embers of burnout.
Motherly designed and administered this survey through Motherly’s subscribers list, social media and partner channels, resulting in more than 17,000 responses creating a clean, unweighted base of 10,001 responses. This report focuses on the Gen X cohort of 1197 respondents, Millennial cohort of 8,558 respondents, and a Gen Z cohort of 246 respondents. Edge Research weighted the data to reflect the racial and ethnic composition of the US female millennial cohort based on US Census data.