Being a mother is one of the most impressive juggling acts ever to grace our world’s stage.
You’re simultaneously a caregiver, finance manager, executive-level PA, food and beverage supervisor, and entertainment director.
And somewhere in the midst of all of this, you’re supposed to take care of your own needs?
It’s no wonder mum stress exists.
It may not surprise you that this survey from the American Psychological Association (APA) showed that there’s a significant gender gap when it comes to stress levels.
Women tend to report greater stress, with almost half of the women in the study saying their stress had increased over the past five years.
Women are also more likely to have physical stress symptoms, like an upset stomach, tearfulness, or headaches.
When it comes to motherhood, we are learning that stress has very real effects on how we relate to motherhood, impacting everything from how motivated we feel to our ability to regulate our emotions.
That means that our relationship to stress directly impacts our health and the health of our families.
But the answer is not simply to say don’t stress.
If you have been doing life one way, you can’t suddenly expect your body to suddenly behave differently without changing certain things in your life.
And life is filled with hardship and unforeseen circumstances, and we simply cannot predict or control what might arrive to challenge us, or if we are best equipped to manage this.
That being said, there are steps we can take to reduce stress and feel more supported as we go on this journey.
(Psst. That’s what Peanut’s for. We’re firm believers in traveling the motherhood road together.)
We’re going to take you through the factors that contribute to motherhood stress and burnout, as well as strategies to cope with it.
In this article: 📝
- What are the causes of motherhood stress?
- What does mum burnout feel like?
- How do you handle stress as a mother?
- When should you seek help?
What are the causes of motherhood stress?
Motherhood is all the things: magical, surprising, fulfilling, sometimes hilarious — and often stressful.
At the root of a lot of motherhood stress is an imbalance between the resources you have and the demands you need to meet as a mother.
Balancing budgets, trying to create a semblance of a work-family balance, and worrying about the health and safety of your family can all add to mum stress.
Having children with health conditions or other special needs adds to what you already have on your plate.
As if motherhood wasn’t already challenging enough, we’ve also been dealing with the not-so-small matter of a global pandemic — with its very unique set of demands.
If it does indeed take a village to raise a child, that village was put on lockdown, meaning mothers had to do even more to meet their kids’ educational and care needs, which has had far-reaching consequences
It’s not surprising that, as this study reveals, the pandemic put more strain on mothers (whether they were able to work from home or not) and exacerbated gender inequality.
And if you became a mother during the pandemic, you might be experiencing some very unique challenges.
Research has shown how much strain the pandemic put on the transition into motherhood, with many new mamas reporting that they didn’t feel they had the same access to support and healthcare as before.
So the physical and mental stress of motherhood deserves a specific spotlight right now.
There’s so much pressure to be a good mother.
And because mothers are so good at being all things, for all people, all the time, the signs of a stressed mum are not always so easy to detect from the outside.
It doesn’t help that our social media feeds are littered with serene mamas that look like they’re just taking it all in stride — and glowing while they do so.
We’re now finding how damaging these glamorised portrayals of motherhood can be.
This study showed how idealised posts about motherhood could severely impact our mental health, increasing feelings of envy and anxiety.
And this one found that the pressure to be a perfect mother can lead to burnout and get in the way of career ambitions.
Yep, mum guilt is real.
You know — the feeling that no matter how much you do, you’re just never doing enough?
We know it’s hard when your feed is littered with everyone from friends to influencers who seem to be getting this whole motherhood thing perfectly right.
(If you need to hear this right now: nobody gets it right because there’s no such thing as “right.” Your motherhood journey is your own journey and doesn’t have to fit into any sort of mold to be “right.”)
What does mum burnout feel like?
Over the last few decades, we’ve started having the conversation about career burnout and how detrimental it can be.
Finally, we’re bringing the idea of mum burnout to the table to describe the very specific effects on mothers who have experienced stress over an extended period.
Burnout is a deep exhaustion that affects you on all levels — emotionally, physically, and mentally.
Depression and burnout are two different things but experts have found that the conditions often show up together.
Feeling really down, demotivated, and without energy is definitely common in both experiences.
And while the two are interlinked, stress and burnout are not the same things either.
Cortisol has numerous effects on us.
In very stressful situations, it triggers our “fight and flight” response, increasing our heart rate and blood pressure and sometimes messing with our digestive systems.
Burnout, on the other hand, leaves you feeling helpless and without drive.
You just don’t have any more cortisol (or other hormones) to give.
Feeling stressed for a long period of time can lead to feeling burnt out.
Basically, at some point, you run out of fuel to keep on running at the same stressful pace.
It’s not hard to see how mum burnout happens, considering the demands put on mothers from all corners.
While there’s not one checklist that will apply to all mothers, there are specific manifestations of burnout that are important to watch out for.
Some of these symptoms you feel in your body, while others you may notice in how you feel emotionally and in your interactions with other people.
The good news is, as we’ll discuss below, there is a way out.
So if these symptoms feel familiar to you, know that help is available.
This is not forever.
Symptoms of mum burnout
- Physical exhaustion: This may manifest in headaches, stomachaches, changes in your appetite and sleeping patterns, and getting sick more often than before.
- Mental fatigue: It might feel as though your brain is running on empty. You may feel like everything is either exceedingly dull or incredibly overwhelming.
- Emotional exhaustion: Feels like you’re just done? You might feel underappreciated and negative about all aspects of your life, and it may feel as though whatever you do is not enough. You become numb.
- Feeling demotivated and procrastinating more than usual: You might find that you are missing certain work or family-related obligations, and finding it tough to even leave the house.
- Social fatigue: A vicious cycle, since you become more of a hermit meaning it is harder to reach out.
- Feelings of disconnect: You may feel removed from your children and other loved ones or from your responsibilities at work, and may want to isolate yourself.
- Feelings of excessive guilt
- Feelings of regret about previous life choices
- Feeling like no matter what you do, it’s never good enough
- Feelings of irritability or rage
- Not feeling satisfied with your life
- Having fantasies about escaping your life
While your experience of these feelings is very real, it’s important that you don’t believe everything your burnout is telling you.
Just because you feel guilty, for example, it doesn’t mean that you are guilty.
Most importantly, know that there are ways to heal mum burnout.
This isn’t permanent.
And it’s not your fault.
How do you handle stress as a mother?
Like all things motherhood, there’s no magic bullet when it comes to handling mum stress.
But, depending on the exact nature and cause of your stress, there are a number of strategies that can help.
Looking after yourself can feel like a luxury.
But remember the old adage about putting on your own life jacket before helping others?
If you take care of your own well-being, your kids will see the benefits too.
Children whose parents experience a lot of stress when they are babies are twice as likely to develop mental health issues.
And stress can start impacting babies before they’re even born.
This research, for example, showed how stress, anxiety, and depression during pregnancy could result in an increased risk of children having a range of emotional and mental health challenges.
And no, this is not a reason to feel more guilty. Instead, it’s a reminder about how important it is to take care of your own health.
Identify your triggers for stress and signs of it
Keep a log of what leaves you feeling on edge (or depleted).
Are there any of these activities that you can forego or at least lessen your involvement in them?
Of course, this is not always possible — you probably still have to make dinner, for example.
But acknowledging the sources of stress is the first step to figuring out how to manage how they make you feel.
Another thing to watch out for (and possibly write down in a journal) is how stress or burnout feels to you.
Do you have physical symptoms like sweating, dizziness, or headaches?
Do you feel hyperactive or depleted of energy?
How do your moods change?
Remember, to be objective as possible and not judge these symptoms or feelings, just jot them down as they come up.
The more you can get in touch with how stress works in your life, the sooner you can start to grab some power back from it.
Bolster your support networks
This may mean teaming up with other mamas so that you can help each other out when necessary.
Or reaching out to family and friends to see if they can help out.
If it’s doable for you, it may be a good idea to pay for childcare one day a week so that you can take some time for yourself.
Again, no one way to do this thing.
You find how to make space for you, even if its one tiny step at a time (the idea is not to stress you more).
Connect with nature
The emerging field of ecopsychology is showing us just how much the natural world impacts our physical health and psychological well-being.
Spending some time away from devices and going for a walk in nature can do wonders.
Plus, immersing yourself in green space can be a great way to spend quality time with your kids, no matter their age.
We know — it can be challenging to fit exercise into an already very full schedule.
But it’s so beneficial.
We know that exercise lowers our stress hormone levels and releases endorphins, those “feel good” chemicals that help to reduce pain and stress and boost your well-being.
And we’re not talking about participating in triathlons here (though if that’s your jam, go ahead!)
As the Anxiety and Depression Association of America tells us, even five minutes of aerobic exercise every day, can reduce feelings of anxiety.
If you’d like to meet the recommendations set out by the CDC, that’s “150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity and two days of muscle strengthening activity” every week.
Choose an activity you really enjoy, like brisk walking in a beautiful place, playing a sport you love, or having a dance party in your living room.
Prioritise doing things you love
This may sound incredibly simple, but reminding yourself about things that inspire you in life is fantastic medicine.
Perhaps that means making time in your week for reading (it looks like reading for pleasure is on the rise for new mamas), an art class, or even coffee and a giggle fit with your best friend.
It may help to sign up for a formal group of some sort — writing, running, pottery — whatever strikes your fancy.
This will go a long way to giving you a community and identity outside of motherhood.
It will also mean that you have a timeslot in your weekly schedule that’s just for you.
Head here for more self-care ideas for mums.
Know that you don’t have to be all things to all people all the time
It’s okay to skip volunteering at the school play.
You don’t have to bake that birthday cake from scratch.
And flexing that “no” muscle occasionally can feel really good.
If it helps, a social media break can do wonders, improving sleep and decreasing levels of anxiety and depression.
We just don’t need to be comparing ourselves to every other mama on the planet — especially when we only see “perfect,” curated moments rather than the messiness that’s going on behind the scenes.
Heard of revenge bedtime procrastination?
Basically, you delay going to bed so that you can have some time in your day for yourself after all your daily duties have been taken care of.
You might use this time to scroll through your social media feed, play games or watch TV.
The revenge part?
Well, it’s all about a that’ll show them! attitude, where you get to carve out some me-time despite a very full schedule.
The only trouble is it’s often a symptom of being overly stressed.
And you’re likely doing more harm than good.
Not getting the rest you need will only increase your stress levels and possibly contribute to a range of other health problems like heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes.
Try to get into a nighttime routine where you go to bed at the same time every night in a dark room (without your devices).
It can also help to ensure that you factor leisure time into your day, so you’re not seeking it at night.
And if you can’t sleep, then leave the bedroom before touching your device, this is part of what doctors call “sleep hygiene.”
As in, take time to prioritise connecting mind to body to breath.
For some, this may be yoga.
For others, mindfulness meditation.
And for others, it could be simple breathing exercises.
Yoga is a tried and tested complementary therapy for reducing stress, depression, and anxiety.
And, according to this literature review of over 200 studies, mindfulness practices are effective at just the same thing.
When should you seek help?
While we all experience stress at times, for some people, anxiety disorder and depression are medical conditions that can be really debilitating and get in the way of day-to-day life.
If you find it difficult to concentrate, feel teary and overwhelmed, have difficulty eating and sleeping or experience suicidal thoughts, it’s worth speaking to a healthcare professional.
There is treatment in the form of medication, talk therapy, or both that are most likely very beneficial in getting you back to your better self.
Wherever you’re at, talk therapy is known to do wonders.
Partnering with a trained therapist can help you prioritise your own well-being, identify stress triggers and make a game plan for how to manage stress in the future.
Therapy can also be a time in your week that you carve out for your own mental health — and that in and of itself can be beneficial.
If you are diagnosed with depression or anxiety, or another mental health condition, medications like antidepressants can be really helpful.
And your healthcare practitioner will know how to navigate you through this.
Not sure where to look for help?
The National Institute of Mental Health has put together this useful guide.
And we’ve put together this list to help women find the support they need.
The most important thing to know is that you are certainly not alone.
The more we have these conversations, the less isolating motherhood and the stress that can come with it will be.
Peanut is all about us supporting each other through the different phases of pregnancy, motherhood, and beyond.
We’ve got you.