“I cannot think of one minute except maybe my shower in the morning,” responded one Mom when asked how much time she spent on herself each day and not working or caring for her children or husband. The expectations of a Mom’s role are frequently all-consuming and never enough. And those expectations likely come from our family, our wider culture, and also the inner voice of “not enough” that enslaves us. The tasks of keeping up a household, caring for children, and being responsive to a spouse can seem endless and often times, unrecognized or appreciated. After all, it’s the most challenging unpaid job in the world.

Yet we, as Mothers, commit our whole selves to our family because we know that our core of intimate others create a sense of well-being and health for each other that is unparalleled with any other relationships in our lives. Being a mother can offer us a sense of meaning and purpose like no other. But just as we can feel overloaded by too much coffee or too much media, we can create purpose-burn out with too much mothering.

So how do we address the Mom burn? If we feel worn from our role too often, then we know that we are going to react with less patience with each oncoming challenge. If we attempt to manage the burn out through repression (a.k.a. “I don’t have time to feel this!”) then we know that an explosion of anger or frustration is not far off. 

“I’m still hungry! Can I get some home-made peanut butter crackers!” This interruption was brought to you by my twelve-year-old son for a slice of reality in the midst of my writing. “Water! I need water too!” Now back to finding our whole selves!

The original title of this article was the journey back to her whole self but we know we cannot go back. Forward is the only way through. There is no past self of our twenties or thirties, some fresh-of-hair, fresh-of-face, fresh-of-attitude girl we can bring into the now. And if we face the truth, we wouldn’t want to. There’s so much she didn’t know or understand about what it means to be human. We may be sadder but we certainly are wiser.

Carol Gilligan, a change-making thinker and developmental psychologist who developed a theory of moral development that included the feminine perspective called the Ethic of Care, suggested that it’s more difficult for women than men to affirm their individuation needs because of the enormous expectations of family relationships. But women who chose the path of self-sacrifice suffer themselves and cause harm to their children and partner because that sacrifice is life-sucking and not sustainable or nourishing. Children need parents who have a sense of agency, who feel confident in understanding, developing, and refining who they are and why they are here on this planet. 

Women feel like we are not enough. We don’t have enough credentials or experience in our jobs because we take time off to care for our children. We cannot possibly do parenting well enough because there seems to be evidence in every book, article, and disapproving look from neighbors and relatives that prove we are screwing it all up. So where’s the grace for us? And where’s the space – yes, physical space but also, the mental space to discover now who we are? Because we aren’t who we were when we gave birth to our first child. We are very different. But how many of us have had time to truly reflect and explore the vital question: “Who am I now?”

In answer to the question: how do we escape Mom burn out, we must answer the question “who are we now? What do we most care about? What breaks our hearts? What might we die for? And how can we live those ideals and values each day while nourishing our essential-to-the-whole-operation-of-family hearts? This is the beginning of finding a home in our whole selves. But that discovery will require supports and intentionality from not just ourselves but our family members too. This is a work-in-progress for me so as usual, I’m taking you along for the ride. We can support one another through dialogue. Here are some ideas and I hope you’ll share yours too!

Accept that it’s normal but don’t rest there. This is a challenge most mothers face. Yet we beat ourselves up for our big feelings including our anxiety, depression and exhaustion. But what good does that do? We may also end up taking it out on those we love the most. Again, what good does that do? Realizing this was a part of our core Mom training through our own upbringing and our cultural models is key to changing the pattern. We are part of a big Mom club and we alone are responsible for changing the rules. Once we wake up to the fact that we are sacrificing our very selves to the detriment of all then we must change. Self-care is necessary. Feeling a sense of our own power and agency is critical.

Keep daily mindfulness sacred. Yes, mindfulness is the buzz word of the day but what does it practically mean for us as mothers? It’s as simple and as difficult as carving out ten minutes (really you don’t need more but if you can carve out more, great!) to simply breathe. Turn off your phone. Leave your littles safe in a crib during nap time or plan for that time just after dropping off kids at school. If you catch yourself lining up your to-do list, gently and kindly move back to focusing on breathing. Realize that this meditation is a gift to your own effectiveness and to your children and partner. Then, how can you bring yourself into the present moment during the day? These tiny gifts of being here now will begin to heal our broken hearts.

Say no when it’s too much. This is much easier written than done. However, if we make a point of noting how many “yes-es” we utter, surely we are permitted more “no-s.” We are not talking about reinforcing the rules for your child but reinforcing the critical boundaries for your own sense of self-respect. When a child or a partner asks us for something that will require our time and hard work and our chest gets tight, our teeth clench, stop. Pause and ask, “is this something they can do for themselves?” If so, delegate! If not, recognize this will contribute to your burn out (as evidenced by your big feelings). Is it worth an explosion later? If not, say “no.”

Live in the now. This is so much harder than it sounds if you’ve tried. Moms are the social planners, the logistics coordinators, the future problem-fixers. How can we live in the now if we have to attend to the many details required of family members? I believe the answer is discipline – our own. We have to leave our phones behind at times. We have to be present to homework (even though we’d rather be just about anywhere else). Creating those in-the-now moments means that we are authentically experiencing the life that we claim we value so much and gives us purpose and meaning. After we have acted with discipline focusing on the now, we receive the nourishment of fully feeling the moment.

Accept feelings. We fight and we fight and we fight any feeling that is going to take our time, that is going to require new actions or changes. We fight. And that’s a whole lotta energy that we could be using on more creative endeavors. But what if we said, “okay, I’m feeling fearful? I don’t like it. I want to change it. But okay. Here I am.” Breathe through that one and see if it doesn’t lead you to the next moment a little calmer.

Withdraw to reflect. With the laundry piling up around you, it is impossible to reflect on the bigger questions in your life. Impossible. So if we are going to reflect on the big question of who we are now, we must get out of our home. Getting into nature helps create more space in our brain, room for the big ideas. And separation from the people and responsibilities of our household is a must. It doesn’t have to be more than once a year, but how can we retreat away from our daily lives to a place that feels nourishing and quiet? How can we create the space to do this necessary reflection?

Read wisdom. How can we possibly become wiser if we don’t read more from those who have struggled and persisted? How can you seek and find greater wisdom from those sources who challenge and inspire you? It’s critical that we discover our own sources of truth and offer ourselves regular, steady doses like vitamins of the soul.

I realize this is only the start to coming home to our whole selves of the now. But this is a start. And really, that’s a step forward. This is my love letter to you, Mom Readers. Wishing you the nourishment that your biggest-of-hearts deserves and requires to fulfill your role as a confident parent. Happy Valentine’s Day!

Find and act on creative impulses. Whether you have squelched every creative impulse in you in service of family or you still feel that life blood running through your veins, it’s there. You just have to allow it to flow out of you into whatever the art form or creative endeavor might be that gives you a sense of timelessness and joy. “What will others think? Will they think my product is worthy?” Yes, you are already playing the deadening soundtrack in your head that stops creativity at its source. Don’t do it. Follow, flow, feel nourished without need to show or share with anyone. Know that it will feed your soul and in turn, your children’s and your partner’s.