Burnout Professional Women Modern Mommy Doc Whitney Casares

Burnout, overwhelm, and stress—three words that filled my newsfeed for the last 14 months, and that filled my pediatrics clinic daily as the coronavirus pandemic persisted and persisted.  Parents—and especially working moms—warily heaved their bags onto my office exam table, slumping next to their children, their eyes almost hollow. As the year dragged on, they recounted their stories of failed small businesses, racial equality struggles, and behavioral problems with their own children over and over again. It was like watching a parade of bone-tired soldiers, ready to collapse but keenly aware that the battle wasn’t over—and that they had absolutely no control over what was coming at them next.

They also divulged just how conflicted they were. They sensed that they were doing it all—at work and at home—but were never doing anything well. They were ineffective. And, while I shared many of their pandemic experiences in my own life (my 7-year-old  daughter regressed so far mid-year she refused to go outside the house for a full two weeks since “the whole world closed down anyway” and urinated all over my carpets in an anxiety-fueled rage one day—I realized somehow I was still strangely at peace and centered. 

It wasn’t always that way, especially when it came to finding inner serenity as I juggled my work and home life. My natural tendency toward unswerving commitment to everything and everyone, even when it made me stressed, drained, and unhappy, often won the day.

Commitment and single-minded grit betrayed me even though, for a long time, my pledge to be all in seemed, on the surface, to work pretty well. At the age of 9, I marched into my living room and announced boldly that I’d finalized my plans to open a business. We lived across the valley from a horse stable and I decided one day, watching a mare with her foal in the distance from my window, that grooming and feeding ponies on Saturdays would be the perfect way to fund my Barbie collection. 

I hand-drew paper advertisements for my services and delivered them neighbor by neighbor the next day. “If Saturdays don’t work for you, just let me know,” I told the woman next door eagerly. “I could come by after school with carrots or could even stop in after church on Sundays.” I begged my dad to drive me to the stable owner’s office so I could pitch my business there too. “I’m a hard worker. I’m even willing to muck the stalls,” I told him when he promised to spread the word to his customers. 

I continued that commitment to diligence and focused energy as a practicing physician. I leaned in to the working world. Someone needed to stay a little late to see a toddler with a high fever on a Tuesday night? My partners could count on me. The group needed someone to lead a committee? I was their girl. An urgent email came through and needed to be answered immediately? No problem. I was happy to do what it took to be a team player and to advance my own career. I caught up on relaxation and rejuvenation on the weekends, hanging out with friends and sleeping in whenever I wanted to. 

I went full-force professionally because I wanted to prove myself a worthy employee and because I wanted to succeed. I love my work and I wanted a seat at the table, as Sheryl Sandberg put it in her groundbreaking book, Lean In. I knew there were generations of women who paved the way in the working world before me with single-minded grit so I had the opportunity to even be a doctor in the first place. I respected that and wanted that for myself too. 

Then I had a baby girl and everything changed when it came to being “all in.” My daughter suffered from severe colic. She struggled with potty training. She had the hardest time sleeping. She tantrumed all the way through her toddler years. She lashed out whenever she was emotionally dysregulated. She suffered from the very first month of her life under what I know now was an extreme level of anxiety. 

My daughter and my family needed their mom’s full commitment, but my professional obligations at work continued to pull at me as well. In fact, the more senior I became in my job, the more pressure I felt to be “all in,” even when I really couldn’t be. We had another daughter and, as the 2 girls grew older, life got even more complicated. There were school supplies to buy, music classes to sign up for, playdates to join, laundry to fold, doctors’ appointments to schedule — times 2. Things got chaotic real fast being a working mother of 2. 

I felt the push and pull of my life acutely. I was conflicted and guilty no matter where I placed my efforts. I was like a yo-yo on a string, swinging from one direction to another, a study in extremes. I felt guilty that my kids took away from my work responsibilities, so I pushed harder professionally. When I leaned into work, I found myself feeling like a bad mom, and I was tempted to overindulge my children when I got home. I felt guilty about the fact I wasn’t home with them every day. Even when it came to caring for myself, I did so reactively. “I need a break!” I’d say to my husband on Saturday afternoons and spend hours after the kids were in bed bingeing on cable television series or scrolling all night through Instagram. 

Sure, I could do it all. I was a jedi at juggling everything: work, home, my social obligations. You name it, I could fit it in, make it happen, or mop it up. But I started to question if doing it all was worth it because, I realized, in trying to do it all one big thing was missing: joy and contentment. I hardly ever felt centered and aligned. I was constantly conflicted — pulled every which way, all at the same time. I forced my career and my mothering to fit together in my life by doing more constantly — staying up late most nights to answer emails I couldn’t get to during the day, spending time on car rides in the passengers seat with my family ordering toothpaste and toilet paper for our home, fitting in responses to lingering personal texts on the way to or from a meeting or an after-school activity. 

I was strong — fierce, even, in the eyes of the world — but I didn’t feel very solid inside myself. I had to make a change. I too was burned out to do anything else. Like so many other working moms around me, even those without such an extreme situation with their child, I started yearning for a better version of my motherhood experience. 

I decided I had to break the cycle of burnout I was experiencing if I ever wanted to experience more centeredness for myself, and that meant changes at home and at work. I had to figure out a way to navigate the working mom world with more intentionality, to move from overindulgence or small, stolen moments as my only form of self-care to a pledge to make space for myself and my needs in a sustainable, consistent way. From a lean in mentality at work to a decision to say yes when it made sense for me and my family and to say no when it really didn’t. From acting resentful and haughty when my partner didn’t share my mental or household duty load to actually working toward more equity between us. From operating out of guilt when my kids begged for me to spend all day, every day with them to showing up for them regularly with attunement and connection. 

Now, when I coach professional women on how to handle parenting in a pandemic—or as they emerge from it—I focus first on helping them move from conflicted to centered. I am confident, from my own experience and from my work with countless other working moms, that knowing and trusting yourself, devising a framework for living in alignment with your priorities, and making a plan to spend your precious time and energy on the things that matter most to you make you effective and purposeful. Choosing a centered life also drives away burnout and stress, in pandemic times and beyond.

This is a modified excerpt from The Working Mom Blueprint: Winning at Parenting Without Losing Yourself.